Our Spaces – a series of seven temporary pieces of public art installed across different towns in Warwickshire – was recently unveiled after being commissioned by Warwickshire County Council.


The project gave the artists selected by the council for the project a high degree of creative control when it came to their designs, apart from a brief survey from the towns’ residents around what their respective towns meant to them.

But is this the right way to approach public art projects with taxpayers’ money? How much collaboration and consultation should there be? Indeed, is public art even something worth spending money on at all?

Helen Marriage, director of Artichoke which specialises in temporary public art, believes a commissioner of public art should be brave enough to back an artist’s vision in order to achieve the best results.

She cited her company’s recent ‘Sanctuary’ project in Bedworth – a large, intricate wooden sculpture installed in Miners Welfare Park which was ceremonially burnt to create a memorial those who had died during the pandemic.

Artichoke worked with renowned US artist David Best, who is associated with the Burning Man event held in the Nevada desert.

Although not everyone loved the project, Sanctuary resonated with tens of thousands and received acclaim from all over the country.

Helen said: “In my view, Sanctuary was a poignant example of public art unlikely ever to have come to fruition without the full backing of David Best’s vision by Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council.

“Initially, we did have quite a lot of people questioning what we were up to with our artwork, and some voiced their disagreement.

“But the best public art almost always comes from the mind of a gifted artist, and not one that is designed by committee.

“What was great about Sanctuary is that although there was scepticism from the public initially, the project gradually won people over and it drew attention from not only within Bedworth, but far beyond across the UK and the USA.

“The idea of having a temporary monument to those that died during the pandemic that was ceremonially burnt was not one that is likely to have come from a focus group.

“Although public art involves public money, local authorities must back their artists when commissioning, as it’s very difficult to derive true artistic value from their projects otherwise.

“All good public art must try to create conversations and leave a lasting impression on their communities. Even though Sanctuary was temporary, it certainly achieved that.”

This type of public art is a far cry from what used to be installed in towns and cities across the country. Statues of military figures and influential figures tended to be the norm, with little consultation of the public.

Emma Andrews, Delivery Lead for Heritage & Culture at Warwickshire County Council, felt the role of art in the public realm today is much more about engaging the public and providing high quality public space than with honouring deceased figures of the past.

She said: “In the last 50 years or so, we’ve seen a real shift in what public art projects are trying to accomplish. Artists are now engaged in the design of public realm, enhancing access and the identity of our public spaces as well as creating environments that are welcoming and high quality.

“Art within the public realm can have many functions. It can be active and encourage people to interact directly with it - or it can be reflective, enabling people to stop and think as they pass through a town.

The question of whether public art is actually worth it in a cost-of-living crisis is always going to come up among certain people. But Emma says the benefits are there.

She added: “We want to make our towns and public spaces in Warwickshire the best they can be. Involving artists is a part of that process, with the aim of ensuring high quality design and creating spaces that welcome residents and visitors alike.

“But new art takes time to bed in – so just after installation, public art is highly noticeable and becomes a talking point.

“Our Spaces was commissioned with Covid recovery in mind. We wanted these pieces to get people talking, and encourage people back into their towns to see them, talk about them, and interact with them in certain cases.

“If Our Spaces creates those talking points and gives the artists more exposure, that’s fantastic. And if it encourages even a couple of towns to create follow-up projects around those pieces, even better.

“Sometimes public art can seem like a bit of a risk. But it’s all part of that jigsaw that makes a place what it is. There should always be room in any public budget for artistic projects – it’s what adds value to our public spaces.”

Published: 23rd November 2022