public art in Canberra: yours for the taking

Amongst the shemozzle that is our public art display in Canberra’s City Walk sits one of my least favourite sculptures: the Danish sculptor Keld Moseholm’s “On the Staircase”, 2005. It was installed (“launched”) in 2009, having been bought, sadly, on a shopping spree at Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea. But look closely…

Someone has stolen the smallest figure! Does anyone care? Apparently not. The top of the staircase appears to have been mended. As if some arts bureaucrat thought, let’s just patch it and hope nobody notices. A classic case for a Moral Rights lawyer, you would think.

OK, OK, the fact that your Iconophile happens not to like something is always possible. In this case, you might reasonably expect that I would argue that it’s been improved by 25% as a consequence of this nefarious act. But no, whatever my personal taste, I am appalled that public art is subjected to such vandalism. And I’m doubly appalled that nobody seems to care! Who is responsible? This is another argument for the appointment of a Curator of Public Art…

And while I’m on the case, what on earth does the message on the plaque mean? Is it some kind of hedge to an anti-intellectual populism? Just who is being quoted when they say “the more I read the smaller I feel”? The artist? Not that I can find. Was it some famous producer of literary truisms? Alas Uncle Google brings you right back to the plaque, and the press release, so apparently someone with a PhD in Spin thought it up in the office. (A press release in bronze? That sounds like conceptual art.) All the new sculptures have such little homilies, but some of the old ones (like the Les Kossatz nearby) have no identification at all (another moral rights issue). It’s not a good look.


#1 sharon peoples on 09.10.10 at 11:23 am

If you watch the series The Hollowmen you will realise that, unlike the extended museum label, the public art label is to alert the public to which minister or prime minister we should express our (in)gratitude towards.

#2 Nigel on 09.10.10 at 11:51 am

In this case, but not always. I’ve been making a collection of plaques, and sometimes they even quote the artist!

#3 Nigel on 09.22.10 at 2:41 pm

I must apologise, I missed a plaque… See the following from Libby: Hello Nigel
The artsACT public art team really enjoyed ‘The Big Talk’ series run at the ANU School of Art and three of us were at the Art at Night session last week. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives on the topic.

Your presentation was of particular interest to us because you focused on local issues. Following on from your talk, please note that there is a plaque at Les Kossatz’s Ainslie’s Sheep! (refer attached photograph) The plaque is easy to miss because of its location at what seems like the back of the work. artsACT has been working on a more consistent approach to artist accreditation plaques. Mostly the plaques are in bronze at set dimensions and are located in highly visible locations. We have recently changed the format so they are more closely aligned to the layout used by the ANU for its sculpture collection to provide greater consistency across the city. artsACT is also in the process of organising a replacement little man for ‘On the Staircase’ in Petrie Plaza. While the artist has been fabricating the new little man, we have been organising security lighting for the work. artsACT has also been working with the artist and a local artist/fabricator to ensure that when the replacement little man is re-installed he is permanently secured.

We do rely on the community to report concerns about the existing collection such as missing plaques or vandalism. The works in the collection are geographically dispersed and we are not able to view them all as regularly as we would like. Please contact us to report damage or maintenance issues, my contact details are below or on the general artsACT number 6207 2384.

We look forward to ‘The Big Talk’ conference next year and to more debate/discussion on public art.


Libby Gordon
Program Manager, Public Art
Chief Minister’s Department

#4 Anthony Mason on 10.06.10 at 9:31 pm

G’day Nigel,
Love your work, and, mostly, I agree with your opinions on Canberra public art. But for a neophyte art critic like me, would you be able to tell me if there is public art in Canberra you adore? And why? For example, what about the NGA sculpture garden? Flugelman’s cones are a favourite of mine – I do like a warped perspective. But are they too kitschy to be good art?

#5 Nicolle on 09.15.11 at 10:34 am

The next smallest statue is now missing, too, as of a few days ago. I hope it gets replaced before I leave Canberra! As an avid reader, this sculpture really resonated with me.

#6 Reason 16. The challenge of public art « 365 reasons to "Don't worry, be happy" on 02.04.12 at 7:42 pm

[…] to install art in public places.  It has been controversial.  Some consider the program to be a “schmozzle”.  Others consider public art to be essential to the development of the city; a way of a community […]

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