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  • Kristy Cianci

The Power of a public art audit

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Public art celebrates the heritage and culture of a city, supports local artists and the local economy and contributes to a vibrant community. It might come as a surprise, but many places don't have an inventory or a clear understanding of their public art collection. And given the time and investment in public art, there needs to be a clearer picture of a Place's valuable assets.

ARTSCAPE specialises in public art audits and has recently completed a public art audit for the City of Greater Bendigo. The audit process brought to light many opportunities and supported the Policy and plan currently being prepared for the LGA. The Policy and Plan consider how an existing public art collection can be cared for and valued in the future.

Audit processes have grown more manageable over the years. Global Information Systems (GIS) have become more mobile and can record and present data for long-term planning. Our most recent audit was undertaken in ArcGIS's 123Survey program, which allowed the team to record each artwork while on site, and we could define and control the categories with ease. The final data was then analysed and assessed in front of the computer and used to recognise patterns, locations, typologies, artists, the artist's creative practices, and existing maintenance requirements.

An audit has two considerations from the outset. Firstly, how information can be gathered on-site and secondly, how that information is used in the future to inform planning, budgets, maintenance, and long-term visions.

This can be summarised in five goals:

Goal 1 Record
Goal 2 Plan
Goal 3 Manage
Goal 4 Protect
Goal 5 Promote

Let's take a look at each of the five goals.

Goal 1 Record

The first part of an audit is to record what a place has in terms of public art. This can be more challenging than it sounds.

Firstly you have to find the artworks.

This can be problematic when not all artworks are recorded. In the past, the ARTSCAPE team had to assemble a series of rudimentary excel spreadsheets collated by past Council staff over time, to make sense of their collection. Once you have found the artwork, the second challenge is attribution - who made the artwork, why, and when. In our experience, attribution accounts for less than 5% of artworks. This is concerning as artists have the right to attribution under the Moral Rights 2000 Copyright Amendment. Therefore, there needs to be a process to 'track down' the artist based on an artworks stylistic approach, social media, newspaper articles and general google searches.

So is there a better way to do it?

Once an audit has been completed, the audit evolves into a public art database. The database becomes much more than a simple catalogue of artworks. It becomes a tool for caring for and maintaining the artwork along with planning for the future. For instance, when a new artwork is created in the future, it can be entered into the public art database - along with the full complement of information needed for good management of the collection in the future, in particular information to manage maintenance budget programs.

Goal 2 Plan

Towns and cities require careful planning for the future. Public art also requires planning as to how they will coexist and contribute to these places. By mapping and understanding the public art collection, opportunities or limitations can be considered. For instance, public spaces that could benefit from public art can quickly be spotted. We can also recognise other factors, such as an oversaturation of a particular public art typology or artist or the impacts on maintenance.

As time goes on and more data is collected about our places, there are opportunities to overlay other findings, such as criminal activities, including malicious damage and anti-social behaviour, which could benefit from public art.

Goal 3 Manage

Public art, just like any other asset, has to be maintained. Some artworks require more maintenance than others and this is connected to an artwork's lifespan - the extent of time the artwork is intended to be in the public domain.

Maintenance is beneficial for two reasons.

The first reason is to ensure the artwork remains safe and is not a liability to the public. Artworks attract and draw people in; children commonly want to climb on them. Therefore, the ground plane, the surrounding spaces, and the artwork are essential for monitoring.

The second reason is image and identity. A degrading artwork (unless designed with that intent in the first place) can influence public experiences and perceptions of a Place. This is an essential principle in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), where the Environmental Maintenance of a place can contribute negatively to perceptions and place identity.

Goal 4 Protect

A public art collection is valuable to its community from monetary and cultural heritage perspectives. A public artwork is an asset and needs to be recorded as an asset of the Council or the relevant organisation. A lot of time and money has gone into creating public artworks, and many of these artworks will increase in value. This can only be done if artworks are cared for over their lifespan. And to do this successfully across an entire collection, that collection must be recognised and recorded.

Goal 5 Promote

Public artworks form a vital layer of a place's identity and character. They are fantastic drawcards for tourists and new residents seeking vibrant and dynamic places to live and work. Well-loved and maintained artworks often appear in magazines and publications promoting a town, city, or business.

It is anticipated that in the future, Public art databases can provide event and tourism data overlays to show the levels of interaction with an artwork and even the economic changes in place - particularly for temporary and ephemeral projects. This can be analysed seasonally or by day. This information can be used to justify new budgets for public artworks that generate tourism and new resident buy in.

In summary, a Public Art Audit is an excellent way to assess the quantity and quality of art in a particular place or Local Government Area (LGA). It can help build a dialogue between the Public Art Officer and the urban design, architectural, landscape and planning teams. It can also assist the asset and maintenance teams in providing proper care and monitoring for a public artwork. Conducting a Public Art Audit can help identify gaps or opportunities in the public art landscape, which can help inform and guide future public art initiatives.

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