ULI UK Urban Art Forum: ‘Does Urban Art Pay Back?’

It’s a question that plays on the minds of developers and governments alike; does the often-substantial cost of promoting art and culture, from sculptures to ponds to pop-up operas, have a material and quantifiable benefit? The ULI gathered in a most appropriate location – Argent’s offices behind Granary Square in Kings Cross – to solve this riddle, for the recently launched Urban Art Forum’s second event on 26 March 2108.

The panel comprised of four leading professionals across the public and private sectors, each of whom have a differing daily involvement with public art, and whose experiences have shaped the way that they understand and grade the value that it creates.

Kirsten Dunne, Senior Cultural Strategy Officer at the GLA, kicked things off with a fascinating presentation on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which has been described as the ‘smallest sculpture park in the world’, and which has, in Kirsten’s words, allowed the public to experience an “historical space through the lens of contemporary culture.” The Plinth’s constantly changing content allows for an array of artistic expression to be witnessed by thousands of tourists each day, creating both tangible (local spending) and unseen value for London, driving forward its position as a place for producers and consumers of culture.

One of our hosts, Anna Strongman, Partner at Argent, then took the microphone to explain how fundamental cultural events and art installations have been to the success of Kings Cross. From the popular Swimming Pond, which almost surreally planted a traditionally rural pastime within an unequivocally urban environment, to the dance phenomenon Electric Hotel, each form of urban art that Argent have promoted over the course of Kings Cross’ evolution has helped to solidify it as a place for Londoners to consume and to enjoy. Whilst the true contribution that urban art has made to Kings Cross’ success may never be quantifiable, it has undeniably paid dividends for Argent.

Next up was Fabienne Nicholas, Head of Art Consultancy at the Contemporary Art Fund, who spoke about the different metrics that can be used to define value. Impacts of urban art which might be deemed as representing intangible value, such as community cohesion, training and employment (installation, maintenance etc.), and the animation of the public realm, are contrasted against more tangible impacts which may provide a commercial value, such as increased tourism and PR/Marketing benefits. These two forms of value should be considered alongside each other, with the creation of well-used and well-loved social spaces leading to value creation that reaches far beyond the balance sheet.

Lastly, a friend from across the pond, Shawn McLearen of Placeful, a non-profit organisation which focuses on promoting investment in public spaces and fostering partnerships between government, developers and communities in order to create sustainable developments for the long-term benefit of those that live and work within them. Shawn has developed a method for developers to quantify the value that a well-defined and professionally researched art programme can bring, with early community engagement ultimately leading to lower construction and finance costs, and to a substantially healthier bottom line. By engaging early with the community, taking recommendations on ambitions around arts and culture, and designing to meet this brief (rather than speculating), much of the commercial uncertainty around future leasing and operating efficiencies in these spaces can be removed. This method of forecasting lends confidence to investors, lenders, and contractors alike, allowing much of the ‘fat’ to be removed from the budget, mitigating development risk and leading to a more profitable project.

The evening came to an end with an open discussion about how value should be considered, with a general consensus developing around the need to avoid obsession with the creation of commercial value through urban art. For developers and governments alike, a happy, healthy and engaged community is equally as important as a healthy local economy, and, more often that not, the former is a prerequisite for the latter.

Words by Will Polisano, Lipton Rogers

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