— Cultural Sources of Newness

Including the public in (de-)commissioning art

My first Sunday in Konstanz as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz started with the discovery of a “controversial new idea” presented by public artist from the UK, Andrew Shoben, on a BBC Radio 4 program “Change of Art”. Schoben is concerned that art works created in the past decades appear to have little or no meaning to the public in whose midst they are placed. He is looking into “decommissioning” art that was created in response to a commission by a government body (e.g., local authority) by rotating or retiring the art work. The BBC site led me to the blog of a PhD student in the UK who is conducting interesting research on public art.

Lenk's Imperia with pope and king, Konstanz harbour


What struck me in both the BBC program and the blog is that the focus on decommissioning, while intriguing because it seeks to involve the public, misses out the opportunity to address the problem at the outset of the process, namely when the idea for an artistic project is born, by engaging the public in commissioning art that would be meaningful to it. This is the aim of one of the cultural sources of newness I am studying in the context of the European project on artistic interventions in organizations, “Creative Clash”: the “Nouveaux Commanditaires,”  a program that was initiated by the artist Francois Hers under the auspices of the Fondation de France in 1991.

The French program grew out of the same kind of concern that Andrew Shoben expressed in his BBC program, namely that the public was not connecting with the public art that the state had commissioned inFrance in preceding decades. The “Nouveaux Commanditaires” program offers a process for citizens to express a need for a work of art with which an artist can engage. The artist is found by an intermediary from the world of the arts (“médiateur”) designated by the Fondation de France. The intermediary also helps the citizen-commissioners (“New Patrons”) and the artist in the process of clarifying the commission, finding the funding, and many other practicalities for implementing the project.

The Nouveaux Commanditaires model has recently expanded into several other European countries (e.g.,Belgium,Italy,Germany, and Spain) under the heading of the New Patrons. So a cultural source of newness in France is being exported to become a cultural source of newness in other cultural settings, a cross-border multistakeholder learning process that I am embarking on studying as well.

Spice was added to my consideration of the (de-)commissioning and reception of public art during a walking tour of Konstanz this afternoon. As we stood in the freezing April rain at the harbour, the guide explained that the artist Peter Lenk had received a commission for a statue from the Bodensee Schiffsbetrieben (a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bahn at the time), which owned the tower on the port, and the Konstanz tourist office.

The artist was controversial and the city fathers were worried about what he would come up with. The huge (9 meter tall) revolving statue was delivered in the dead of night by boat in April 1993, and thousands thronged to see the unveiling.

The city fathers were not amused, nor was the Catholic church, when they discovered that instead of representing the Konstanz lion, the artist had chosen “Imperia,” inspired by the beautiful and powerful courtesan, heroine of the story by the French author Honoré de Balzac.  It was set in the 1414-1418 Council of Constance, at which the Three-Popes controversy was resolved.  Lenk’s Imperia holds in her hands two naked old men: king and pope.

The Konstanz city council wanted to force the commissioning organizations to  remove the statue immediately, also under pressure from the Catholic bishop. But the city fathers were persuaded to let it stand temporarily for a few months and see how people would respond. The local paper (Südkurier)  conducted a survey that showed almost 75% positive  response rate from the public; a survey by the tourist office found 95% positive responses.

The commissioners of the statue and the public prevailed over the city council and the bishop: Peter Lenk’s Imperia statue quickly became a symbol of the city and it remains an ongoing source of conversation about history–and the foibles of the powers that be today as well.

The story is not over because the controversy was reignited in 2010 when the artist created a smaller version of the seated pope sculpture for the new tourist office at the main train station of Konstanz. A local paper added fuel to the fire by claiming that the sculpture represented the current pope, who hales from Germany. This time no surveys were conducted among the public and the city council prevailed (possibly under pressure from policy makers in the state capital of Stuttgart and the Catholic church). After a few months the artist had to remove his work. Decommissioned.