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Girls about town: women paving the way in public art

Gina Fairley

Historically men have dominated the public art domain, but contemporary female artists are shaking up the territory.
Girls about town: women paving the way in public art

Louise Paramor's Panorama Station (2012) at the Southern Way Peninsular Link Freeway; Image source

In 2011, Washington Post’s Cari Shane did an audit of America’s public sculptures. ‘Of the estimated 5,193 public statues depicting historic figures on display on street corners and parks throughout United States, only 394 of these monuments are of women … [and] across the hundreds and hundreds of statues in New York City, just five depict historic women,’ reported the Smithsonian on the results.


A group called Where are the women? is looking to correct this imbalance, raising funds and campaigning to have more non-fictional women of history represented in the public realm.

While such an audit has not been done in Australia, to my knowledge, it would be fair to say that we have followed the same historical trend.

As Councillor Jess Scully said as she opened a recent panel discussion at Sydney Sculpture Conference: ‘We have a real dearth of women in the public realm.’

She continued: ‘We are operating in the world of public art, local government, architects, construction. They are all pretty male dominated sectors, and traditionally the kind of monumental heroic works we have seen across cities have been created by men – the Richard Serras and the Anish Kapoors – but we think that tide is changing.’

If we are to look at recent activity in Australia, then perhaps Scully is right. Browsing the City of Sydney’s website would indicate a swing in favour of women with contemporary public art commissions – both as permanent and temporary works.

Among them are projects by artists such as Jennifer Turpin, Astra Howard, Merilyn Fairskye, Caroline Rothwell, Maria Fernanda Cardosa, Janet Cardiff in collaboration with Georges Bures Miller (Biennale legacy commission), Mikala Dwyer, Fiona Foley, Tracey Emin, Agathe Gothe Snape, Kerri Polliness, and four works by Jennifer Turpin in collaboration with Michaelie Crawford.

There are other artists such as the Brisbane-based Donna Marcus and the internationally respected Jenny Holtzer who have made keynote impressions on our cities, and the trend is not exclusive to Sydney.

One of those recent Sydney commission recipients is Claire Healy, who is working with partner Sean Corderio to deliver the public artwork Cloud Nation for the forthcoming Green Square Library in Sydney.

Healy said the reason she was drawn to public work initially was because it was an opportunity to work in a site specific way and to engage with a space around you.

Read: How public art is adapting to our changing world

Healy speaking at the conference about Cloud Nation, to be installed 2018 at Green Square Library. Photo: ArtsHub.

Cloud Nation positions a hovering plane over an open atrium reading space. Scully, who wrote the brief for Corderio and Healy’s Cloud Nation, said that it ‘is proving to be very difficult for everyone … that project for me started 2012 and won't be completed until 2018.

‘Transplanting something that was such an exciting and extraordinary vision into a physical thing that has to live in a library now for 20 years can be challenging, particularly for artists who are used to running their own show and then, all of a sudden, are working across this huge time scale and with all these people involved,’ she continued.  

Healy added that a succinct or minimal document is helpful.  

The brief brings it back to a female domain

Women are known for their capacity to negotiate well, but working in the public domain has been challenging even for the most diplomatic or accommodating.

Healy said: ‘The contract that we currently have with City of Sydney has hundreds of pages. It has been a number of years that I have been working on this project and sometimes I forget what it was that was initially agreed upon.’

She admitted that it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the bureaucracy and levels of risk assessment, which has less to do with gender than it has with regulations.

Read: Regulations are killing creativity

In another panel discussion at the conference, artist Jennifer Turpin said that collaborating for her was really helpful when it came to negotiating in meetings, to listening in different ways and bargaining for things artistically.

‘For the last 20 years I have been working with another [female] artist Michaelie Crawford, and we have learnt to ensure how to keep the vision of the artwork there up front,’ she said.

New Zealand artist Virginia King related her experience of managing negotiations. Working on her first public project in 1997, she met with the architect (who had done the drawings for her work) and the construction manager on the site.

‘This man [the construction manager] stood with his back to me, so I thought I have to resolve this straight away and I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to turn around because I designed the work. By the end of the project he was ringing me almost on a daily basis and would say, “I think you better come out; there is something you may not like”. He later told me that I had changed his life and changed the way he saw things.’

The best way to address gender inequality, or a brewing disrespect in the professional space, is to face it head on. The women who spoke across the Sydney Sculpture Conference were not alone in the challenges they faced in the public art sector - men faced them also - but they did imply that women have to slip into a certain headspace if they wanted to work in that domain, and to hold their own in what is largely a construction / engineering space when it comes to bringing their vision to the site.

Read: Why are you winking at me? Strategies for disarming sexism in the arts

Melbourne artist Louise Paramor said: ‘I hated briefs a few years back and then I learnt that they are quite useful because they can let you know if you work is appropriate or not, if they are well written.’

Paramor said she stumbled into making public sculpture. After seeing an exhibition of her “jam session” - small assemblages - curator Jane O’Neill invited Paramor to create a large collection of these into a sporting environment. The result was Show Court 3 (2007), a three-day event involving 75 sculptures.

Temporary public artwork, Show Court 3 (2007); Image source

‘After this series I noticed there was a lot more industrial plastic around and I thought I could put art out in the world that had durability to it. Soon after, I had work in a number of outdoor sculpture competitions, and then got my first commission for Costco at the Docklands. Heavy Metal Jam Session (2009) was my real entry point into public sculpture,’ she said.

Paramor’s name is now synonymous with contemporary public art with signatures works North Polar at Lorne sculpture festival, Ursa Major (2014) and Top Shelf in Melbourne, Major Ape (2013) for Melbourne Now, and Panorama Station (2012) at the Southern Way Peninsular Link Freeway (pictured top).

She added: ‘I realised the potential of my work being made from existing maquettes. I have been fortunate that these existing pieces have fitted the brief so I didn’t have to fabricate an idea to fit something.’

Working smart, working diplomatically, and working equally as contemporary artists seem to be the platform that these women are adopting in the public realm. It is an exciting space to watch. I would like to see that audit of public artworks by female artists nationally – I think it might reveal an interesting outcome, and one that possibly doesn't meet our perceptions.

If the City of Sydney is any indication, public art is on the rise as cities globally define themselves as creative leaders, and at the forefront of that discussion is a good representation of women artists.

The basis of this discussion is drawn from a panel discussion presented at the Sydney Sculpture Conference at the Sydney Opera House, an initiative of Sculpture by the Sea. Speakers included Virginia King, Claire Healy, Louise Paramor, Nicole Monks. The panel was moderated by Jess Scully.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.