My favourite piece of public art is encountered on the approach to Canberra airport. Journeys by Phil Price is an organic series of silvery disks on a sinewy base. As the kinetic shapes dance in the wind, it feels like the art is waving ‘bon voyage’.
I was thinking about this piece of public art recently, because I had the pleasure of presenting the Rider Levett Bucknall Award for Best Public Art Project at the RLB / Property Council of Australia Innovation & Excellence Awards in August.
The prize was presented to Dexus and Mirvac for commissioning a series of public art installations at the Quay Quarter redevelopment overlooking Sydney Harbour. The public art – which includes Roof for Stray Thoughts by Olafur Eliasson and Remembering Arabanoo by Jonathan Jones – enhances our experience of the city and our understanding of its complex history.
Remembering Arabanoo is a series of five installations that honour the memory of First Nations’ man Arabanoo, who succumbed to smallpox following first contact with European settlers and was buried on what is now Quay Quarter. One of the five artworks is Betūnigo, or oysters in the Eora language. Clusters of cast-bronze oysters, which encrust the sandstone wall of the Gallipoli Memorial Club, are carefully positioned at the high tide mark. The artwork reminds us of the countless generations who came before us; people who heaped oyster shells, century after century, to form the middens which were later ground down to create the lime mortar used in colonial buildings. Betūnigo adds physical and metaphorical layers to the public space.
The story behind Remembering Arabanoo serves as a clear reminder of why public art has a value that cannot be measured in money. Public art sparks conversations and creates controversy. It delights, distracts us or elicits disdain. It can be a focal point for a new place or a catalyst for change in an old one. Whether it is a mural, an installation, sculpture or statue, public art challenges, confronts and sometimes cheers us beyond the boundaries of a gallery or museum.
Cracking the code
Public art is used around the world as a place-making device to accelerate urban regeneration and boost social capital. In recent years, cities have poured eye-watering sums into public art budgets. Sydney’s Barangaroo, for instance, has a $40 million art and cultural plan, and most of that will be spent on permanent artwork.
It is impossible to put a true value on art – although some research teams have tried. The University of Warwick found a correlation between street art and house prices in London after analysing metadata from geotagged photographs. When Bansky painted Achoo – a woman sneezing out her dentures – on the side of a Bristol terrace house during Covid lockdowns, the homeowners found its value had increased tenfold overnight.
The value of public art is hard to pin down. But we can cost it. This is what quantity surveyors do every day. When we break it down into its essential elements, every public artwork is still pieces of granite or glass, brass or bronze.
RLB has been involved with many of the memorials that line Canberra’s Anzac Parade, including the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial at the southern end. Each feature of the memorial is symbolic: a cobbled courtyard for quiet reflection, bronze plaques inscribed with personal characteristics of peacekeepers, a monolithic black masonry beam that evokes strength and stability. But the materials are solid matter and can be measured.
Other artworks are harder to cost, like the sculpture overlooking the Australian War Memorial that commemorates the sacrifice of horses. A life-sized bronze horse may not be in my cost book, but I can talk to the artist and the manufacturers, understand their process and the time involved, and then put a price on the output.
Beyond line items
The job of a quantity surveyor is to assess whether a cost is fair and reasonable. An artist may invest a year, perhaps more, into one piece, pouring all their passion into a project. How do we weigh up a lifetime of skill, imagination and unique perspective? In the same way we determine the worth of an architect’s vision.
Just like any other element of a project, public art must be in the budget to be brought to life. But as public art is often the first casualty of cost cutting, its future depends on more than being its own line item. The rest of the budget must be right too.
The best way to embed public art into a project is to make it part of the architecture. I.M. Pei’s iconic glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum serves as both an architectural marvel and a work of art. The undulating forms and reflective surfaces of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao makes Frank Gehry’s masterpiece shows how art and architecture converge. The Sydney Opera House’s unfurling sails are an engineering marvel and an artistic expression.
Should funding for public art be fixed in every budget? I think, perhaps, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, said it best. The communities that are “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”.
Finalists in the Rider Levett Bucknall Award for Best Public Art Project 2023
This award recognises the use of public art within Australian developments to “create brilliant spaces and, in turn, enrich and enliven our cities and suburbs”.
Quay Quarter Tower: Roof for Stray Thoughts by Olafur Eliasson is a monumental yellow sculpture on the rooftop podium, while Remembering Arabanoo is five artworks embedded into the architecture of Quay Quarter Lanes by Wiradyuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones.
32 Smith Subtractive Wall Art: The GPT Group used this carved mural to celebrate the thriving culture of the Darug people, the Traditional Owners, of Parramatta. Darug woman and artist, Leanne Tobin, made the original sketches of people fishing, cooking and canoeing along the Parramatta River, and Di Emme transformed the sketches into a jack hammered bas-relief.
All Our Boys: Located at the entrance to the Highline Development in Sydney’s Westmead, the former site of St Vincent’s Boys’ Home, this artwork transforms the traditional, suburban gate with paper-like sheets of mirrored pillars that represent the boys who once lived there.
Burwood Brickworks: Frasers Property commissioned Indigenous artist Mandy Nicholson to create a striking artwork spanning 1,700 sqm across the ceiling and façade of the shopping centre, connecting the site to its traditional heritage and reminding visitors of the depth of Wurundjeri culture.
Greetings, Flowers, Ping Pong 1000: These three major public art components at Sydney’s Ed.Square reinforce identity and belonging. For instance, Ping Pong 1000 is a playful representation of an endless table tennis tournament.
Chandelier Lane: This immersive kinetic installation by Office Feuerman in the new Eat Street in Stockland Wetherill Park reappropriates the domestic and cultural symbol of the chandelier that lights many meals shared between families and friends.
Fisherman’s Bend: George Rose’s mural depicts a topographical map of Fishermans Bend before the Yarra River’s redirection in 1857. Colourful lines represent the natural systems of the land and the rich cultural history of the people who lived there.
Resources: This 8-metre-by-38-metre mural by Casey Coolwell-Fisher, a Quandamooka Nunukul woman of Minjerribah, represents the Albert River, and greets shoppers at their local Woolworths supermarket.
Interchange Pavilion: Mirvac and artist Chris Fox celebrate the bustling railway workshops once at the heart of South Eveleigh. Visitors are drawn into the Pavilion by railway switch tracks; inside, timber seats rise around a stage that is perfect for planned events or a quick bite.
To Dance – Wakakirra: TAFE NSW commissions local Indigenous artists from each community to create, share and install their artworks at each connected learning centre around the state.
Visy Glass Murals: Uniquely designed murals of magnificent scale from celebrated street artists Kitt Bennett and Georgia Hill pays homage to the history and industrial heritage of the Melbourne suburb of Spotswood, with modern elements a nod to the future.
Wesley Public Art Project: Commissioned by Charter Hall, this $1.5 million investment brings together six leading Australian artists to achieve a thought-provoking and engaging art experience through the 1-hectare precinct.