New writing for
Public Art in Ireland- Legacy and the Future - a personal view
byGaynor Seville. May 2013

A personal overview written by Mayo County Council public art co-ordinator, Gaynor Seville on her beliefs with regard to the value of art commissioning for public places and with host communities, for both artists and commissioning bodies. 

The perceived luxury of the State’s Per Cent for Art scheme is not gone entirely, but with the drastic reduction in government capital developments and building programmes, there is a seriously reduced number of these per cent for art scheme budgets available for public art commissioning.  Around five years ago almost every local authority in Ireland had a Public Art Co-ordinator to manage these budgets, the fact that less than a handful remain in employment now[i]  mirrors the current funding situation.   Have the Local Authorities been too hasty, though, in letting these positions go? Can Local Authority Public Art Co-ordinators only initiate and manage commissions via percent for art funds?  What about all the other funding streams which can contribute towards the commissioning of public art, and crucially, who now is left to apply for and access these potential pots of funding and manage the commissions?

There is still a lot of ongoing excellent work, and maybe the time afforded now in some places where commissioning has slowed down could be utilised to consider the legacy of public art programmes and how to disseminate this.  Fingal County Council still has an excellent and varied programme, headed up by Caroline Cowley.  In 2012 Fingal hosted a public art seminar Commissions + which included talks from international speakers and discussions about issues closer to home.  Whilst I found there weren’t a great deal of practical solutions offered, or realistic to the Irish context, it is good to see percent for art funds used in this way, to bring people together, commissioners, artists, students, writers, critics etc to take time out to think, learn and network in this way.  Part of the two day event included a site visit and talk from artist Garrett Phelan, whose project has been literally years in the planning, and is still to be realised.  I am sure without having had the ongoing consistent support from Caroline the project may have been abandoned, or seriously compromised some time ago.

Donegal public art programme, which was up until recently led by Terre Duffy, has for many years been a leader in excellence in commissioning practice, and particularly successful in ensuring a high level of documentation and dissemination of projects nationally.  They have an excellent online resource[ii] and each project has a clear legacy through this commitment to the recording of the process and outcome.

Much public art is difficult to document, or the documentation can be so far removed from the actual experience that they become very separate artworks, in that the documentation often constitutes the artwork eventually.  The long term legacy of a project can be unknown, or can be hard to attribute to a specific project after the event.  Recent examples of this in Co Mayo commissions would include Tom Meskell’s ‘Pilgrimage’, a small commission for the village of Aughagower, near Westport.  The actual artistic outcome was a one night installation of temporary figurative sculpture, internally lit, placed at various locations in the village at dusk.  A huge number of people turned out to see the work, which had a special resonance due to the knowledge that it was to exist for just a short space of time.  Although only those who attended will have that memory, a very limited edition publication was produced, documenting the process, comments from local people and photography of the evening event.  Other outcomes included the large skills base generated locally that was developed through a series of group workshops where local people were taught by Tom how to produce the artwork. However, Tom acted as a director and curator of the final spectacle.  Drilling down again to even more discrete outcomes are the new friendships made during the process, local people commenting that the project had given them the opportunity to make contact with new people in the area who they lived near, but had never spoken to.  People came together to make food for the launch night, and totally took on the project as their own.  Since this commission the community have instigated two further events, utilising the skills gained in the original commission.  There have been lantern style events in the village, and further funds have been generated and secured for the community, via Leader, specifically for these events.  As a result the artist has been re-employed directly by the community and relationships continued long after the original commission.

A very different commission by Aileen Lambert, En Route[iii], documented walks and pathways through specific areas, many now hidden, overgrown and unused.  These were brought to life through Aileen’s research and final outcome of publication and CDs.  However, there too were not so obvious outcomes, such as the personal histories and stories shared on organised days out, walking the old routes with Aileen with a range of local people and visitors from afar, from various sectors and including an Arts Council representative.  Enriched communications, improved knowledge of history and understanding our place in time and space are almost impossible to document or evaluate.  Again with this project, some of those involved continued their own walks and research, long after Aileen had gone, organising a new series of night time walks.

Considering the national Per Cent for Art legacy and the recent slow down in commissioning opportunities, are we to assume that public art is only good for the good times and is unnecessary, or even impossible, in tough times?  Where does public art go from here?

We need to look above and beyond per cent for art, widen our horizons beyond national funding, explore the wider international potential while understanding the skills, expertise and money involved to enable this. Mayo County Council Public Art Programme has just been successful in an EU Culture Fund bid with partners in Northampton, UK and Catalonia, Spain for a series of public art interventions along walking/cycle routes, formerly railway lines.  The site for Ireland will be the Great Western Greenway, near Westport.  An artist from each country involved, three in total, will be commissioned to create temporary artworks in all three countries.  There will also be a series of seminars and related local events. The proposed artworks will be required to engage with a range people to create broad public interest and be located in accessible outdoor rural settings on the identified former railway lines.  Through a series of associated activity with local community interest groups, the artwork concept will then be reproduced in each participating partner region to reflect the local context.  A series of three seminar events will follow the exhibition phase in each partner country aimed at reviewing what the project has achieved and disseminating associated learning among local/national creative and cultural professionals and students.

Obviously this type of project would not be possible without the matching funds in place and someone in position to work through the lengthy planning process and paperwork involved in the preparation of this type of bid.  Meetings in London and Brussels were required as part of the planning.  The fact that the UK partner also had additional funds to employ the input from a specialist advisor on EU funding bids was in no way insignificant. Opportunities and money are available and out there for the taking, but to be successful requires a commitment to time, resources and personnel is required.

Awareness of the recent Mayo County Council ‘Landmark’[iv] public art programme of commissions led to the initial invitation for the EU partnership, illustrating the wider reaching benefits of a good and well publicised public art programme, it can naturally lead to further investment, opportunities and a range of knock on effects.  

The Landmark public art programme was developed through careful pooling of Per Cent for Art funds to create a collection of commissions for a wide range of artists, working in a number of art forms.  Key to the thinking behind the programme was a desire to strategically commission works that would complement each other in the same environment, provide a focus for a range of contemporary public art responses to one area, and attract artists working at all levels, from emerging to well established.  Professional development for local artists, and a commitment to actively involve local people throughout the process, was also of high importance in the planning of the programme. 

One major site was identified, the area of Lough Lannagh in Castlebar, close to the heart of the county town, a naturally beautiful resource, but until recently, fairly hidden and underused.  The curation of the project was also led by the knowledge that other physical improvements were to take place in the area, such as new bridges, creating a circular walk around the lake, and new walkways.  A series of commissions including permanent and temporary artwork, a residency project, bursary programmes for emerging artists and a professional development programme for local artists were initiated. 

A carefully selected judging panel was put in place, including arts expertise, community representation and council expertise, and applications judged over 3 days.  The panel was advised to carefully consider the nature of the site and the community and what would be appropriate.  The panel was also asked to aim for a final selection which would ensure high quality artwork, or experience, of a contemporary and challenging nature.

There are widely recognised local economic benefits linked to commissioning of public art.  I am aware this sector can sound like a broken record repeating these facts, but maybe it is time to really increase the volume and brighten the spotlight on these benefits.  Whilst art should never be considered solely as a useful mechanism to achieve other goals, and non cultural agendas, maybe it is worth reminding ourselves, and significant others, about the sometimes hidden benefits that come as a result of public art commissioning.  We should consider that it may be the perfect time to exploit these factors, when we are all looking for creative solutions to major national issues.

Public art is of huge benefit to the national economy, having a large role to play in increased tourism and the accompanying need generated for additional supporting services, such as hotel accommodation, restaurants, local public transport etc  The increased employment of arts professionals, artists and related services increases tax revenues, and of course the related health benefits of becoming engaged with your surroundings, your community, and feeling happier about your immediate environment have been well documented.

A vibrant cultural scene is a key factor in encouraging people and businesses to an area, quality of life being a priority and a good accessible arts scene implicated in achieving this.  When a business is looking to relocate, they are looking for an educated workforce with cultural activities for that workforce.  The relocation of the BBC to Salford Quays is a good example of this.  Prior to moving to Co Mayo I worked as Principal Officer for Arts Development in Salford and saw major investment over many years at the old docks, transforming it into a busy, lively, well populated area, with the major Lowry arts centre and public art programme positively adding to a perfect recipe for turning a wasteland edge of a Northern City into a desirable address and cultural location for major inward investment.  Successful developing economies thrive best in areas with a creative, healthy, and innovative population and where cities and towns have a real sense of place, and cultural distinctiveness. 

If communities feel ownership of, and pride in, their surroundings, this has a positive effect on crime locally and mental health.  Public art done well, and access to arts locally, has a huge impact on individuals and how they feel about their surroundings.

The Arts bring communities together – shared experiences, opportunities to work together, promoting shared and new skills and greater understanding of each other and our cultures. Looking forward, we need public art now more than ever, in my opinion.  We need to learn from the years of abundant commissioning too, what projects were really worthwhile, what resonates, what do we regret?  In every county there is likely to be the consideration - if only we had that budget again now, what would we do differently?  At the same time, we need to address who is going to make it happen.

Local government is a key funder, commissioner and programmer for the arts.  It is crucial that local authorities continue to fund appropriate posts for the development of public art.  JobBridge and internships provide vital training in the arts, and assistance for the venues and organisations, however the number of real employment opportunities in this sector are diminishing rapidly. 

Expertise and professional arts personnel working in local government cannot be underestimated.  The development of public art projects, advocacy for the value of the arts within local authorities and to wider agencies, the careful curation and management of both devising commissioning schemes, and the realisation of proposals, is crucial.  Developing good professional working conditions for artists and solid and authentic working relations with the host communities is of the utmost importance as is having the right expertise in place to generate further funds for future and sustainable, inclusive arts opportunities.Those of us still working in specialist public art roles are increasingly becoming more answerable regarding our output, and unfortunately can have less freedom to take artistic risks. As other central funding diminishes, there may be more pressure on per cent for art monies. 

Although there may be new opportunities for free lance curators and project managers to manage commissions, there are huge advantages to working within the Local Authority system. By working within the system you have the personal contacts and links to other key personnel, architects, planners, area managers etc and crucially their trust and understanding of the role.  By working within this system it enables continuous advocacy for the inclusion of art in other initiatives, advocating for fair treatment and payment for artists, and negotiation of additional supports.  It also helps with the over arching strategic view and plans for public art programming county wide and how this fits into wider initiatives and planning locally and nationally.  It also ensures the ability to plan and think longer term within this strategic framework, rather than short term project by project realisation.

 Looking to the future, It is not a case of simply accepting that we are to do less, as we can only do so much with fewer resources.   We need to adapt, to do more, and do it better, and to explore ways of funding public art differently.  It is important to take some risks and re-look at the way we operate, and the systems we have in place, to think about new approaches and how artists can work within these new frameworks and opportunities.  I have noticed an increase in requests for advice for traditional bronze figurative sculpture commissions, led by private fundraising.  It is interesting that this is happening now, maybe that only a safe, tangible outcome is considered good value for money.  However, it would be a shame if we start going backwards instead of forwards, and if newer contemporary art practices are not championed and supported.


Opportunities for emerging artists and students are very important now to ensure they receive the professional development training and opportunities to engage with real commissions and opportunities to provide a chance for a new wave of contemporary public artists working in Ireland.  The Landmark scheme provided two small bursary opportunities specifically for emerging artists, and the Connect programme, and Mayo Artists Network initiative, encourage development opportunities for artists.  These initiatives are very wise long term investments.

 Now is a good time to join up for increased collaborative working, thinking about how temporary projects can be shared, and how archives of work can be exploited, such as outcomes that involved installation, film, music etc.  Public art programmes can collaborate with arts venues, which also need support now.

Last year I developed a performance art symposium, a collaboration with Ballina Arts Centre.  This involved Aideen Barry, Amanda Coogan, Dominic Thorpe and Nigel Rolfe.  It was the first time the arts centre and the public art programme had collaborated, and was a new approach for both of us in focusing solely on performance.  It is hoped to become a biennial event.  A further collaboration is now under development with The Linenhall Arts centre in Castlebar, plans for a major trail of temporary installation in the town, focussing on local artists and their professional development, and involving Alice Maher as a mentor. Again this is the first time the Linenhall Arts Centre and the public art programme have collaborated and the benefits of joining forces, resources and expertise in this way is already looking very promising.

Philanthropic and private sponsorship is seen by many as a way forward, already seen to be commonplace with systems secured in the USA.  President Michael D Higgins has shown support for this, and there are new funds available to supplement the securing of these budgets. In better economic times this may have been an easier course of action to pursue, but I feel in the current climate raising private sponsorship is extremely difficult.  Any private sponsorship will carry with it certain agendas; and subsequently artists and arts organisations are unlikely to have the same autonomy as they may have had previously.  Freedom to take risks, to have open ended outcomes, to encourage controversial content etc may prove difficult when having to be answerable to a private funder, who may require clear outcomes in advance and the security that there will be no potential to damage their business by association with an artist or art project.  Even Mark Wallinger’s high profile commission for a 50 metre high white stallion in Kent[v] has run into financial difficulties.  Despite the artist’s London based dealer working on the task of securing the funds, and initial seed funding from Eurostar and Continental Railways, and the support of the British Council, the full amount of funding is still proving difficult to secure.   Naturally though this sometimes time consuming pursuit of private funds, and further income attracting, self financing initiatives, will inevitably become high priority to enable development of future public art work.

Use of public art to achieve other agendas may have to be embraced further.  This is disappointing if the arts are only seen as a useful mechanism to achieve other goals, instead of being appreciated, valued and understood as crucial to our existence, without the need for constant proof of their value. Lifting our heads above the immediate local and national barriers and looking worldwide we will discover wider opportunities and funds available outside of our immediate context, there may be other ways we can continue to develop high quality work, in partnership, locally and internationally, which will not have the need to be justified via non cultural agendas.

[i] Specialist Public Art staff employed in Counties Fingal, Dublin, Sligo, Donegal, Galway, Cavan and Mayo April 2013.






Gaynor Seville manages the Per Cent for Art public art programme and County Art Collection in Co Mayo.  She devised and managed the recent ‘Landmark’ public art programme,