Founded in 1999, Modus Operandi, an independent arts unit with a track record of curating and producing high-quality art in the public realm, recently celebrated its 21st birthday. To mark this milestone, the company selected 21 projects at random, spanning the years since Vivien Lovell soft-launched the company.
Vivien is a visual arts curator with established expertise in commissioning permanent and temporary art within the public realm
Prior to founding Modus Operandi, she had been Founder-Director of Public Art Commissions Agency (PACA) from 1987 to 1999. She has championed the field of art in the public realm since 1978, integrating art strategically as a key element of environmental, architectural and regenerative schemes, and has initiated many collaborative projects between artists, architects and other design professionals.
She was commissioned by The Arts Council in 2007 to write ‘Percent for Art: A Review’ and is currently leading a public art handbook for the Greater London Authority. She also lectures and participates in international conferences; her areas of research include artist-designed public spaces, new responses to ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’, and artists’ interdisciplinary collaborations. Other publications include ‘Public: Art: Space’ (Merrell Holberton 1998); ‘Phoenix: Architecture, Art, Regeneration’ (Black Dog, 2004) and Commissioning Guidelines in ‘Open Space’ (Arts Council & Central London Partnership, 2007) and Consultant Editor for Commissioning Contemporary Art (Buck and McClean).
Talking with Vivien provided an opportunity to explore the state of public art currently, but we began by briefly reviewing changes within the field.
JE: You founded Modus Operandi in 1999, how has the commissioning of public art changed since that point?
VL: Public art is an evolving field and artists are more interested than ever in working beyond the gallery, expanding the notion of public space beyond the physical public realm to the virtual one. There’s been a rise in artists’ initiatives, new media/digital art, temporary installations and socially engaged practice. Galleries, too, are now more committed to off-site projects, recognising the extra visibility this gives for their artists. Collaborations between artists and other creative disciplines such as architecture, landscape design, poetry and dance are now more widely accepted in principle – even though such collaborations took place before.
Yet, there continues to be a vital strand in public art when commissioners wish to fund a site-specific artwork integrated into a new building or public space. This type of commission has a long historical tradition and is a valuable source of income for artists. It isn’t likely to disappear unless we enter an era of iconoclasm.
JE: To mark Modus Operandi’s 21st birthday, you selected 21 projects at random, spanning the years since you soft-launched the company. As you reflected on those projects, what did they reveal to you about the company and its achievements?
VL: It revealed the amazing breadth of opportunities we’ve had as curators, working with commissioners from diverse sectors, ranging from culture, health, religion and housing to development, regeneration, transport and sport. It’s clear that the emphasis has been on urban projects and that a number have been integrated into architectural and public realm schemes – often arising from capital budgets earmarked for public art.
The wide range of lateral responses by artists is self-evident in the 21 selected projects, while the full list of artworks we’ve curated is even broader. It includes film and video, soundworks, live art, memorials, and building wraps.
JE: Modus Operandi has undertaken more than 160 projects over the past 21 years throughout Britain, Europe and Japan. These have involved over 140 artists while also collaborating with architects, landscape architects, poets and creative writers, historians, choreographers, engineers, ecologists, social geographers, designers and film-makers. Most of these projects are lengthy and complex. What are the primary challenges involved in such projects?
VL: Primary challenges are there from the outset. Ensuring the brief to artists is as open as possible can be challenging, as can aligning the selected artist’s aims with those of the commissioner. Persuading commissioners to think beyond the obvious is often a challenge. Their first idea for ‘a sculpture’ in a specific location might develop, through discussion, into an artist-designed public space or even an ephemeral artwork.
Taking the risk of appointing an artist new to public art can result in a great work, whereas inviting someone to do what they have often done before may not lead to an exciting result. Intuition and a leap of faith are required when appointing an artist to work on a new scale or in different materials from what they are accustomed to use.
Brokering collaborations, particularly between artists and architects, is a skill-based on intuition and experience. It is usually successful, an exception being 20 years ago when I’d hoped to bring about a collaboration between a well-known artist and architect – two alpha males as it happens – fell apart spectacularly at the second meeting! Any challenge can usually be overcome by exercising persuasion, patience and perseverance!
JE: Of all your projects which have been the simplest and which the most complex, and why?
VL: No project is simple to organise! Curating any artwork in the public realm – even a single piece of sculpture – you must first write a brief, appoint an artist, usually through a competitive process, then manage the whole process from public engagement and consultation through to planning permission and installation.
An example of the ‘simplest’ project might be Tess Jaray’s commission for Newman Street, London, which began with our direct invitation to an established artist. A happy collaboration between artist and architect, supported by an open-minded client, followed. Jaray chose to work in terrazzo for the first time and the project extended into the building with a series of works inspired by Jaray’s earlier collaboration with the writer Max Sebald.
A complex project – and there are many to choose from the East Window of St Martin-in-the-Fields by Shirazeh Houshiary with Pip Horne. Replacing the post-WW2 window with a contemporary glass artwork within a Grade 1 listed building meant that permissions were multilayered: no less than seven steps were involved. It was unprecedented being the artist’s first work in glass and on such a scale. This called for collaborators, including the artist’s partner architect Pip Horne; the church’s architect Eric Parry; the glass studio, Mayer of Munich; the fabricators of the steel framework, Benson Sedgwick and the lighting designer Jonathan Coles. The final work has become synonymous with the church’s renewed identity and is recognised as a landmark in public art.
JE: Your clients include development and property companies, educational establishments, health and housing organisations, transport services, local authorities and regeneration companies, cultural organisations and places of worship. Are there commonalities in terms of the reasons why such organisations commission public art?
VL: None, other than a general desire for an artwork as the outcome of a process. The reasons for commissioning can range from a pure love of art to the need to fulfil planning conditions.
Between those polarities, reasons include a variety of motives such as appointing an artist as a creative catalyst in the community; continuing a tradition of arts patronage; creating distinctive, memorable buildings and environments; amplifying the site’s connection to history or current usage; celebrating or commemorating an event or person…
In the health sector, art is commissioned with an awareness of its proven benefits to patients, staff and visitors. as an essential element of a caring
JE: Why is it of use to such organisations to work with an external consultant in developing strategies and delivering arts programmes?
VL: These organisations recognise the need for a professional approach to navigating the complexities of commissioning art. An external consultant provides advice informed by expertise and experience.
Organisations with whom we’ve worked have enjoyed the conversations
about art, the process of shortlisting and selection, meeting artists at interview, sometimes visiting studios and galleries – an experience that enriches their usual day-to-day activities. A practical benefit is that as art consultants aren’t on the payroll, commissioners only pay for their time and advice when it is needed.
An analogy is that if you had to undergo an operation, you would hope to find the best surgeon available, rather than a trainee or an amateur!
JE: Many of your projects are part of larger arts programmes for the commissioning organisations meaning that you work with these organisations for a sustained period of time. Can you tell us about the relational nature of consultancy work and how that impacts the projects and the works?
VL: For a project to be sustained, there needs to be both an arts strategy and continuity in the people committed to implementing it – a commitment that lasts beyond any changes in personnel, which is why a strategy is key. Trust and mutual respect are essential in sustaining long-term links with commissioners, as is listening to diverse views and involving people in the process, so decision-making is a shared responsibility. In each case, an arts steering group or selection panel is appointed to provide the context and support for the project. Within this group, there’ll be at least one ‘project champion’ who will also be our main point of contact.
Modus Operandi does tend to develop long-standing relationships with some organisations: St John’s College Oxford, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and The Crown Estate stand out. The BBC Broadcasting House public art programme ran for over 11 years, starting with an intensive three-year period.
With St John’s College Oxford, we’ve commissioned eight artists over a period of 30 years, working with two bursars, three presidents and two architectural practices over that time. In each case, their commitment to art has been handed on to their successor.
St Martin-in-the-Fields has also been consistent in its support of visual arts as a key element of its wider cultural programme.
JE: The 21 projects include ceramic artworks, cycle shelters, etched glass, font and fountains, garden, glazed digital prints, interactive walls, light installations, mosaic, painted wall panels, pavement art, and sculptures. Is the diversity of styles and media part of the interest for you in undertaking your work? How are the particular approaches used usually determined within projects?
VL: Creating opportunities for artists to work with unprecedented scale, processes and materials has always been a really satisfying objective; I believe we’ve managed to achieve this in many projects, often by persuading commissioners to take a risk – albeit a controlled one.
Anything is possible through successful collaboration. When Michael Craig-Martin proposed a huge wall-based artwork in ceramic tiles for the new Woolwich DLR station, he’d never worked in that material before, yet through a collaboration which Modus Operandi brokered, he partnered with Mike Hornsby of Manor Architectural Ceramics to achieve a fantastic result.
With some projects, there’s a clear starting point – a requirement for the art commission to fulfil a function, such as the font and fountains by Alison Wilding for the United Reformed Church, or an artwork for a designated physical location such as a public space, a wall or window.
Longevity of materials for ‘permanent’ artworks can be an issue, of course – although definitions of ‘permanence’ today might only mean 20-30 years.
Unless there’s an obvious material, such as glass for a window (unless translucent slices of alabaster as at Orvieto Cathedral might be an option!), then we keep the choice of materials open for artists to propose the best means to achieve their concept.
In Fischli/Weiss’ ‘Rock On Top Of Another Rock’, it was a particular type of rock that had to be found – in this case, we searched for ‘erratics’ – rocks that had rolled to the British Isles from Scandinavia in the Ice Age…eventually located on a farm near Bangor in Wales. The search itself was a creative process, part of the artwork.
JE: Two of the 21 projects were for churches while What Will The Harvest Be? is on a site which contains the remains of the 12th century Cistercian Abbey of St Mary’s, Langthorne and Homage to Doctor Mirabilis is a sculpture commemorating the 13th-century philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. Is the extent to which aspects of religion feature among these projects surprising?
VL: There’s, of course, a long tradition of churches and cathedrals commissioning artworks that have a connection to their architecture and the liturgy, such as those for Chichester and Coventry cathedrals, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the United Reformed Church in Bloomsbury.
Even if they may not strictly be believers, many artists aim for eternal values in their work, an aspiration that resonates with commissioners from faith organisations. Artists often seek to ground their concept proposals in local historical places, events and personalities, such as in the two projects you mention. The site of St Mary’s, Langthorne – a Cistercian monastery – provided a contemplative setting for Somewhere’s community gardening project in Stratford, East London. In Oxford, the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, born and buried near the Westgate, inspired artist David Batchelor to celebrate Bacon’s
achievements with a thoroughly modern version of an astrolabe which traditionally charts the movement of heavenly bodies, and was one of Bacon’s inventions. So, belief – and religion – provide an undercurrent of inspiration for artists, who in turn often seek to encourage contemplation and a sense of wonder.
JE: To what extent is it possible to involve the communities linked to the commissioning organisations – whether employees or those living or working nearby – in the projects and to what extent are you aware of reactions and responses from the wider community once projects are installed?
VL: Some projects are generated by the community and their involvement is intrinsic to the whole process: our work with Liverpool Housing Action Trust, for example, where the residents helped appoint us to write a strategy and then were involved in selecting artists, following the project through etc. In the case of ‘What Will The Harvest Be?’ by Somewhere, the commission was developed with and by local residents and resulted in a community garden.
Wherever there is a community nearby – and these may be residents or people working nearby, we invite them to be represented on a steering group, as was the case at Westgate, Oxford, where the County and City Library and the local gallery Modern Art Oxford were on the selection panel. The BBC project steering group included representatives from All Souls’ Church, University of Westminster, the local community group and a local school.
Engagement with the process is one matter, as is an evaluation at the end, but gauging long-term reaction is trickier. We’ve found that occasionally there can be a ‘shock of the new’ reaction when an artwork is first installed, which quickly settles into acceptance and support. ‘Iron:Man’ by Antony Gormley, a work that I commissioned with TSB Bank in Birmingham many years ago, was made using local skills and materials; the initially negative response from the Bank’s investors was countered by the support of local people. Evidently, it continues to be a hugely popular work.
JE: How has the pandemic impacted your work? What are the main elements of project processes that it has still been possible to progress in lockdown?
VL: Some projects are unaffected, while others are running at a slower pace, and even some put ‘on ice’. Yet, it’s been a busier period than usual for giving talks, joining panels and being interviewed for research projects and publications – all of which are greatly worthwhile and an important means of keeping in touch with peer groups. We’re all grateful for Zoom and its capacity for reaching larger audiences than a live event in normal times. So, it’s been a full agenda, but the book on public art has had to wait for now.
JE: What excites you about the projects on which you are currently working? What can we look forward to seeing in future through Modus Operandi projects?
VL: A snapshot across some of our current commissions shows that we’re working with one of London’s ‘Great Estates’; an outer London local authority; a livery company; an Oxford college; a church in central London; a development company and an AI research unit. While the majority of these are still to be announced, I’m very pleased that Rachael Champion’s temporary sculpture installation ‘Temporary Retention Site for Atmospheric Particles’ currently in situ at Nightingale’s Corner, Berkeley Square, is moving to Canary Wharf in early May for a period of several months. Sited in two locations of such urban density, the artwork raises vital issues about poor air quality and encourages discussion about ecology and quality of life in cities.
Top Photo: Fischli/Weiss, Rock on Top of Another Rock, 2013-2014, Kensington Gardens. Commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery, co-curated by Modus Operandi with the Serpentine Gallery.