Public art loss ‘shame’

Gone: Brian McKay’s mural from Central Park.

TWO pillars of the WA art scene have called on the McGowan government to create an inventory to track and preserve public art, but say there’s so far there’s been little appetite to take it on. 

Arts patron Janet Holmes a Court and sculptor Tony Jones noted a series of removals of iconic artwork in recent years, with the most recent being Perth council removing the 

50-year-old Ore Obelisk on St Georges Terrace due to deterioration. 

We put the state inventory idea to arts minister David Templeman.

“A database of all public art across the State would be a complex undertaking,” 

Mr Templeman said in a response via email.

“There is an expectation that asset owners, such as local government, maintain their own appropriate records.

“The WA government has played an active role in the development of public art through the percent for art scheme established in 1989. It is the longest running scheme of its kind in Australia.

“Based on the success of the scheme many local governments in metropolitan and regional areas have developed public art strategies.

“Public art is vitally important as it enhances our understanding and appreciation of cultural heritage, built environment and creating more meaningful public spaces.

“Public art schemes also deliver direct economic benefits by generating employment opportunities for artists, skilled tradespeople, engineers, fabricators and suppliers of materials.”

Independent

Museum of Perth executive director Reece Harley, who was dismayed to see the Ore Obelisk removed, responded to the lack of government will to run an inventory. He said an independent not-for-profit like the MoP was well placed to step up. They have experience compiling detailed inventories of heritage buildings in East Perth and Bunbury. 

“Governments tend to overcomplicate things and are not known for creative thinking,” Mr Harley says.

“Private institutions, on the other hand, seems to have a much better track record in delivering innovative cultural projects. 

“Public art holds so much value within our communities. It needs to be better celebrated and understood. Developing a state-wide, publicly accessible and interactive online inventory of public artworks is an important first step to better understand their history, meaning and significance. 

“Creating greater awareness of public artworks will help to prevent their destruction or disappearance in the future. 

“Our staff and volunteers are keen to build this online inventory, in partnership with local communities across WA, so that the history of our state’s public art can be better appreciated. 

“We will look to launch a basic website in the coming weeks where locaçl governments, private organisations and members of the community can submit photos, histories and stories of their local public artworks in a collaborative process.”

SADLY, the article Ore Mighty Crash (Voice, July 10, 2021) marks another chapter in the destruction of Perth’s catalogue of public artworks.

Not all artworks are worthy of preservation when, for a number of reasons, they reach their use by date. The Western Australian climate and severe conditions can take their toll.

However, the investment the state has made through the percent for art scheme, adopted by local government, private developers and entrepreneurs has seen a wide spectrum of works that will all at some time face decisions of deaccession.

This process could be much better managed than it is currently. 

We have long been enthusiastic advocates for a state register/ inventory of all public art and, where appropriate, privately held significant works that impact on the public domain.

Their full history could be documented and recorded so that when issues such as these arise, their ranking and value to our state cultural archive is understood and decisions can be made against a formal background of knowledge.

Attempts to have this documentation undertaken have largely fallen on deaf ears. 

Deputations to the minister and National Trust have been politely and positively received but nothing has resulted.

Masterpiece works by Brian McKay, Robert Juniper, Howard Taylor, to name just a few, have gone missing or been so severely vandalised that they have lost their national significance.

The Brian McKay Central Park Mural was subject to very public demonstrations of concern, and its destruction by the building owners – a local family company and a Singaporean company, remains a monument to cultural neglect by a city/state leadership that should be eternally ashamed of itself.

Janet Holmes à Court 
AC Tony Jones OAM

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