Let’s paint the town

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Stephen Mee


Stephen Mee


Perspective 2022 vol 1
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As we look for new ways to attract people to physical spaces, do we need to revalue the role of public art in placemaking? RLB’s Managing Director Stephen Mee reflected on this question in an article for the Property Council of Australia in 2021.

Campbell Hanan’s favourite piece of public art says a lot about Mirvac’s approach to development.

“Art connects communities and creates a destination and a sense of place,” he notes. Eveleigh Treehouse, created by Sydney-based artist Nell with design studio Cave Urban, is nestled in the gum trees of Sydney’s Eveleigh Green. Commissioned by Mirvac and Carriageworks in 2018, the large-scale installation features two organic, gumnut-like pods connected by a sinuous bridge. The steel and recycled hardwood material reflects the site’s former incarnation as the Eveleigh Railway Workshops (at which Nell’s great-grandfather worked for two decades). The two pods were made from thousands of forged steel gum leaves, crafted on site at one of the world’s oldest surviving blacksmiths by hundreds of volunteers.

“It’s a staggeringly-interesting piece of art that was made with the help of the community and is now a space for another generation to play. It touches many things that are important to Mirvac,” Hanan, Head of Mirvac’s Integrated Investment Portfolio, says.

Another awe-inspiring piece of public art is Underwood Ark – a 20-tonne mature Blackbutt eucalypt tree hovering 10 metres above the laneway behind the EY Centre at Mirvac’s 200 George Street. Created by artist Michael McIntyre, the 35-metre-long installation tells a multi-layered story. It’s a pun on the street name, a comment on urbanisation, a nod to the area’s ship-building heritage, a marker for the hidden Tank Stream and a reminder of First Nations sovereignty.

Mirvac’s pieces are breath-taking, but public art remains something of an underestimated force. While the value of an artwork itself may appreciate over time, the biggest benefits for property developers are usually found in the enhanced visibility, brand awareness and foot-traffic.

But Hanan says the role of art in placemaking has never been more important than it is now, “as we look for new ways to attract people back into our physical spaces”.

Talking points are selling points

Developers with a big picture view understand that investment in public art adds value to their assets. Art tells stories of place, creates new meeting places and focal points for community. But does art add economic value?

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once argued that communities “richest in their artistic and cultural traditions are also those that are the most progressive in their economic performance and most resilient in their economic structures”.

It is, nevertheless, hard to put a price on art’s value to our precincts and places. One research team from the University of Warwick has tried to do so, finding a link between street art and house prices by analysing metadata from geotagged photographs on Flickr. London neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of art photographs achieved greater gains in property prices, the researchers found.

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence. One property in Nottingham, chosen as a canvas for the world’s most celebrated street artist Banksy, sold for 1,401 per cent more than its neighbours in 2020. Anish Kapoor’s mirrored bean sculpture on the sidewalk outside a New York apartment building is still taking shape but is nevertheless a big talking and selling point.

Nathan Blackburne, managing director of Cedar Woods and with a portfolio large-scale infill and master planned communities, leans on public art as a “deliberate” strategy.

“While a brownfields development has a pre-existing brand or personality based on the history of the area, we have to work much harder to create a sense of place in our greenfield developments,” Blackburne explains.

“We are dealing with vacant land, that may have been a former market garden or a farm. We uncover the site’s history and significance and then use art to create personality that our residents can relate to.”

Cedar Woods listens to its customers, analyses buyer profiles and has dedicated team members who investigate each new community’s history before commissioning site-specific artwork, Blackburne adds. “We know people want a connection to the history of the place they are moving into. Art becomes a conversation starter between new neighbours that binds people to the place.”

The artworks commissioned by Cedar Woods are imaginative and varied. At The Brook at Byford in Western Australia, for example, a statue of a man weighted down by a wheelbarrow of bricks is a regular talking point. “The salvaged bricks from the nearby brickworks tie the artwork back to the site’s history,” Blackburne says.

Blackburne is particularly proud of the artwork commissioned for South Australia’s Glenside. “The project is close to the Adelaide Central School of Art, so we commissioned student artists to create paintings for the foyers of each apartment building,” he explains. The lobby of the Grace Apartments, for example, features a monochromatic digital drawing of Grace Kelly by Alex Beckinsale.

“By incorporating art into our communities, we create a strong sense of history and tell stories that would not otherwise be told,” Blackburne adds.

Every space can be a cultural space

ISPT and Knight Frank have taken a different approach to art curation at ISPT’s assets in Canberra. The asset owner and manager were recognised earlier this year at the Property Council’s ACT awards for Dream Gallery. This 12-month project at 2 Constitution Avenue in Canberra showcased artwork from Indigenous Australians who have practiced art as part of their rehabilitation after spending time in the criminal justice system.

The gallery used the latest in augmented reality technology, through an app called EyeJack, to create an immersive experience that encouraged visitors to reflect on complex themes of community, social isolation and inclusion, and magnified the message of reconciliation.

Last year, with an entire workforce working from home and the idea of ‘workplace’ being reimagined, ISPT and Knight Frank were looking for new ways to lure people away from their loungerooms and kitchen benches. A partnership with the National Gallery of Australia to bring the Botticelli to Van Gogh blockbuster exhibition to Canberra proved the perfect solution.

“Our cultural institutions have been doing it tough since COVID. We saw the partnership as one which could support the gallery, enliven the experience of our buildings and create meaningful connections with our tenant customers,” says Alicia Maynard, ISPT’s general manager for sustainability and technical services.

The lobbies of ISPT’s commercial properties, just a stone’s throw from the gallery, were adorned with sunflowers. ISPT hosted an exhibition preview for its building customers, and those who couldn’t attend were treated to lunchtime art talks by the exhibition’s curator. “This project shows how every space can be a cultural space,” Maynard adds.

New award and applause

But back to value. Blackburne argues there is a “logical connection” between public art and property value “because people enjoy public art, and that increases their propensity to buy in our communities”.

Another anecdote is instructive. AMP Capital recently sold its stake in 200 George Street – the home of Underwood Ark – for a price reportedly 11 per cent over its book value. While Hanan doesn’t pretend the artwork is responsible for the premium paid, he notes “200 George Street’s celebration of place through art sets the tone for a vibrant new urban laneways precinct at Circular Quay.”

“And what makes a building iconic? Whether it’s Notre Dame or the Empire State Building, iconic art and buildings connect us to history, are accessible and entertaining.” Hanan adds.

Stephen Mee, Rider Levett Bucknall’s managing director in New South Wales, has spent his career costing ideas to bring imagination to life.

“The value of artwork is not dollar driven – it is social and community driven,” Mee says. “But the financial benefits of creating places that are destinations and that facilitate community are obvious – good artwork can support that.”

Mee is partial to the work of sculptor Adrian Mauriks, who died last year. Bird Totem, a six-metre bronze, stands sentinel in Sydney’s National Bank Plaza, while the bronze sculpture ‘Aspiration’ garnered an award for public art from the Property Council, RLB and the Art Gallery of NSW in 1991.

RLB and the Property Council are now reviving this award. In 2022 the Property Council of Australia / Rider Levett Bucknall Innovation & Excellence Awards will feature a new category that celebrates the property industry’s investment in public art. The award for Best Public Art Project, sponsored by RLB, will showcase the property industry’s role as “champions of public art,” Mee adds.

Mirvac, Cedar Woods, ISPT and Knight Frank have all supported public art projects worthy of recognition – but with the call for nominations still some months away there is plenty of time for curators and cultural creators to prepare.

“We think this new award can help define the role and value of public art in creative placemaking,” Mee concludes.

This is an edited extract of an article published first in Property Australia in September 2021.