JUAN ZARAMA PERINI/Stuff
The 2011 Rugby World Cup sculpture by Jack Ilott Green. Some new sports stadiums could accommodate such heroic Soviet-era statuary.
You may have been through this situation: both of your parents have passed away, you are downsizing, or your tastes have simply changed – what do you do with this art? The work, once so loved and sweated, might not even be worth a spin on Trade Me.
Now imagine this scenario for a city council, with an extensive portfolio of public sculptures dating back years – purchased or maintained with taxpayers’ money. Think about its carbon footprint.
In 2006 I joined Wellington City Council’s newly formed Public Art Committee – a position I recently returned to. Quickly, I learned that the job wasn’t just about commissioning shiny new things or temporary events that left no effigy.
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Sometimes they were isolated sculptures in little-visited corners of parks, previously donated by an artist, an embassy, or paid for by a company that a former mayor didn’t have the diplomacy or public responsibility to say no to. Sometimes it was damaged sculptures – like injured birds in shoeboxes – asking to be saved. Or sculptures that have fallen out of fashion or new urban design projects – destined, if they’re lucky, for a dark place in a municipal depot.
I started to imagine a special park where the sculptures will die; a modernist version of one of those great Victorian cemeteries. An entire neighborhood – a museum of racism – could be devoted to a colonial figurative work celebrating the triumph over “the natives” or the dubious founders of the city. Maybe that’s where the statue of Captain John Hamilton went? Originally donated to the City of Hamilton by Gallagher Group, which specializes in animal management solutions, it was hoisted onto a truck in 2020 during an international protest against colonial buildings. It’s like those Michael Jackson records – where else can we safely go to learn from such madness?
Then there are those works – in a city, frankly, quite crowded with sculptures – for which you have already booked a sculpture park dead in your mind. Like the 2011 Rugby World Cup sculpture in Jack Ilott Green. I can think of new sports stadiums that could accommodate such heroic Soviet-era statuary. As artist Dick Frizzell wrote in 2017 of a new object planted at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park (started by none other than Boris Johnson): “Is it just me or that ugly tree in Wellington is this the most malicious message ever mutilated? Why does Wellington get dumped on this weird Weta Workshop stuff all the time?”
There should always be a special place for sculptures that become civic orphans. Maybe we need a public art version of the SPCA – or a giant outdoor tip shop.
The sculpture can be resurrected. One of the Public Art Panel’s first tasks was to assess the future of a Guy Ngan 1974 sculpture, Geometric Progression, which once stood outside the Municipal Library, when the Civic Square of Te Ngākau was still Mercer St (similar problems will come with the new construction of the library). Since 1989, Ngan’s work had collapsed in a municipal deposit, out of place and time. But fashions are back: the work was restored and reinstalled in the nearby parking lot of the Michael Fowler Center in 2006.
Thinking sustainably is vital, and modernist ruins will surely soon be the new trend. Be careful of the inheritance you waste. In 2016, a massive 400-panel stained glass mural by Philip Trusttum was dismantled at 44 The Terrace due to earthquake concerns. It remains in council storage after the public feared it was destroyed. Council officers spent considerable hours finding him – in part or in whole – a new home. Our public art legacy will require the work of municipal and private owners to ensure the sustainability of important works.
- Mark Amery is an art contributor to the Dominion Post and Stuff. Email him public art offers at firstname.lastname@example.org