Public Art and Coastal Sites in the North of England (1989-2020): Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and Hull

Howitt, Jill Alexandra (2023). Public Art and Coastal Sites in the North of England (1989-2020): Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and Hull. PhD thesis The Open University.



In this dissertation I examine public art and place: the relationships between art objects and events, the towns where they are situated, and the people involved in their production and consumption. I explore the claim that public art benefits a place and the different ways this is valued and measured. Public art has always brought prestige but faith in economic and social gains is representative of culture led regeneration strategy which flourished in Britain in the 1990s and 2000s. I also explore counterarguments and criticisms which highlight gains for investors, business, and tourism rather than local communities and artists. These issues are explored in relation to public art in the deindustrialised northern towns of Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and Hull during the timespan 1989-2000.

The question of whether culture supports or opposes neoliberal agendas is just one facet of the contradictory and paradoxical nature of public art. I examine examples which are permanent or temporary, present or absent, critical or utopian, commissioned or unsanctioned, by established artists or the local community. Many of the works studied have difficulty in being recognised as art and some celebrate the unique history and achievements of a place whilst others reveal difficult histories and cultures. Whilst I explore all aspects of this precarious category, I argue for public art that is culturally democratic, which empowers and connects audiences, provokes self reflection and which feeds back into debates about publicness and place.

My research draws on interviews, involvement with public art groups and a range of texts including Capital and City of Culture reports. I also foreground direct experience of artworks and places and investigate the visual and experiential aspects of public art. In addition, I co-created a public/socially engaged art project, 'Fountain17', during 2017 when Hull was City of Culture. Thus I was able to test out theories, and research through practice. I include different kinds of mapping to connect artworks to geographical locations, historical moments, cultural categories, and social/economic contexts and use a range of city maps, illustrations, and diagrams to chart these correspondences. In addition, the network of relationships and my key lines of enquiry can be mapped against the three overlapping sets of a Venn diagram representing people, place, and art and their intersections.

In chapter one I introduce the main contexts and concepts that support the later place-based chapters. I explore histories and contexts for public art, present theories of publicness and public involvement, investigate concepts of place and place identity, and examine the issue of benefit - the advantages and disadvantages that public art brings to a place. These four themes - history, public, place, and benefit structure and frame the subsequent chapters on public art in Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and Hull. These northern coastal/port towns have each prospered and suffered through industrial growth and deindustrialisation and to different degrees and in different ways been candidates for culture-led regeneration. There are also significant differences between the three places and their histories and public art representations of heavy industry, the slave trade, and the fishing industry.

The study of public art in particular places involves examining the social and aesthetic dimensions of the field. These twin perspectives are present throughout the dissertation; sometimes presenting as incompatible and sometimes joining forces to create exciting new directions. In culture led regeneration projects social priorities and methods often overwhelm and override aesthetic concerns. I examine the ways public art invites different forms of engagement and argue for local artist-led initiatives rather than top-down policies. I challenge the exclusion of artist perspectives and aesthetic discussion from wider cultural policy evaluations and events, and deliberately employ methods and vocabulary from the visual arts in my research and writing.

There was huge cultural, political, and environmental change during the period 1989-2020. Economic crises, Black Lives Matter, austerity, and political turbulence disrupted and impacted on approaches and attitudes to art seen in public places. 1989 and 2020 saw significant examples of violence to and removal of public art so that the research can appear circular rather than a linear trajectory from deindustrialised decline to urban renaissance. Coastal/port towns, border places, focus political anxieties and are extra vulnerable to climate crisis. In this dissertation I extend the examination of urban networks or ecosystems of artworks and cultural relationships in Middlesbrough, Liverpool and Hull to the environmental issues signposted by public artworks on North and Irish sea coastal sites close by. I argue that artwork in seaside places highlights the vulnerability of coastal habitats and communities. Public art can foster relationships between people and place and thus inspire action in the face of climate crisis.

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