Public Art Research Archive, Sheffield Hallam University

The following document is taken from the introduction to 'Going Public', the catalogue for an exhibition of Public Art of Sheffield that we curated at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield between November 1994 to January 1995.
The catalogue was written by Elizabeth Norman, Senior Lecturer in Art History at Sheffield Hallam University at that time.



Public art in cities has changed. To be more precise, the name given to work found in public city space has changed. Public art is the name often used now to describe almost anything which is added to the city and which is considered not entirely necessary.

Monuments come to mind when one thinks of city art which has a recognised purpose. Most cities are very proud of their turn of the century statuary which was made to honour and remember local or nationally known citizens and events. The work was set in prestigious places signalling it was art, and important for the individual, the city, the country. The work was assured of its reception, set on heavy plinths, cast in metal or carved from stone. We live in a different time. Public art has changed along with the visual arts in general, no longer rigorously confined to certain subjects, materials or display. What might be considered art and where it might be located has come to be much more freely interpreted.

The purpose of 'Going Public' is to look at what is contemporaneously and conveniently called art in public spaces, or public art. In particular it looks at quite recent public art in Sheffield. Critical to the shaping of Sheffield's commitment was the city's pioneering adoption of a Percent for Art policy in 1987 , a few years in advance of the Arts Council's formal adoption. As is explained by the words themselves, a Percent for Art scheme asks but cannot require that one percent of the total costs of any development be spent on public artwork. Most of the work in 'Going Public' was produced after 1987. Not represented in the catalogue, but no less important to the city, is a large body of work produced prior to this date. Also not represented in the catalogue is what goes on prior to public placement. Art may be destined for public view, but the preliminary stages are largely private. The artists themselves are often called in late to a project.

'Going Public', it is hoped, will show that public art in Sheffield is Sheffield's own. The artwork seems to belong to the city's particular physical layout, relates to its history and conveys some energetic regard for its future. To a visitor the work might not look very different from that found in other cities, but to an insider it seems to fit. This is for several reasons. Firstly, as the number of artworks increases some of the artists reappear in different projects in the city. Many are fairly young and yet have a reputation and body of work outside Sheffield as well. Secondly, many of the projects are of modest scale and involve a single piece. Sheffield did not have an inner city space which was distinctive or large enough for a major public art statement on the scale of that found in London or Birmingham, until Tudor Square was created. Thirdly, the work is mainly practical. It comes in the form of a gate, bollards, or a sundial which functions as a memorial as well. There is no example of fantasy like the recently installed Oldenburg 'Bottle of Notes' at Middlesborough, although the Norwich Union Gates or the 'Marble Players' , for example, are richly imaginative. Fourthly, none of the work is aggressive. It may not even be noticed. 'Birds Observed' at the Midland Station are commonly overlooked. Most of the work is accessible. 'The Sheffield Mural' can be enjoyed simply for its faithfulness to the city scene.

The purpose of the catalogue is to provide a way of looking at public art in Sheffield. Public art is not a particularly complex or difficult art. It cannot afford to be mysterious about subject or purpose, and the negotiations, adjustments, and blockages which may be part of the work's progress will not be visible once the work is placed. At best public art can be seen in terms of a personal relationship, enjoyed once introduced, appreciated after familiarity is established. Public art contributes to the lives of many who know and live in Sheffield.

Elizabeth Norman, 1995

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