Article | Future Cities, Adaptive Spaces

Interpreting the benefits of art in place

World class art in place requires support from developers, government and communities in order to thrive.

July 26, 2023

The image shows a close up photo of a granite curved stair case.

Art plays an invaluable role in today’s contemporary placemaking initiatives. It’s a concept that’s been explored in detail in the past with conversations exploring how to leverage the power of art in buildings and the need to connect these buildings to the wider community. In some cases, art has even been used to help rebuild communities and economies that were adversely affected by global factors.  

This leads to the broader assessment of modern art in place initiatives and the human influences behind them. From the artists involved to the organisations commissioning the projects to the communities that double as art critics, this is how art in place is being integrated into modern society.   

Facilitating this conversation is Oliver Watts, Senior Curator at Artbank, who is joined by guests Owen Craven, Managing Principal, Urban Art Projects; artists Tracey Deep and Noni Cragg; and Sarah Hetherington, Director, Galleries - Sydney Contemporary.    

Importance of art outside galleries  

Depending on where one looks, art today can be found in almost every corner of cities and beyond the walls of traditional galleries.   

“Why is it important? Because art brings a human element into space,” explains Owen Craven.  

“You know, Brookfield Properties, they've developed this beautiful precinct. They didn't develop the beautiful precinct for the bricks, mortar and the glass. They developed a precinct for people. They wanted people to come together to share knowledge, to exchange ideas, to build and create an economy in the same way that our First Nations people came together to trade and share stories, history and language. So, creating and placing art in those spaces, I think makes it human. It can provoke ideas.” 

This connection between art and people in public space has been gaining substantial traction over the years. Sarah Hetherington who is the Director, Galleries at Sydney Contemporary – Australasia’s leading international art fair, has significant experience with commissioning art on a major scale and knows exactly why art in public places matter – including artists themselves.    

“We had 93 galleries participate at Sydney Contemporary this year, which was really astounding. I think about 550 artists had their work on view at the fair. We did a breakdown and worked out that those artists came from 34 countries around the world, which is remarkable and speaks to Sydney as a city for that global contemporary art conversation.  

“Alongside the art fair sector, our primary goal is to sell art; to facilitate the sale of art for those galleries and artists. We also curate a program of talks, performances and large-scale installations. We commissioned a number of new performance pieces, which I think is quite unique to Sydney Contemporary in that we do have that sort of non-commercial outcome at the fair as well.  

“And we really celebrate the importance of performance art as a contemporary art form. Our intention is to really take visitors on a journey throughout the floor plan of the fair and to engage with Carriageworks as a heritage site and incredible industrial building.”  

Translating art into place 

The concept of scale can play a crucial part in art in place. Sydney artist Noni Cragg recently had her artwork, ‘Cheeky Birds’, installed in Brookfield Place in Wynyard Lane. The piece stands about six metres in height and sixteen metres in length. It’s a significant size-up from the conventional portrait hanging off residential interior walls, and that’s why translating art via scale needs to be carefully executed.   

‘Roots’ perches proudly above the lobby of Brookfield Place in Sydney. It’s a large-scale sculpture spanning over seven-metres in length and comprising of over 500 hand-formed aluminium rods that have been hand-finished with ochre rub to mimic tree roots in the real-world.  

“I think it’s one of my largest works yet,” says its creator, Tracey Deep.  

“It was absolutely inspired by the trees. If you look across the road from the lobby, you can see there's an actual tree there in Wynyard Park - full of ancient trees. And I feel the trees are very connected to me like tree spirits; root systems which is where this piece actually got its name.  

“And of course, in honour of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, I did a bit of study on the site itself.  The fascination for me was that you realise that without all of these structures, it would just be beautiful pristine land full of trees and nature and all the things that I love.  

“I just felt like I needed to bring some of that history and some of that organic beauty inside. Beautiful stories, Indigenous stories and passing on culture. I really wanted to bring in the root system and the concept of survival, which is how Indigenous people survived on the land from all these beautiful trees and plants that they lived off, but also grew. The idea of discovering more about that extraordinary history, family roots and family ties and the importance of connecting to your roots and honouring it, being proud of it and celebrating it. Who are we without our roots? So ‘Roots’ to me has so many meanings behind it.” 

And the evaluating the scale aspect of such an impressive piece?  

“Because of the scale, you get that energy and feel the vibration of the work. And I think it works.”  

Commissioning art in place 

An interesting talking point of art in place is the commissioning process itself. Do artists come on board once a building is complete? Do they come into the conversation early in the design process? These are legitimate questions that all stakeholders need to be involved in for this type of art to thrive.  

“There's something written in when you actually build a big commercial building,” explains Deep.   

“A certain amount, which is a fabulous thing, goes towards an art piece and the artist. Because as you can see, it just brings the whole space to life.” 

Craven adds that there's a percent set aside for an arts scheme. 

“It is wonderful. And I think the City of Sydney are leading as a government organisation ensuring that art and heritage is integrated into a design. 

“At an early stage, this work though, was commissioned by Brookfield simply because they wanted to bring that sense of humanity and narrative. It's purely an investment in their passion for art, their passion for making sure that their space has an identity.” 

For non-site-specific art in place such as pop-up exhibitions, the approach is slightly different and requires a bit more logistical and events planning talent.  

“Sydney Contemporary is quite unique in that we are the only event that takes over the whole of the Carriage Works floor plan,” explains Hetherington.  

“Our build time is quite quick and we work very closely with a fair architect. We had 28,000 people descend on Carriage Works over five days. What lives on is the art after the event and whether that goes into people's homes or private collections, corporate collections or museums.  

“In terms of placemaking, the most important thing for us is that visitor experience. And the flow from the arrival through to navigating the gallery booths through to navigating the art installations on site where performances take place. Where the restaurants and bars are, we build in kitchens. It's quite a tremendous feat in that sense.”  

Building the art in place economy  

There can be no successful art in place without viable support mechanisms for artists. That’s why Hetherington is passionate about taking on the complex and often daunting challenges of commissioning public art.  

“It can be quite nerve-wracking because there's a whole bunch of requirements and flow on effects. I applaud a lot of our clients, but sometimes wish that we had the confidence to take a chance so that it's not just the repeated names being commissioned.” 

Her desire long term is to create real opportunities for emerging talented artists who’ve yet to enter the realm of public art.   

“If you build the team around them - the right curators, designers, architects, developers - they can absolutely achieve a beautiful outcome. And it then brings new stories, adds new layers and contributes to career development.” 

Sydney as a city has the potential to inherit the blueprint of international art cities in Europe and the US. There’s still a long way to go, but these experts believe that the fundamentals are inherently in place and it’s the support component which needs to be driven further. And today and tomorrow’s property developers have a key role.    

“There's so much opportunity in Sydney and we are an incredible centre of contemporary art and culture, whether it's performing arts, opera, dance, ballet, music or theatre. I think more opportunities could be given to artists, working with property developers, working with government to integrate art into place,” says Hetherington.  

“The benefits for the community outweigh the costs. Whether it's your daily commute to work where you encounter an amazing piece of work that transforms your morning, or Sydney becoming a destination for tourism showcasing its contemporary art and culture.”