How to create engaging public art: Perspectives from international artist Thorsten Goldberg

When it comes to delivering powerful experiences through public art, German artist Thorsten Goldberg knows a thing or two about how to get it done. Heavy Industries had the honor of sitting down with Thorsten to discuss the challenges of creating public art, how the process can be optimized and how important it is to engage with all stakeholders in the communities where he works.

Thorsten has established himself as a global artist with an impressive portfolio of permanent public art that includes celebrated “Rock-Paper-Scissors” installation on a bridge that once connected a divided East and West Berlin. Other successful works include “60°N 05°E” in Bergen, Norway, a stainless steel polygonal structure that blankets a small thumbnail of land and water, and his “Cumulus” series of clouds installed in public spaces and made with a variety of mediums, including neon lights and sculpted materials.

1997 Rock-Paper-Scissors, randomized neon signs as a permanent marking of the former frontier crossing point, Oberbaumbridge, Berlin/DE

Through his 30+ years working as an artist, Thorsten has developed a keen business acumen and critical communication skills required to successfully introduce engaging works of art to the public. He has a simple but effective formula that works. Thorsten takes the time to engage with all stakeholders, brings the right team together to complete the project and he stays engaged with his works to ensure that the experiences they provide remain true to their intent.

With public art in mind, there are lessons that we can learn from other global cities like Vienna and Berlin.

“Calgary is a global city where people from all over the world congregate. Their public art symbolizes this mosaic of talent. In Calgary you have so much beautiful architecture from all over the world and the same should always be true for public art. Why should public art only be local? Art should be a symbol of the network of ideas we have that connects the world. The public art in Vienna represents this concept well,” Thorsten says.

Thorsten reminds us that no one city is a silo and the art world relies on cultural cross pollination. So too should a city’s public art program.

“What I found interesting over the last 4 years working in Vienna is that they have a different understanding of the public art process – they choose people from around the world to sit on their jury and they decide over a 4-year term how money for public art is spent” says Thorsten.

Communication is important too. Thorsten’s work with municipalities like Berlin, Vienna and Bergen has taught him that you absolutely must be involved in all facets of communicating the elements of the public art project early in the process “As an initiator I always push the municipalities to tell me what they have done to communicate with the people. I need to know how they are interacting with their citizens. This was the reason for my recent trip to Edmonton, regarding the upcoming NETG project I am working on. I confirmed that they have a communications plan that includes thoughts about how it can be implemented to their citizens and how they talk to the press,” says Thorsten.

Thorsten Goldberg in front of his 2012 work “60°N 05°E” (encased waterside) – land-art and light sculpture in Bergen/NO

Calgary’s art policy is currently a hot topic and many people are eagerly awaiting the city’s newly proposed art policy. During his visit to Calgary, Thorsten had the opportunity to explore the prevailing opinion regarding how the city should be dealing with its public art program.

“Before I propose a concept I spend a lot of time researching, and part of that process involves asking people what they think about public art in their city. I’ve asked many people here in Calgary about public art and everyone has told me that it has been controversial. To avoid debates like this, I spend time analyzing the atmosphere and having discussions with the city. I ask them what we can do to communicate our intent – but even before this can happen, before a decision is made, the community should always be invited to join the conversation and they should be informed. There are no fields as open to misinterpretation than Art. Therefore, we should have an open dialogue early on”

To be an artist with a powerful vision is only one piece of the puzzle. Works of public art have a diverse team of people behind them, from tradespeople to architects. Putting the right team in place at the right time is critical to ensuring the success and longevity of a public art work. The artist is equipped to do much more when they’ve assembled a good team.

Thorsten continues, “An art call is a lot of work – most people do not know this. We as artists need to provide details on things that are not clear, within very tight timelines. We have very little information and are responsible for everything, including coming up with an estimate and contract—and we are expected to deliver within tight timelines. In comparison, an architect has much more information and time to work with, and they are not expected to be a general contractor like an artist is. This is a situation that should be revisited.”

Relying solely on the artist to facilitate all aspects of a complicated public art project is putting it into a position of higher risk. Thorsten believes that some of the models and processes used in European cities like Vienna could help cities like Calgary better define their processes.

“The city of Vienna established and operates a limited company that manages public art projects in a manner very similar to how construction projects are managed. They contract the artist and fabricator independently. Doing it this way allows the artist to focus their resources on the concepts and design, while the fabricator is on site and focuses on the fabrication and installation of the work. This is why I work with companies like Heavy Industries. They operate as a single point of contact for me and manage the complexities of the project that fall outside of my realm of expertise.”

NETG concept for Edmonton Arts Council

Planning public art is a complicated process and not having a proper plan in place from the beginning can be catastrophic. Thorsten’s experience has taught him that eliminating the risks and identifying any potential obstacles early is critical.

“During public art calls, a common mistake that I see artists make is to jump in blindly and make assumptions – even though it is something that has never been built before. Frequently, they will go to fabrication companies with their concepts and the companies cannot even estimate it because they don’t have the experience to work with a wide array of media. They see it as being too risky. There are very few companies out there willing to take on that risk,” says Thorsten.

Heavy Industries collaborates with artists early in the process, oftentimes while concepts are still being defined and ideas haven’t been fully formed. By building specialized teams that are tailored to the project and implementing their “Plan-Build” process, Heavy Industries uncovers blind spots and assumes the risk for the artist. Quickly scaling up or down when needed allows efficiencies that few other custom architecture or fabrication companies can do. For artists it is important to work with a company that can manage the facilitation of public art projects so they can focus on the ultimate vision of the project.

Thorsten knows that he is better served by a turn-key solutions provider rather than several general contractors that he must micromanage. This is why he chose Heavy Industries to be his partner in creating the upcoming NETG public art project in Edmonton.

The fabrication team at Heavy Industries in front of a portion of a mold for the NETG project

NETG is an example of a public art project that has been well-received and managed since its inception. Public engagement between the City of Edmonton and its citizens started early and as a result support and dialogue for the piece is high. People feel like their voices are being heard, and that they are empowered to be a part of the final decision.

“Edmonton Arts Council asked people to make comments on online and they were surprised to see how many people did. They had published all the artist’s proposals for the project and presented them to the public. The comments were very good, and constructive. In the end they were very pleased with the level of participation – this is a great way to do it,” says Thorsten.

Ultimately Thorsten was chosen as the artist who would deliver one of the City of Edmonton’s largest public art projects, complimenting their new 7-hectare transit facility. The project will consist of 5 massive polygonal topographical depictions of places in the world that are at equal latitudes as Edmonton, all fabricated out of stainless steel. NETG is scheduled to be completed in 2019. For more details on the project visit www.edmontonarts.ca.

Thorsten’s work is provoking in a way that connects the participant with his intent to serve as the voice of many. He embraces public engagement and constructive discourse while planning his works—and with a thoughtful mind he listens to all sides and then he acts, bringing in the right team to get it done.

Thorsten offers us many lessons to learn as we explore how he applies his tenacity and imagination while deploying complex art projects. Through his unassuming model he has established himself as a leading artist on a global scale, an undertaking that is by no means a direct and easy path — and a profession mastered by few.

To learn more about Thorsten and his work, visit www.goldberg-berlin.de.