The City as Museum
October 9 2001
Amsterdam policy concerning art in public space
has been delegated to the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK). With
an exhibition entitled 2001: A Public Space Odyssey and a public
debate, the AFK hopes to stimulate discussion about art in public
Entrance to Arti et Amicitiae, Michiel Voet
Arti et Amicitiae is the Amsterdam venue for a major exhibition
of art placed in public space over the past five years. Visitors
to the exhibition can use a temporary entrance, a work by artist
Michiel Voet. It is a wooden stairway in front of the facade on
Rokin. Through coloured-glass windows and mirrors along the stairs,
one is offered new and different views of the city - a symbol of
the role art plays.
The commissioning of visual art is as old as art itself. Art in
contemporary space is the usually a matter of public commissions,
whereas in the past church or aristocracy usually acted as patrons.
Now that a sense of community is rarely evident in society and the
welfare state has become redundant, the purpose and necessity of
art in public space can be disputed. Or is the role of art precisely
one of commenting on society?
Amsterdam has enjoyed a grand tradition of integrating art in
architecture and in our everyday surroundings. After World War II,
national policy sought to deploy art as a means of creating a more
meaningful living environment. Among the ways of achieving this
was the so-called percentage rule (a percentage of a building's
costs were reserved for works of art). In the 1970s this forms of
public space design reached its zenith, as artists were given the
task of making up for the lack of visual quality in architecture
and urban design. Such high expectations, combined with a high level
of public involvement, often resulted in mediocrity and seldom in
meaningful art. Attention today focuses more on the integration
of various disciplines and, for some artists, on soliciting resident
Although in principle the space of the museum is public, public
space in cities is of a different nature. The context of the artwork
here is the concrete world: the city as museum. Our public space
is no longer an historical space filled with works to which society
could claim affinity. Today, consumerism and leisure are dominant.
The work of art must clamour for attention amidst a profusion of
traffic signs and advertising. .
Art in passing, Kleine Gartmanplantsoen, Hans
What are the preconditions for good contemporary art in the public
domain? Above all else: the commission. As with every form of design,
the end result is determined by a good commission. The AFK provides
this through advisors, themselves artists, together with representatives
of boroughs, planning departments or housing associations. Given
that public funding is involved, clearly defined commissions are
chosen - never carte blanche for the artist. An explicit programme
of requirements is also essential to a good commission. That must
include a clear definition of urban spaces in advance (by urban
designers and landscape architects) and ideas about what function
art can fulfil there.
What is striking is just how many commissions presume a degree of
functionality or service. Everyone knows examples of upgrading pedestrian
tunnels or giving meaning to a non-place such as a roundabout. The
question is whether our experience of public space is enhanced.
Art can have a function; there are good examples of applied art
(fencing, transformer buildings, etc.) and also of more autonomous
art that can raise our environment from the merely utilitarian.
But likewise, there is a need for experimental and more confrontational
art, in which the artist can conceptualise autonomously, offer comment,
and possibly even choose the site.
During the salon evening on art, architecture and urban design,
the view was posited that public space contains too many 'objects
labelled as art'. Among the solutions advance were combining forces
to create genuinely big art or major installations, and the removal
of specific pieces of art. One can, alternatively, claim that art
does not always have to be grandiose and overpowering. A work of
art does not even have to be visible; it can be sited almost casually
in the margins as it were, and blend into the everyday surroundings.
The key to success lies mainly in involving artists from an early
stage and combining their efforts with those of architects, urban
designers and landscape architects.
Integrated art, De Rietlanden traffic junction,
translation: Billy Nolan
Cross-over Bouwkunst, until October 27 at ARCAM, Waterlooplein 213,
Publication: 2001: A Public Space Odyssey, Tineke Reijnders,
Herman Pitz, Bob van Reeth, Janneke Wesseling, Jan Rothuizen, Pauline
Tereehorst, et al. Photographic essay: Kors van Bennekom and Joris
van Bennekom, NLG 30, Euro 13,60 isbn 90 8033 676 9
Fund for the Arts