I sat down with Kenn Taylor, for a chat about participation, context and public art.
Kenn Taylor is Head of Participation at The Tetley, and is leading on their part in the Dewsbury Road project. The Tetley have been asked to commission two new gateway sculptures for Dewsbury Road in Leeds. Among the group that choose the artist were local authorities, local businesses, traders and residents. They chose Chris Jarman, a Sheffield based artist, who’s work is concerned with imagination, colour and play.
Kenn and The Tetley have been involved in various public art commissions over the course of their existence. In the Dewsbury Road project, the Tetley have been keen to work with an artist that delivers a certain amount of participation and public engagement around the project, something that was also a desire of the stakeholders. I wondered, does this make a piece of public art more valuable? Does it make a piece of art more likely to be accepted by the public?
“It’s worth pointing out that I don’t necessarily say that a participatory based public art project is inherently superior. You have to be weary not to say that stuff that involves people is morally superior or aesthetically superior. Even if you engage hundreds of people at different ages, you’re still not engaging everyone. If you try to please everyone, I think, you often end up with stuff that isn’t great. It is a process.
If you start from the perspective of trying to involve people, you at least get that sense of connection from those who engage. But you hopefully get a snapshot of what an area is like at a time. And it will only ever be a snapshot. But it’s more than not doing that. But you never know, people have dropped work into a place and it’s been very popular.
We went down a particular process with Dewsbury road, which was developed in response to our commissioners desires. You have to be responsive, when you are a delivery organisation like ourselves.
I believe in a robust process. You’re not going to please everyone, you will always have someone who feels that they weren’t involved, or that it’s not what they like. It is, by it’s nature, subjective. But if you can, involve enough people who feel they have a stake in it. I feel that they can then take ownership of it.
Some people who talk about participatory work, do regard it as this utopian spectrum, that if you involve people, It’s going to be amazing, and everyone will love it, and it’s inherently better. I don’t really subscribe to that, even though I like participation. “
I’m aware, from being present in the public engagement sessions, and what I’ve witnessed is that it seems much more difficult to commission a piece of work for a neighbourhood or district, than for a city centre. I asked Kenn about this;
“Public art exists within a particular context, it lacks the wider context of a gallery. It has to stand on it’s own two feet, regardless of how that manifests itself. How you do that depends on the context. If you’re putting something on a promenade, or on a business park, which is an area used by people. It’s sometimes easier to just commission someone to do something. It’s a different context when you are working in a residential area, an area where people lived and have lived for generations with layers and layers of history, and community and culture. That doesn’t mean to say you have to be a slave to the context, but I think ignoring the context and just plonking something down there is not necessarily the best way to go about it. Putting a sculpture on a former factory site is very different to putting it in a public park.
In town, you can get away with things, because of the interaction with people. Even if someone’s like ‘What’s that?’ they say ‘It’s town’ People do feel a sense of ownership over their cities, they get annoyed when things go wrong. But it is more powerful in a district. And especially districts that have layers of culture and history. You can work with local artists, but I don’t think that’s always the best way. An artist coming in can, if done in the right way, can be really interesting for areas, and communities and even local artists to engage with.
I asked Kenn about his role in the process, and if he felt the weight of pleasing a whole community by providing a piece of public art which everyone loves…
“I definitely feel the weight. I don’t feel the weight of pleasing everyone, because you can’t please everyone. You feel the weight of wanting to do a good job, this involves public money. I’m a firm advocate for the belief that public investment in the arts benefits a lot of people. I’m also an advocate that art can have a positive impact in a community. It’s not the single most important thing to human life.
Your always following agendas, if you get [funding] from a rich philanthropist or a local government, it still has agendas attached to it. As long as your working in a open and clear commissioning process, as long as you’re open about that I don’t think there’s a problem.”
Considering the amount of process planning that feeds into the commissioning of these sculptures and public realm projects, I think this open approach is really significant. When I hear people gripe and moan about certain pieces of art that they love or loathe, I wonder if they might feel differently having known about the conversations behind the choices which led to this finished product. Without feeling that we have to sanitise and make transparent every process in local government, perhaps a little more education would help people love their local art more. Although I always think it’s better to feel strongly, whether negatively or positively, about a piece of art, than to feel nothing.
Kenn also spoke to me about his interest in the art of Jacob Epstein. He talks about his sculpture ‘The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent’ in this blog post about Lewis’ department store.