Review: Public Art
Centenary of Women’s Suffrage
This is an unfortunate case of how things can get out of hand and go wrong in a huge way.
Sometimes the planets line up and all sorts of magic can happen. At other times, no matter what positive steps are taken, some things are just destined to go off the rails. It also does not help to have bureaucratic spin doctors, media loving a beat up, writers being over zealous in their responses and creative people being precious.
In this case the losers were the people of Australia, particularly women, who deserved to have in 2003 a significant memorial public art piece to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage.
In mid 2002 the then Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the status of women (note not a stand alone minister), being Amanda Vanstone, announced a competition for the public art memorial to celebrate the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage to be in place by the end of 2013.
Ask yourself how long did they know that this centenary was about to happen? How much would you expect to be allocated for such a significant piece of public art? and is eighteen months enough to go from launch of competition to delivery? Just a few problems being built into the project here!
In December 2002 the winner was announced. Sydney artists Jennifer Turpin and Michael Crawford’s 21 metre “elevated semi-circle kinetic red fan-shaped sculpture” was to be located directly behind the old parliament house building. The piece was called The Fan.
The placement on this important axis was seen as being significant and that it would dominate the view was seen as appropriate given the importance of the subject.
The artists commenced work on their research and also shortened the piece by a few metres after further negotiations with the National Capital Authority (NCA). It was in August 2003 that the media picked up on the new work and all hell broke loose. Take note that at this point the commission price was around $500,000 and the timeline was for delivery in December 2003, just several months away.
The objections came from several quarters including the local heritage voices saying, ‘put it anywhere but not here’. The architect of (new) Parliament House also objected. Shrill voices saw these objections as an attack on women’s rights. The NCA and the committee that made the decision defended the purchase as well as the placement on the main axis down from Parliament House. The story goes that one old Parliamentarian, Bill Heffernan, walked down from Parliament and confronted the NCA on the site and said that it was not going to happen!
The shit had definitely hit the fan! (sorry I could not resist that!)
In 2003 I was closely monitoring this whole event and have to admit that besides the jury and the NCA, it was not possible to find many fans of The Fan. The question hung out there whether this was a good choice for this significant public art memorial. Yes, it was BIG and was to be earth red.
I remain in the camp that was not convinced that this was the best we could do. This project was flawed from the start. The timing was already screwed in that the planning time frame was ridiculously too short. The price was probably too little for something to be so significant. I suggest the brief should have been for more than a piece of public art. It should have been for a significant landscape response that included artwork(s). There are many sections of the Parliamentary Triangle, on the axis and off the axis, that could have become a significant creatively design memorial, involving landscape design as well as artworks. To do so would have required five years of planning, not just months.
What happened next was really just too sad. It turned out that the artists wanted to double the price of the commission and that they would be running late into 2014. In amongst all the media beat ups going on at the time, these new issues handed the NCA and consequently the wonderful Amanda Vanstone the reason to cancel the contract. The artists carried on as the wounded ones and made statements that things could be fixed. The deal was broken and no matter what anyone said it was over. The Fan remains a concept only.
But there was the centenary. The NCA had to deliver something to mark this important milestone in Australia’s democracy. By coincidence the NCA had been reconstructing the gardens to each side of the Old Parliament House. And there’s another story here about these gardens which will have to wait. Design for a memorial was undertaken internally within the NCA and it was placed within the garden.
As you enter the side garden on the eastern side of the Old Parliament House, you come across this rectangular water feature. I still remember the first time I saw it. I stood there and thought that we went from the giant red fan situated where it could not be missed, to a small water feature in a side garden. Yes folks, in 2003 in Australia there was a coming together of many forces, all with agendas, some good and some very questionable, and the result? The 2004 memorial to being marginalised.
This is one of those outcomes whereby most players must share the responsibility for this questionable outcome. The original project planning and ultimately the project management was not good. Architect led I suspect. When will such projects be handed to people who are arts based and landscape thinking project managers?
This water feature is now aging and looks as though it may not last too long. It is definitely off the map for visitors to Canberra. The gardens are nice enough but not visited by many people. In turn I have watched people walked through and discover the water feature and then realise what it is. (the gardens are a great place for a quiet picnic or just to take some time out).
To be positive for a moment. At least there is something to mark the occasion given the mess that developed around this proposal. For that we must thank whoever made at least delivered us something despite all the forces conspiring to destroy this initiative, and in that I also include the commissioned artists.
I guess the NCA had spent some of their allocation on the former folly and now had a much reduced budget as well as a tight time frame to get something done.
From the NCA’s own website:
The detailed design of the new fountain was developed by Cate Riley and Andrew Smith of the National Capital Authority in consultation with Senator Kay Patterson, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Women’s Issues. It comprises a rectangular water feature approximately 7m long x 2.5m wide x 0.4m high. The floor and walls of the water feature are lined with tens of thousands of glass mosaic tiles individually placed by mosaic artist Mary Stuart. Further visual interest is provided by 6 water jets both sides and a water weir on the eastern end of the fountain. The border of the water feature records the passage of the Franchise Act (Cth) in 1902 and the commemoration of the 1903 election (in which women voted and stood for Parliament for the first time).
A timeline extends from the water feature within the pavement under a wisteria covered pergola towards Constitution Place . Along the timeline are recorded the milestones and significant achievements of women in Federal Parliament. The timeline is created using the same tiles as used in the fountain.
So here in late 2013, we have this out-of-the-way water feature that is being updated with new names such as Julia Gillard. This is a good thing. However the opportunity for a significant national memorial public art work was derailed for all sorts of reasons.
There remains the need for the whole women’s suffrage movement story to be told through the use of series of artworks.
I strongly suggest that at some time in the near future, not with the present Rabbott ultra conservative government in session, that a new concept should be developed. This would require major private philanthropic backing as well as government support. The proposal needs to be prepared now for a government that comes into power some time after this mad lot have left the stage.
The new public art work to honour the full story and all aspects of Women’s Suffrage should be in a significant location within or close to the Parliamentary Triangle. The work should integrate landscape design and art work. The new memorial needs to provide recognition of this democratic chapter in Australia’s political and social history. It should be so significant that tourist could not miss visiting it.
Paul Costigan, 6 January 2014