Review of Public Art Workshop

Student Ellen Brown, who is involved with the Public Art Project, reflects on the success of the Public Art Workshop that took place last month.


On Thursday 27 March 2016, we gathered in the Worsley Building at the University of Leeds for our second Public Art Workshop and were pleased to welcome colleagues from De Montfort, Loughborough, Warwick and York Universities, as well as Leeds City Council, sculptors and staff and students to a lively afternoon of discussion.  It was a great opportunity for us to all meet up again after the successful summer symposium last June.

The event kicked off with a beautiful reading by Linda France of her new poem ‘Man-Made Fibres’.  Professor Ann Sumner then reviewed the first year of the Public Art Project at the University of Leeds, outlining the Place-making theme of 2015 with the unveiling of the Simon Fujiwara sculpture and the launch of the new Public Art Trail. Ann went on to explain how the theme for campus in 2016 is Textiles, celebrating the rich history of the subject on campus and beyond. She has been the lead on a ‘Grants for the Arts’ Arts Council application which has just been submitted and had two spearheads, innovative commissioning and audience development through wide community engagement.  A key aim is to boost the involvement of early career artists, in addition to working with established artists, commissioning innovative temporary interventions in knit and weave traditions across campus and beyond.  A series of workshops with the themes ‘Knit & Lit’, ‘The Poet as Weaver’ and ‘History Threads’ will reflect new research at the University and engage with campus audiences and beyond in the towns and villages of the region with textile histories linking in with the Festival of Wool at Armley and the Trouser Town festival at Hebden Bridge.  The workshops will create hand knitted community canopies which will be installed across campus over the summer, transforming campus spaces and attracting visitors.

We then heard an excellent presentation from Dr Sarah Shalgosky of the University of Warwick about the approach to public art and spaces at Warwick from the very beginning of the University’s formation in the 1960s up until the present day. She explained how the modernist architecture of Warwick was complemented by the acquisition of many artworks around the campus, none of which were labelled. She considered that the buildings at Warwick, ‘symbols of an egalitarian society’, were not initially much loved by staff and students; since then, the University has adopted a more informal, domestic atmosphere. Sarah argued that this has been achieved through the purchase of what is now 900 pieces of public art objects, which have been used to widen participation and create a pleasant environment. The informal approach to art at the University of Warwick was highlighted by a story Sarah told, where an anonymous student relabelled interpretative panels on campus art, in turn provoking questions such as – why is the artwork here? Sarah emphasised the importance of art on campus as a means of triggering free discussion. She concluded her talk by arguing that the campus should be seen as an open text. This stimulates the discussion of important ideas, which manifest themselves through public art on campus.

After a short question and answer session, chaired by Dr Martin Zebracki of the Department of Geography, who has recently edited the recently published Everyday Practice of Public Art: Art Space and Social Inclusion (Routledge 2016), we heard a reading of the poem ‘A Spire’ by Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow, Helen Mort. Helen was inspired by our new Fujiwara sculpture outside the Laidlaw Library. Participants were then given four aspects to discuss for the Mapping the Campus consultation: navigation; identifying the sculptures; knowledge transfer; and engaging our audiences. The responses showed that whilst the public art map has been well received, the campus itself is still difficult to navigate. However, on a more positive note, the map and the interpretative panels have helped with identifying sculptures. The Public Art Project’s engagement with poetry proved popular, and participants were eager to see a wider range of disciplines getting involved with art on campus in future. There were several suggestions for a variety of trails that could be developed, including one focused on fitness and wellbeing, and another using campus art as a means of creative storytelling. In terms of engaging our audiences, it was highlighted that more can be done to encourage staff and students, on their lunch breaks, to get involved with art on campus. Liaising with the City Council had resulted in the British Art Show 8 map including campus sculpture, producing a coherent Leeds offer for visitors.

A panel discussion, reflecting on the points raised during the workshop, concluded our afternoon. It was agreed that more needs to be done to overcome the potentiality of ‘barriers’ stopping visitors from coming onto university campus environments. The different approaches would be further explored in a new Specialist Subject Network. Dr Stella Butler, the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, closed the workshop by offering her thanks to everyone who attended, and emphasised once again the rich potential for public art on campus at the University of Leeds.