Canberra Sculpture Walk proposal

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When reading the latest thought bubbles from the property lobby, it was difficult to avoid laughing out loud. In their quest to improve Civic business activity, the Civic property lobby has recommended that the ACT Government should hand over money to assist in the refurbishment of the Melbourne and Sydney buildings.

Let’s be clear — these buildings are private property and therefore it is up to the owners to make the necessary investments to improve their bottom line, not the ratepayers. The government already hands over $1.8 million to assist with the CBD Group and this is questionable given the poor outcomes so far.

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One well-worn suggestion that keeps popping up is for the lanes around the Melbourne and Sydney buildings to be transformed into café lanes. Please – this is not Melbourne, London, Paris or Tokyo – they work there but it would be a waste of precious time and money to attempt that in Civic. So I hope people will drop any foolishness about the lanes and concentrate on making the now vacant plazas alive with people.

However in amongst the usual requests to have all of us underpin their profits, the lobby has actually thrown up the beginnings of a good idea. It was the one that identified that more public art could be good for Civic.

This concept needs to be followed through and it will require some creative and intelligent hand to guide it to success — and the property lobby is definitely not to have any control of such a project.

In the longer term they will be very happy, as it will be the owners of the buildings and their tenants that will be reap the benefits of the increases in visitors and shoppers to Civic.

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The one big advantage that the main part of Civic has over the other main shopping centres is that there is an abundance of open plazas with the mall to one side. The other centres were built at later stages in Canberra’s development when the property lobbyists convinced the government to hand over shopping centres to mall owners.

The suggestion is that these open plazas from Glebe Park through to Northbourne should be used to create a public art showcase/walk. This would involve many new large and small artworks being on permanent display across Civic as well as the location of temporary artworks during special occasions such as during Floriade.

There are a number of public art pieces around Civic already, all of these would be included in the new Canberra Sculpture Walk, with some being relocated to enhance their relevance to this new walk.

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One key to the success of such a program is that it is not to be overseen by a committee.

Canberra previously had a good public art program that was closed down after some vocal protests. I think this was so wrong. The program itself was a wonderful idea but it was badly run.

Many of the artworks that were placed throughout Canberra remain proof that such an innovative program can be successful. Sadly more than a few of them were not good choices and/or suffered through being plonked in inappropraite locations.

The outcomes of the previous program were very much hindered by the work of a committee. Beware committees! Others have the same opinion – see this report from New York on this and a number of related topics.

That former program required a creative hand of a switched-on person who understood art and the landscape.

It is an imperative that no committee gets their hands on the Canberra Sculpture Walk initiative and that the right individual is selected to oversee the first years of commissioning and the subsequent placements.

For those who do not accept that such artworks can attract people, just consider Chicago with its Cloud Gate and other outstanding works in Millennium Park– and for something closer to home – the small rural town of Brim and the increase in visitors to the see the artwork on the silos.

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What these examples demonstrate is that there will be the need to invest in some very significant and headline grabbing works. This will be required to get the attention of tourists, the national press and to provide people with a major incentive to visit Civic.

Once the sculpture walk is established with enough works, a number of special festivals should be staged to encourage tourists to visit the Canberra Sculpture Walk. These public art festivals could be enahnced with all manner of temporary art works, not necessarily just sculptural pieces, along the walk as well as possibly attached to some of the buildings. Anything could be possible with the right creative leader and the appropriate level of monetary and enthusiastic support from government.

Once the Civic areas had been brought up to standard to work as a sculpture walk, the whole thing could be linked to works around the ANU (some would require changes in their placements to make them more accessible) as well as new artworks that could be commissioned for the new Northbourne Ave following the introduction of the tramlines.

Hence the title Canberra Sculpture Walk (not Civic Sculpture Walk) – while the first stage would be through Civic, later stages would eventually include areas beyond but still linked to the Civic area.

This creative concept is based on a government commitment to enhance Civic by investing in artworks and backing a comprehensive program to see it happen.

And to repeat myself, the establishment of the Canberra Sculpture Walk must be led by someone with experience in visual arts, landscape and events such as sculpture festivals.

No more well-meaning public arts committees —  please!!!

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