Public art is any form of art that is located in a public space outside galleries or museums. It is usually outdoors, but can also be in public areas within buildings and institutions like universities and hospitals. It can be part of structures such as bridges and tunnels.
The main forms of public art are sculptures and murals. Street art inspired by graffiti and popular culture is a new and distinctive form of public art. Unlike more traditional public art, street art is sometimes not sanctioned by local authorities and property owners.
Much public art, particularly sculpture, is intended for permanent display, but temporary and intentionally impermanent works have become legitimate forms of public art.
After the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, public art formed part of the rebuilding process. The Christchurch Art Gallery closed for repairs but exhibited art in public places like windows, walls and billboards.
Public art is intended to:
Public art can be controversial, with the same works both liked and disliked. Because they are sometimes funded with public money, and are located in public places over which people have a sense of common ownership, the works are subjected to particular scrutiny.
While art had been commissioned for public places in previous decades, public art was only put on an organised footing in the early 1980s. Under the percent for art scheme, devised in the United States in the late 1970s, a proportion of property development costs was set aside for public art. A variant called the Arts Bonus scheme was adopted in New Zealand the following decade. Developers were allowed to add extra storeys to a building if they included public art in it.
Public art received another boost in the late 1990s and early 2000s when urban designers began to realise the value of art in urban settings. American urban theorist Richard Florida, an expert on urban renewal and the economic value of creative industries, argued that public art was one way of attracting creative people to cities. He visited New Zealand in 2003, and his theories were influential.
In 2011 Seung Yul Oh’s ‘Globgob’, a series of egg-shaped sculptures in Auckland’s Teed and Osborne streets, was unintentionally vandalised by the Newmarket Business Association. Large screw tops were fixed to the sculptures to make them look like light bulbs as part of a marketing campaign for a branch of Lighting Plus, even though neither the artist nor the Newmarket Arts Trust, which commissioned the work, had given their permission. The screw tops were removed after a few days.
Public art is sometimes selected and managed by charitable trusts. Where trusts exist they work closely with local authorities. Some have had more success than others.
The first public art trust in New Zealand was the Wellington Sculpture Trust, founded in 1983. The trust became the most successful public art organisation in New Zealand, and provided advice and guidance to other trusts. It was able to forge a good working relationship with Wellington City Council and secure generous private donors. Both these factors assured its success.
Other public art organisations include the SCAPE Public Art Trust of Christchurch (founded in 1999), the Otago Sculpture Trust (2002) and the Art in Public Places Trust in New Plymouth (2009). SCAPE runs international public art biennials, during which one permanent work and many temporary pieces are installed throughout Christchurch.
Most local councils have public art policies which guide the process for funding and choosing art, and its placement and maintenance.
The earliest forms of public art in New Zealand were pou (poles made from trees) and other Māori carvings. After Pākehā settlement these were followed by statues of 19th-century colonial leaders, town founders and other notable individuals. The first was the statue of Canterbury founder John Robert Godley, unveiled in 1867. Statues and monuments were also erected in public places in the 19th and 20th centuries to commemorate wars.
Objects like town clocks and fountains can be considered early forms of public art. Elaborate gates to public parks and sculptural decorations on buildings enabled people to see and appreciate art without stepping into galleries and museums.
Contemporary, non-commemorative sculpture began appearing in public places like civic squares, shopping centres and commercial buildings in the 1950s. Locating modern sculpture in these places made it part of everyday life.
Unsurprisingly, Russell Clark was a firm advocate of public sculpture. He said: ‘I believe it is important that the public should become used to outdoor sculpture and to accept it as they would any other seriously-conceived decorative work. There is certainly room in the country for greater use of both architectural and commemorative sculpture.’1
Sculptor Russell Clark gained a number of public commissions from the 1950s. His work exposed the New Zealand public to modern forms of sculpture and his public commissions revived and modernised civic statuary.
Clark’s public sculptures include the Timaru Post Office sculpture (1957), ‘Anchor stones’ (1958–59), in front of the Bledisloe Building in central Auckland, and ‘Family group’ (1960), originally in the Hay’s Shopping Centre in Christchurch and now held by the University of Canterbury.
Other sculptors whose work appeared in public places after Clark’s pioneering pieces included Molly Macalister (‘Maori warrior’, Auckland, 1964–66, and ‘Little bull’, Hamilton, 1967); Jim Allen (‘Conversation piece’, Pakuranga, 1967); Greer Twiss (‘Karangahape rocks’, Auckland, 1967–69); and Marté Szirmay (‘Smirnoff sculpture’, Auckland, 1969).
More institutions and corporations commissioned sculptures for public display in the 1970s. Don Driver, Marté Szirmay, Tom Taylor and Greer Twiss created works for the Auckland Medical School building in 1975 and 1976. Guy Ngan made wall sculptures for public buildings, including the Reserve Bank in Wellington and the Newton Post Office in Auckland.
Public sculpture flourished during the corporate boom of the 1980s, as large companies adorned their buildings and forecourts with art. Council-administered arts bonus schemes provided for new sculptures as part of building developments until the Resource Management Act 1991 prohibited the height rule exemptions offered to developers who funded public sculptures.
The foundation of the Wellington Sculpture Trust in 1983 gave a considerable boost to public sculpture. By 2014 the trust had commissioned 26 sculptures in Wellington, which were gifted to the council on completion.
There is one example of world-renowned English sculptor Henry Moore’s work in New Zealand. Bronze form was bought as a joint venture between the Wellington City Council, the Wellington Sculpture Trust and Fletcher Challenge, and installed in Midland Park in 1986. It was moved to the Salamanca Lawn of the Wellington Botanic Garden in 1995.
Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin developed significant collections of public sculptures, as did smaller cities such as Hastings and New Plymouth. Rotorua was distinguished by its collection of Māori public art. By the 2000s public sculptures had become an integral part of urban environments.
Temporary sculptures are a feature of 21st-century public art. They were anticipated by the outdoor performance art and installations of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Barry Thomas’s high-profile ‘Vacant lot of cabbages’ (Wellington, 1978), on the site of two demolished buildings.
In 1987 Marté Szirmay’s stainless steel and water sculpture was installed in the Chase Plaza building in Auckland. It was a major feature of the building but was dismantled after the Chase Corporation collapsed, and only survives in photos.
Temporary works are a key part of Christchurch’s SCAPE public art biennial events. Since 2008 the Wellington Sculpture Trust has mounted the biennial ‘Four plinths’ project outside the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Temporary works are a feature of arts and fringe festivals.
Public sculptures are typically commissioned from prominent artists with high standing in the fine arts community. Some sculptors are well known for their public work, including Neil Dawson, Paul Dibble, Regan Gentry, Christine Hellyar, Virginia King, Cathryn Monro, Phil Price and Jeff Thomson. Contemporary sculptors often experiment with new technology and materials beyond the traditional bronze and stone.
Murals are paintings and other media on walls, or panels intended for a particular wall. Their almost ubiquitous presence on buildings and walls in towns and cities is a late-20th-century phenomenon, and most are far removed from the world of fine art. The longevity of murals is rarely assured – few early examples survive, most having been painted over.
New Zealand did not have the equivalent of the US Federal Art Project, a depression-era artist support programme that produced many murals. In 1931 architect Roy Lippincott said there was ‘a dearth of mural paintings in New Zealand’1 and called for murals to be incorporated into new public and commercial buildings. That same year artist Lois White offered to paint interior murals in the new War Memorial Museum in Auckland free of charge, but this did not happen.
In 1942 artist and designer Eric Lee-Johnson wrote: ‘Public gaiety is not a New Zealand characteristic, but this agreeable quality could be stimulated by good Murals in our restaurants and public buildings.’2
The most prominent mid-20th-century mural artist was James Turkington of Auckland. His artistic reputation rested on his murals.
Turkington painted murals in restaurants, hotels, shops and public buildings, including Department of Science and Industrial Research buildings in Auckland, and the Petone Settlers Museum during the 1940 centennial. None of these survive, though the museum murals were replicated from photos for sesquicentennial celebrations in 1990. One of Turkington’s few murals remaining in the 21st century survived the Wahine inter-island ferry sinking in 1968.
Murals with an overtly socialist message started to appear around the 1930s. Unions and other labour organisations commissioned interior murals for their buildings from the likes of James Turkington, John Holmwood and Dennis Knight Turner. Only Turner’s survive. Lois White’s mural ‘Controversy’, which she donated to the Auckland branch of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), was destroyed in spectacular fashion when the building housing WEA and the Elam School of Art burned down in 1949.
The artworks at the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall on the West Coast were an early precursor of the socialist murals of the 1930s. When the first hall was built in 1908 the façade was painted with socialist banners and slogans by James Begg Kent. The hall burned down in 1937 and Kent repainted its replacement. After the State Miners Union sold the hall in the 1960s, the façade was covered with concrete. This was removed in 2000 when the building was restored, and the mural was repainted a third time.
During the Second World War Judy Evans and Guy Harding painted murals for the New Zealand Communist Party’s Unity Centre hall in Wellington. These were removed when the hall was taken over by a dance studio. They were donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1975.
More government departments and corporations began to commission murals in the 1950s. Mervyn Taylor produced painted, ceramic and carved murals for libraries, halls, government and corporate buildings from 1958 until his death in 1964. Taylor, Peter McIntyre and Leonard Mitchell were commissioned to do war memorial murals in Masterton, Hastings and Lower Hutt respectively. Milan Mrkusich made tile murals for the B. J. Ball building (1958), Colonial Sugar Refinery (1960) and Foodstuffs headquarters (1964) in Auckland, and Foodstuffs Christchurch headquarters in 1971.
In the 1970s Pat Hanly was well known for his murals in public buildings. He created murals for the Auckland Medical School, Auckland airport and Christchurch town hall. John Drawbridge’s murals were displayed in the National Library and the Beehive among other places. In 1977 Ralph Hōtere made the 18-metre long mural ‘The flight of the godwit’ for Auckland airport.
In 1951 Dennis Knight Turner painted the mural ‘History of transport’ on the outside of a motorcycle shop in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. After being seen by a member of the public working on a Sunday, which was illegal at the time, he was successfully prosecuted by police. According to Turner, the complainant dobbed him in because he refused to cover up naked female figures.
Exterior public murals produced by professional artists and amateurs flourished from the 1980s. Councils and businesses commissioned murals, which were also produced as part of unemployment schemes.
Politics remained an important subject. In 1985 members of Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms painted a series of peace murals for Auckland’s Karangahape Road. More panels were painted in 1986 and 1993. These deteriorated over time and were replaced by new murals in 2006 and 2009. Murals were painted to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993, the most prominent being the painted tile memorial in Khartoum Place, Auckland.
Progressive deregulation of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s meant that country towns and cities could no longer rely on traditional industries and suffered accordingly. Public murals were one of a host of ‘booster’ activities designed to revitalise local economies. The best example of this is Katikati, which is branded the ‘mural town’ of New Zealand. Ōpōtiki became recognised for its murals by youth, which were painted between 2007 and 2009.
Street art has its origins in unsanctioned urban graffiti.
Modern graffiti is associated with the New Zealand version of hip hop culture which arose in Auckland in the 1980s. The American graffiti documentary Style wars aired on New Zealand television in 1984 and inspired young people to take up spray cans. Early hip hop graffiti was mainly found in Auckland and Wellington.
Alongside the tag, a simple and stylised rendering of a name or pseudonym, artists created large and colourful graffiti, often based on oversized lettering. Skilled practitioners produced pieces (large murals) on trains, railway corridors, buildings, walls, bridges and subways under cover of darkness.
Street artists mainly use spray paint to create their works. Spray paint dries instantly and the cans are portable and mess-free. The fumes are toxic though – they may have caused artist Askew One to come down with Call-Fleming syndrome, a rare disease which causes instant serious headaches and temporary stroke-like symptoms.
For early practitioners, the unsanctioned nature of street art gave it credibility at a street level. Permission from building owners was never sought and dark lanes and bridge underbellies were seen as fair game. Authorities and building owners made little distinction between basic tags, which were not intended to have any artistic value, and detailed pieces. Anyone caught in the act risked arrest.
Street artists slowly gained credibility in mainstream society. In 1999 the Dowse Art Museum mounted an exhibition of street art called Style Crimes, followed by Common Ground in 2009. Exhibitions signalled street art’s growing acceptance as a legitimate art form. The artistic quality of the best work was recognised and practitioners were able to make a career out of street art. Some were commissioned by local councils and businesses to create pieces. Organisations for troubled youth ran legal graffiti sessions.
Events devoted to street art were another sign of the genre’s emergence from the underground. An early event was Disrupt the System, organised in Aotea Square, Auckland, in 2000. More recent events include Nelson’s Oi You! (first held in 2010), Taupō’s Graffiato (2011), Auckland’s All Fresco (2013), Christchurch’s From the Ground Up (2013) and Kawerau’s Street Legal (2014).
Askew One (Elliot O’Donnell) is the most prominent street artist in New Zealand and is well known in street art circles overseas. He started out tagging as a teenager in the 1990s and graduated to pieces, and eventually to works on canvas.
Some street artists use pseudonyms – a legacy of street art’s hip hop roots. Some remain truly anonymous, while others are happy to have their real names known. Pseudonyms of New Zealand artists include Component, Eeks, Ghstie and Yelz.
Some street artists work together in collectives. Smooth Inc were at work in Auckland in the 1980s. They were followed by TMD (The Most Dedicated) in the mid-1990s. Cut Collective was founded in 2006. Its members have been commissioned to make public murals, and have exhibited at the Dowse Art Museum, Auckland Art Gallery and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Street art is male-dominated, but some women have gained recognition for their work, including Diva, Misery (Tanja Thompson), Flox (Hayley King), Erin Forsyth, Xoe Hall and Mica Still.
While hip hop culture remained an important aesthetic influence, street art diversified over time. Other important influences from popular culture include skateboarding, cartoons and comics. Some street artists incorporate political messages in their work.
Stencils, posters and stickers joined tags and pieces. In the 21st century new forms such as yarn-bombing (also known as guerrilla knitting), where items such as power poles or seats are decorated with wool or knitted fabric, emerged.
Beatson, Peter, and Dianne Beatson. ‘Murals and organised labour.’ In Art and organised labour: images of working life and trade union life in New Zealand, edited by Gregory Burke and Ann Calhoun, 31–38. Wellington: Wellington City Art Gallery, 1990.
Dregs: a New Zealand street art documentary. Auckland: Beatnik Publishing, 2012.
Dunn, Michael. New Zealand sculpture: a history. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002.
Harper, Jenny, and Aaron Lister, eds. Wellington: a city for sculpture. Wellington: Victoria University Press in association with Wellington Sculpture Trust, 2007.
O’Donnell, Elliot, ed. InForm: New Zealand graffiti artists describe their work. Auckland: Reed, 2007.