Local Arts Officers: Andrew Skelton
Continuing the series of interviews with local Arts Officers, Kate Brundrett speaks to Andrew Skelton, Public Art Officer for Sheffield City Council.
Andrew Skelton is the Public Art Officer for Sheffield City Council. He works within Planning and Regeneration and with a team of urban designers and landscape architects in Urban Design and Conservation. In addition, the Public Art Officer post was part funded by Arts Council England to work with Housing Market Renewal and housing regeneration - an ongoing project called Creative Places. Sheffield's arts team sit separately within the Culture department.
So what sort of contact do you have with the arts officers in Culture?
We do have contact with some city-wide projects if something is a cultural rather than regeneration project, for example. However, most of my work is to do with practical, physical projects - it is not all object-based, but it is to do with regeneration and physical places where there is money being spent already.
Tell me a little about the projects you're working on - you say they're not all physical projects?
We use artists quite a lot in the cultural aspect of master plans. This might be a physical planning document but we're also interested in the histories and aspirations of local people. We use artists to drill down into and draw conclusions from local people. At the moment we are involved in a widespread consultation using a theatre company, but we do railings and that sort of thing as well.
What sort of artists do you work with?
Creativity is the key. Otherwise you wouldn't use an artist. There's got to be a good reason for using an artist and we may have to justify an artist against another consultant (architect, landscape architect, market researcher) - the justification is that artists are creative and can bring something unique to a project.
With the different types of projects there are different skills. In terms of the physical projects we are often looking for the ability to deliver actual physical work - that said we are not unwilling to use artist who do not have long track records and we are able to offer support through our landscape architects, engineers etc.
With the community engagement work it is much more difficult to find artists with the right skills. They might be very good at talking to people but might not understand the planning process - I don't mean in detail - but in translating the vision into what it might actually look like. The skill is not only talk to people but to help them create a real, tangible and meaningful vision.
How do you get round this?
Yorkshire Art Space is creating new studio spaces and extending their studio programme. As part of one of these developments they will establish a engaged practice specialism, and we're working in partnership to develop this.
So do you look for artists with community engagement as a priority or artists with a solid portfolio that could work with communities - which way round?
It could be seen as two poles - the community engagement projects, where artists work with the community and develops a vision, and then there is delivery of physical work. In the city centre, there doesn't need to be much engagement, but when you get to where people live you need to be both good at engagement and good at making things. Those joint skills are perhaps often missing. Perhaps to get round it, you employ two artists, an artist to make a railing and a dance company to make some dance work around it. I always encourage artist teams rather than individuals to apply for projects.
We want a lot and we can be demanding clients - we don't always get it but often our expectations are exceeded.
At which point does an artist come into a project?
Normally much later than one would want. Whatever you say about the fact that artists should be in at the beginning, the reality is that big development projects start without clear budgets and need to commit designs to paper in order to get funding and projects moving. At that stage developers are very reluctant to take on an artist as another consultant. I came into this job thinking we're going to get artists in right at the beginning - and now I just don't see it happening particularly in the current climate
Is that because of the planning process?
No, I don't think so; it's the process of projects, and the number of consultants that projects can afford. You have to make early decisions in order to get a project started - to get political or funding support - these decisions are the ones that artists should be involved in.
So what sort of people would be making those decisions? Where does the funding come from?
With private projects, developers are very reluctant to take on anybody else until they have got planning permission. With council led projects, which might be funded by a regional development agency, we would have public art as part of the work. The funding is not specifically art related, we try to incorporate art into it. If we are selling the land for housing developments for example, we have much more control, so we might try to dictate how the art would work, or take an amount of money and deliver the art ourselves.
How much of the funding comes from the arts?
There is virtually no arts funding (other than the part funding of my post which has now finished and a few thousand pounds from Arts Council for projects). All my work is about building stuff, about other people building things and artists being part of that process.
What are the key issues that artists are facing at the moment?
There's going to be a scarcity of work, I think that's already obvious. But I also think that recession and economic stringency requires people to try different solutions and there is opportunity in that.
The voices that say 'art is a waste of money' will be louder. It is very difficult to defend 'art' against peoples' incomes dropping and genuine difficulty. The issues artists will face will be to forge new roles within the new landscape that we are all going to be in. I'm not quite sure what those new roles are - but perhaps that is the exciting part.
How does working with artists relate to your policy?
We see art as having an important role in creating local distinctiveness. In planning terms that's where we site it. Local distinctiveness is physical and it's cultural - and artists are great at it.
Artists can be a way of delivering a lot of impact and projects that are meaningful to local people. We have had some success in delivering public realm improvements through artists rather than putting new bits of new pavement down - but this sort of thing gets more and more difficult to justify the tighter things get.
How do you find artists?
Most commissions we advertise broadly, although sometimes if it's very specific, or with worse than usual timeframes we'll put together a shortlist. We're often quite open about who we are after - artists, architects, landscape architects. We are genuinely open - we have taken on artists that haven't done major projects before. We look for artists that can really help us with the aim of the project not simply at a track record.
Does peer recommendation play a part?
Yes I'll definitely go on recommendations, and research artists if I see something I like, but actually it is quite time consuming. One key thing for artists is to have a good website that says what they do really quickly. I will email artists I think would be appropriate for a commission but as above we do try to advertise widely and although that has its own difficulties, it is fairer and more open.
How have you responded to recession and funding cuts? Has it affected the way you work?
The truth is that we don't know - cuts are clearly coming. I think we will continue to say that creative solutions offer very good value and can achieve objectives. I think there is a need for people to reconsider the real objectives of a broad range of projects and in doing so, I believe, they will see the value of the role of artists and creative solutions.
Do you have any advice for artists?
When we ask for submissions - I'd say do what it says in the brief. Sometimes we might have 70 applications to go through, and we need to see what's important really quickly. Artists need to think who is looking at it, how much time have they got looking at it and what do they want to get over. Present the information really well.
Often the people that are looking at applications and interviewing artists are not arts people but are community representatives, developers and hard-nosed managers of building projects. Think about what they want, not just what you want as an artist. Think about who you're pitching to and use the right language.
Links and resources:
Sheffield City Council Read On »
Yorkshire Arts Space Read On »
Creative Places Read On »
Journeys to Hidden Places Project Read On »
Kate Gilman Brundrett
Kate is an artist, business adviser and consultant to the creative industries sector.
First published: a-n.co.uk February 2011
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