Established in 1937 by the Ministry of Culture, Public Art Agency Sweden maintains and extends the government’s permanent art collection, which is displayed in state institutions across the country, from police stations to universities to ministry buildings, but has spent the past few years extending its remit towards commissioning temporary art for public space and supporting the collaboration of artists with municipal architects and planning agencies. Its team of 20, augmented by nine external curators/artists, is led by director Magdalena Malm, who joined in 2012. The Ministry of Culture allocates the Agency an annual budget of €4m, which is supplemented by additional grants for specific projects.
Mission: contemporary art in public space
Public Art Agency Sweden’s mission is simple, says Magdalena Malm: from the beginning it has been “to make art in public space”. In the time since she became its director, however, she has worked to expand what that might mean, not least by changing “the tendency in public art not to follow the developments of contemporary art.”
Prior to joining the Agency, Malm had set up an organisation called Mobile Art Production which challenged the “the structure around the artistic process”, in particular the static gallery exhibition system. Instead she would invite artists to collaborate with her on shaping the conditions under which their work might meet its audience, whether by making “the audience part of the art work” or addressing “the contexts: what happens between the artwork, the site, and the discursive situation, what kind of political situation is playing out.”
When she joined the Agency in 2012, it was “quite traditional and static, and it was interesting for me to see how I could re-organise it” using the experiences she had explored independently – particularly the emphasis on producing temporary and participatory art-works – to facilitate a new way of thinking within the Agency. The first change was internal: “we didn’t have a curatorial team – we had hired external curators – so we couldn’t have a continuous development and dialogue about what our field is and what we need to do. So we brought curators to the centre of the process.” In doing so, all the Agency’s traditional work of maintaining and curating the existing permanent collection became “secondary”, while the team focused on “adding different formats that would allow us more freedom”. These included “temporary projects; working with artists in urban development processes; and looking at how we can design public space with an understanding of social issues and cultural heritage”. That can vary from “small-scale projects with local organisations in socially challenged suburbs, to quite large-scale infrastructure projects where we have the artist collaborate with architects and engineers at a very early stage, allowing us to achieve very integrated works that are conceptually much more interesting.”
“[New formats include] temporary projects; working with artists in urban development processes; and looking at how we can design public space with an understanding of social issues and cultural heritage.”
While continuing to commission permanent works for public spaces – from a 318m snake skeleton curving across Haga station to a landscape memorial for the victims of the 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia – the Agency has moved towards the curation and commissioning of temporary work, aiming for “reflection and discussion” of socio-political issues affecting Sweden today. Within this temporary category it has, since 2015, presented a series of exhibitions and interventions across the country, looking at the transition from industrialism to post-industrialism; and created The Heart of Malmo, a two-week festival of “installations, sound works and performative works” looking at changes in the city since 2015 brought on by an influx of refugees.
Within these formats the Agency is interested in opening up possibilities for co-creation, whether through performances that invite people to “step into a choreographed situation”, or working with “small organisations as co-creators: they decide the thematic, they often decide the space, we facilitate the artists and we facilitate the dialogue. It is about empowerment.”
“[We work with] small organisations as co-creators: they decide the thematic, they often decide the space, we facilitate the artists and we facilitate the dialogue. It is about empowerment.”
When choosing where to work, often the Agency will begin with “performative works as part of the process of investigating what an area will be: it’s a great way of involving citizens, understanding the place and feeding in to the planning process”. It also supports Malm’s desire to expand the landscape in which art might be encountered beyond museums and galleries, which offer “very few platforms for the artists who want to work engaged in those processes.”
Continuity and change
Where the temporary work invites artists to “reflect and play with and understand the current situation”, increasingly with its permanent work the Agency is interested in “actually making real change: maybe we change the physical environment, or we change the structure in the municipality”. This ambition predates Malm: when she arrived, it was at the end of a “government mission on the collaboration of the design of urban space”. One project within this Malm found particularly interesting: an artist had been partnered with a mining town in the north of the country, which required relocation because the mine beneath it was no longer stable; the result was a sculptural landscape, built between the city and the border of the mine, mapping the old houses. “So you could actually walk in this landscape and say, this is where I used to live and this is where I used to cycle as a kid. Their memory is still there in the collective cultural heritage – not as an object but what happened in this space.”
Much about this project impressed Malm: “I saw how it inserted a human perspective into planning processes that are usually very rigid, how much value it created, and how interesting it was for the artists to step into a real change in processes.” Rather than let it be a one-off project, she decided to “continue with this strand of urban development, bringing that knowledge to how we work with permanent projects, and how we operate permanently in special projects.”
“I saw how it inserted a human perspective into planning processes that are usually very rigid, how much value it created, and how interesting it was for the artists to step into a real change in processes.”
This shift also responds to a wider shift within Sweden, where the rising population means “we need to build 700,000 housing units in 10 years, because there’s such a shortage. There is so much being built, and the values of design and art and architecture have somehow been forgotten – but we can advocate for the importance of making good investments, to say: this needs to be a good environment for people to live in.” That advocacy itself has provoked change in “government policy on how to build public space and increase the quality of it. By very hard work we’ve been able – for the first time in a very long time – to insert public art into a larger discussion of public space.”
A new three-year mission
The changes Malm has already put in place at the Agency have led to a new three-year mission: “a role as a knowledge centre in Sweden, to support the regions and municipalities, looking at how we can raise the quality of public art”. The challenge with this is not only how to create change within that three years but also a lasting legacy. Malm believes “one trail to develop will be collaboration: matching up local art actors with municipalities, because the municipality often would benefit from a higher degree of artistic competence, but they know the process and how to handle it in terms of administration; while the local art actors usually have good artistic quality and ideas and concepts but they have very little means and don’t know how to work in public space. If we work with them to set up a collaborative structure, that could survive when our project doesn’t exist anymore.”
“One trail to develop will be collaboration: matching up local art actors with municipalities, because the municipality often would benefit from a higher degree of artistic competence, but they know the process and how to handle it in terms of administration; while the local art actors usually have good artistic quality and ideas and concepts but they have very little means and don’t know how to work in public space.”
As a “positive person”, Malm says she rarely remembers challenges; however, when she talks, two themes emerge:
1: The delicacy of working as the state
Although in some contexts the authority of the state can be an advantage, in others it can give rise to a suspicion of top-down meddling. When working with community groups or local organisations, the starting point is “listening: we ask them to describe a place or situation they want to deal with, we understand that in context, and then we bring them suggestions of artists who could, not only thematically but in how they are as a person, bring something to that situation”. The aim is to “create local empowerment while maintaining artistic quality”.
2: Fixed ideas around what is art
Usually resistance to the Agency’s work begins with “an idea of what art is that’s very far away from what contemporary art is”. Solving this usually requires “a translational process: you have to understand their language, and you have to step away from your normal art language and explain the work on their terms. It’s very much about explaining the values that you can achieve: the aesthetical values, but also the human and social values.”
As a state institution, the Agency takes seriously its responsibility to public money – but serving the public, says Malm, doesn’t have to mean “doing what they ask for, but giving them what they couldn’t have imagined that they would ever get”. Care is vital in this equation: “If you think that someone is kind, it doesn’t mean that they always do things that people want them to do: it can mean that actually you challenge someone – but you stay there while they are struggling with that challenge. When you work in public space, it’s really important to remember that the care of that attention or interest for anyone who encounters the work does not mean that you shouldn’t challenge them or confront them with something they wouldn’t have expected.”
“When you work in public space, it’s really important to remember that the care of that attention or interest for anyone who encounters the work does not mean that you shouldn’t challenge them or confront them with something they wouldn’t have expected.”
Having spent four years “intensively developing curatorial methodologies”, Malm thinks “our next step – as a state agency – is an obligation to share our knowledge. That’s very much about practical knowledge: anything from explaining the process of how you work with a municipality to curatorial methodologies.” Which isn’t to say that the Agency itself will remain static: “The way we’ve built the organisation, the whole idea is that we continuously need to ask ourselves: what are artists actually doing, and do we need to work differently? Built into our structure is a continual reassessment, asking if there are needs or expressions of artists working in public space that we have missed.”
Konst hander Tjarna angar, Borlange. Lina Sofia Lundin. Photo Ricard Estay.