Robert Livingston: Public Art – The perspective of the Highlands and Islands

Seminar 3: Quality and Imperfection

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Dedicated to the memory of Evi Westmore

Robert Livingston

I am the Director of High-Arts, which is the Arts Developments Agency for the Highlands and Islands.  High-Arts is delighted to be working with the UHI Millennium Institute and with On the Edge to help to present this third seminar in the Working in Public programme.

It is clear that the core group who have been going through these three seminars have been working very hard because this is the homework I got in advance of this evening’s seminar.  It was very interesting to pick up from that some of the themes that are clearly coming through the programme we will be talking about tonight.

It seems to me that the concept of visual artists working in the public arena is in some respects still relatively new in the Highlands and Islands.  We have a host of galleries – large and small, public and private – but it is still a relative rarity for work to be made and presented outside that defining frame of the gallery.

Perhaps the issue of the visibility of the artist is still there for us a slightly vexed one.  After all, I defy anyone to name the sculptors who fashioned Inverness’s two most prominent public artworks, Flora McDonald at the Castle and the Regimental Memorial at the Station.  At this point somebody should put their hand up and say, they know – but no!  Well, never mind.

This disappearance of the artist I think still happens.  A few years ago, a trust dedicated to celebrating the work of the author, Neil Gunn, raised the funding for a major memorial to the author situated above Dingwall.  You will learn a great deal about Neil Gunn if you visit the work, but nothing at all about the identity of the artist.

Perhaps the most impressive and monumental public artwork of recent years in the Highlands and Islands has been a set of memorials to mark the crofting wars in the Western Isles designed by Will MacLean for several sites on Lewis.  The unveiling of these dramatic and imaginative works was a stimulus for large and inclusive community art events at the time.  But just a few years later – now – their presence on the web is virtually zero.  The ability of these memorials to contribute to, even to stimulate, awareness of and debate around the significant events to commemorate has been emasculated.  They are in effect dumb.

Here in Inverness, in the early days of the generosity of National Lottery Funding has made possible the transformation of the relatively low-key premises of Highland Printmakers into a new showcase for contemporary art and ARTM, Inverness. Just a few years later it had closed and the Printmakers had reverted to their original purposes of education and provision facilities.  A highly ambitious and well-funded programme of bold and often international conceptual art has been received by the people of Inverness, not so much with hostility, as with indifference.  The reasons, of course, are in retrospect obvious: a lack of appropriate context, a failure of dialogue, an unwillingness on both sides to engage and participate.

Fast forward to last September and an event held here in the heart of Inverness called ‘Imagining the Centre’ devised by Matt Baker, lead artist for the City of Inverness Project (we will see it this evening) in tandem in with Inverness’s Public Art Co-ordinator, Evi Westmore.  This one-day happening (there is no other word for it) ranged to the thoughtful and the celebratory to the zany and to the bizarre and connected directly and immediately with the widest possible cross section of people out in the streets of the Old Town that Saturday.  That it did so is a tribute to both the dedication of the artists involved, but also to the clarity of purpose behind it, and the open-ended process of dialogue which it initiated and which is still going on.

That event is just one part of what I think is reasonable to describe as an explosion of art in public in the Inverness area.  Perhaps that is an inevitable consequence of the unparalleled growth of this new city.  ‘Imagining the Centre’ proved, I think, how effective such work can be if it is approached in the right spirit and with the right understanding of the role and remit of the artist involved.

So that is why I welcome this programme of seminars so warmly – providing, as they do, an opportunity to step back at this critical time and take stock of issues and challenges which face artists today working in the public arena.  There are probably more artists – and more interesting artists – living and working in the Highlands than ever before.  But as our own recent research has shown, their roles, their identities, their places within their community, are still often unresolved questions.

I would like, if I may, to dedicate this seminar to the memory of our colleague, Evi Westmore, who in less than a year did so much to help foster this current wave of activity and whose tragically early death from cancer has robbed us all of a very rare talent.

It is my pleasure to pass over to Anne Douglas who is Director of the On the Edge programme at Gray’s School of Art at Robert Gordon University and ask her to explain the wider context of this seminar programme.

I was asked to say a couple of things about the Oakland Projects that are not really evident when you read about them in a book or looked at the video. Most of these projects were based on an analysis of the way in which the image of young people operates in California’s public culture. The reason California is significant (that is California’s urban areas) is that it is probably the most diverse state in our country, has the largest economy, and seems to be the place where issues like division of wealth, immigration, population growth among Latinos, etc, are being played out.  It is where most of the prisons are being built. It is where the schools have gone from being among the top of the country to the lowest.

These projects provide an opportunity for me, at least and, hopefully, for you all, to look at what is happening to youth in an urban environment and to consider whether, or to what extent, an art project can support youth development or community development.

My question continues to be – How do you describe this work?  How do you represent it, and how do you understand whether or not it is as effective or functional as you’d like it to be?  And then, does it operate as quality art? What is quality in this context?

I want to thank Anne and Carole and my colleague, Reiko Goto, and many of you here tonight, also consider colleagues in this field. Thank you so much for coming.  I’m looking forward to this.

Oh!  I forgot to introduce Grant! Here’s something I just found out about him, though we’ve known each other for a while. Grant was working in non-profit and writing criticism when he decided to go back to school and get his PhD. He went to a renowned grad program in the area of theory. I was impressed – often people who are successful in academia have little experience in the non-profit sector in our area. With his pedigree — both working in non-profits, writing in the field and his understanding of theory, along with a predilection to look closely at artists work, it seems like an unbeatable combination. I think a lot of us in the field really appreciate the thinking that Grant is doing – the kind of openness of his approach and his interest in the process details and the implications of our work. He is one of the few people who I think bridge a deep understanding of activist practice as it actually takes place within a community and the sometimes esoteric world of theory. For those of us who know him well, we particularly appreciate his nasty sense of humour!

Grant Kester: Ok, thank you Suzanne.  I’ll try and focus on the hubris and keep the nastiness to it a reasonable level and thank you also to Carole, Anne and Reiko. It’s good to see a number of you guys tonight who I have known from past trips.

It is my first time in Scotland, but I’ve been to Northern Ireland and Ireland and England quite a number of times.

What we are going to do tonight is some work that comes out of the current book project that I’m working on called ‘The One and the Many‘.  It looks at contemporary collaborative and collective art practices.

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