“It's Not Forever”: Temporary Works and Deaccessioning
Many municipal public art programs in North America are creating permanent public artworks in response to policy, funding structures, and a variety of other reasons. And yet, there is a recognizable shift towards durational works that focus on experience and process over object-based work. It also seems many of us are reaching capacity—more works entering into the collection and less funds to take care of them all; more time dealing with the vast unknown of conserving new media works; and overloaded staff capacities to manage all parts of the process. Are we at the tipping point where change has to happen before we see implosion? I would argue that we are. I would argue that we need to develop the conversation in our field, nationally and internationally, to have municipal policies, funding, and programs that reflect the need and desire for both shorter and longer-term public art.
And, in tandem, we need to not shy away from why public artworks do not need to, and cannot always, last forever. Discussion is imperative—deaccession is not a bad word.
Temporary: Why it Matters and Why it Works
An excerpt I recently read from the publication Locating the Producers: An End to the Beginning, the Beginning of the End by Paul O'Neill & Claire Doherty , explored the established notion of place-based practice and stated that the book's aim was to show, through research and case studies, “...that a fundamental shift in thinking about 'time' rather than simply the 'space' of public art commissioning is required to affect change at the level of policy.” This may be the crux of where our conceptual thinking around public art can be refocused, adjusted, and rethought. Site response and notions of place are important, but we need to also break down words and terms. In my current public art world, we are hearing a lot about community engagement, but what does that mean? What are the real questions being asked; what is the desired outcome; and what are we asking the artist for and why? I think the desire for engagement is about experience and memory. It is about bringing together people and inciting conversation. In many of my favorite temporary projects, the strengths lie in the artist's freedom to explore risk; unravel issues; and create a platform for meaningful public interaction, participation, and collaboration.
Removing the logistical concerns of materials able to withstand a long lifespan provides a freedom and agility in the creative process for both the artist and commissioner. There is also the critical part too often removed from the public art process—reflection. Public art has the enormous power to reflect its environment, while also being responsive to issues, needs, and challenges. In addition, public art has the power to just be, grow, and change.
Why We Need to Talk About Deaccessioning
Many municipal programs have deaccessioning as part of their public art policies, but as a process, it’s a rarity. In many ways, that is a good thing. More public art in our spaces means more opportunities for public enjoyment and more historical narratives to learn from. There is also the very important issue of artist's rights. Process is so important in everything a government does. We cannot take works out of public collections without extreme thoroughness and rigour; consideration to policy, legal requirements, and public perception; and expectations. For these reasons, I believe we need to start on the other side—the beginning before the end.
When discussing deaccessioning, there is also the element of emotional attachment to consider. These attachments can occur with works like those found in our neighborhoods, as landmarks in our streets, or places in our parks. I feel that those same attachments can be embedded into our daily lives through memory, and that a powerful, one-time experience holds as much weight and grounding as a long-lasting steel sculpture. I have experienced the power of memory first-hand since arriving to the city of Calgary with a beautiful work from nearly five years ago. Almost everyone I encounter in the city remembers this work and talks passionately about their experience of viewing it with friends, family, and other residents. They remember the image of the project and the experience of sharing the city's river in a unique way, and yet many people do not associate the work as public art. This issue is another key opportunity for change that can occur through education. If we start from the beginning with less thought about definitions and more thought about experiences, relationships, the artist’s role, and the room for creative freedom, we may find ourselves in a better position. We could have the potential to allow policy changes and shifts in thinking while bringing the community and artists into the process.
The Need for Change
Let us start creating and commissioning with the following in mind— we must generate goals that are not defined as permanent or temporary, but that are about people and experiences; and we must administer interpretive values and investments about sustainability (continued experience over one-time). Public art is not a band aid and the artist cannot fix everything, so how do we give them freedom to do what they want, not always what we think is best? This mindset will also help many of us look at our existing collections and refresh them for the public, while also understanding the lifespan of a work on a project-by-project basis by thinking about suitability and context. Lastly, this mindset will allow us to advocate for, and prove, that more flexible policies and funding structures will provide what is being asked for, just by a different route.
I think as we start to accept more that cities and spaces are about people, we will actually create cities for people to use and enjoy. Public art can be an agent for that change in addition to words, civic action, and/or inciting physical changes in our cities ourselves (i.e. tactical urbanism). It will not be about permanency for investment because we will be investing in enjoyment, human interaction, storytelling, and convening in public spaces as they are fundamentally created to be used.
TITLE: “It’s Not Forever” is from The New Rules of Public Art.
 Paul O'Neill & Claire Doherty (Eds), Locating the Producers: An End to the Beginning, the Beginning of the End. Amsterdam, Antennae Press, 2011. p.7