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Public artists and property developers – how can we achieve a successful collaboration?

Kia Knight, Director, The Masterwerks Art Group

Although by no means a new phenomenon, public art – and particularly its value to society – has been the subject of debate over the past decade. While attitudes towards public art are generally positive, some criticism has been levelled at property developers and their attempts to include sculptures or street art as part of new developments.

Here in the UK, this criticism commonly relates to Section 106 – a part of a planning law which dictates that developers are required to give a proportion of their overall spend to improve the “infrastructure” of the area they are building in.

The particular type and form of this infrastructure is left to the developers’ own discretion – it can range from roads and schools to playgrounds and public art. Herein lies the criticism: when public art forms part of new developments, some are quick to suggest that the works are simply a means of fulfilling a legal requirement.

But for many developers, public art is at the heart of their strategy and goes far beyond economic incentives or legal requirements. Indeed, public art is hugely important.Not only does it play a key role in helping communities gain cultural and social value; if managed properly, it can even serve as a catalyst for economic growth in an area.

Cultural place-making

Public art directly influences how people see and connect with a place, giving communities a strong sense of place and identity. The term ‘place-making’ captures how this process comes about: place-making acts to forge a distinct identity through public art and design, bringing a sense of community and participation to an area.

Wynwood Walls in Miami immediately springs to mind as a prime example of public art being used to reinvigorate community spirit. Roughly a decade ago, property developer Goldman Properties successfully took six privately-owned warehouses located in a run-down Miami neighbourhood and turned them into a thriving social and cultural hub.

To achieve this, the developer created a public art gallery, and then called for talented artists from around the world to travel to Wynwood Walls and create public art around the neighbourhood. By producing unique work to decorate buildings in Miami city, the artists collectively injected vibrancy into an otherwise languishing area. The result?An influx of businesses and consumers back into a place that had all but been forgotten.

Rather than simply being an afterthought, public art was the focus of the cultural place-making project, which served as a vital catalyst in the regeneration of the area.

Artists require creative freedom

To truly capture the spirit of the community, it is crucial that artists are given the creative freedom to decide exactly what form the art takes. Indeed, being too restrictive can inhibit the natural process of finding the right artistic contribution. Those commissioned to create public art for a development must have the space and time to understand both the community and the project, which will enable them to conceptualise a piece of art that will connect with and add value to the people who come into contact with it.

In London, The 1-of-1 Art Group and the Arts Council are demonstrating the benefit of this approach as they prepare for the Mas·ter·wərks public art exhibition in Shoreditch, east London.

Taking place in late 2019, Mas·ter·wərks will see a collection of privately-owned building facades transformed into canvases, with the public spaces between them acting as a gallery floor. The result will be an outdoor museum of public art, celebrating the work of some the world’s finest artists.

Working alongside local property developers, Mas·ter·wərks will be one of the largest concentrated public displays of world class public art. More than 20 major works of art on giant wall canvases will be produced over a seven-day period by internationally acclaimed artists from more than 15 countries.

The works will be culturally diverse, but the underlying theme of all the public art will be the environment. It’ll be a chance to connect with a buzzing east London community – one that is home to tens of thousands of businesses, shoppers and residents – and champion one of the most pressing issues impacting the world today.

What can parties gain from a successful partnership? 

It is difficult to summarise the wide range of benefits on offer from successful partnerships between public artists and property developers. But first and foremost, it’s important to appreciate the way that public art can enhance the culture and attractiveness of an area.

In turn, this has the power to bring commercial prosperity to an area, whether this is through the influx of new businesses, or a boost in local property values. As stated by the organisation Americans for the Arts in a paper titled ‘Why Public Art Matters’, “public art can be a key factor in establishing a unique and culturally active place,” making them attractive to both individuals and businesses.

A collaboration between property developers and public artists therefore holds real promise – that is, if the underlying intention is to improve the location they are working in. Public art can act as a catalyst for community regeneration, and should be seen as a way of also boosting community identity. As people forge closer connections to their neighbourhood, street, or even building though public art, this opens the doors to positive economic by-products of the greater goal.