With more than 200 public art projects rolled out in the Johannesburg CBD alone, at a collective price tag of over 20 million rands, there was massive investment in public art in Johannesburg in the 1990s and 2000s. This is according to a report by C. Wanjiku Kihato and A. Spitz compiled in 2011 about the behavioural impact of public art on communities, using Johannesburg-based projects as case studies. In this report, Kihato and Spits state that Johannesburg public art programmes were often linked to development and urban regeneration plans. Underlying this development approach, they argue, was the notion that creativity is a key driver for “creating and shaping public space, attracting investment, and development to areas in decline.” With this eye set on the future, these programmes were driven by government, private sector, and arts organisations.
There have been debates around the impact of these types of interventions, their ethics, their methodologies, their true purpose, and their value to communities. These debates are a sign of a critical arts and design community. As Kihato and Spitz note in their report, however, definitively measuring the impact on society of public artwork is impossible. Many dimensions beyond art impact human and community wellbeing. Critical in the success of public art programmes, they continue, is undertaking a process of community involvement. The work should be intricately linked to site-specificity. Engaging artists in these projects is important because artsists have the ability to respond to a range of issues, often in playful and innovative ways. Work in public infrastructure artwork projects, however, straddles both art and design. As important as arts processes are in questioning and expression, design processes are important when the intervention or collaboration is aimed at providing solutions.
My contributions have responded to the sense of the place of the surrounding areas: the combination of people, processes, and things that produce an area. Within the 2000s I contributed to this industry with site-specific artworks for public infrastructure projects. Future approaches could include projects in which a deeper connection to a community is fostered, and where the work functions as an invitation to civic engagement. My long term involvement with The MoVE Project, a collection of arts-based research projects, has been a testing ground for some of these ideas around community participation.