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people in the public realm

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Art consultant Andrew Knight has shown that public art does not have to be a travesty. A builder of bridges between professions, he celebrates the difference in approach that different disciplines bring by jeremy melvin. photograph by robert greshoff

Public art is a 'good thing' - or so we are led to believe. But just as Lord Goodman turned out not to be such a 'good man', so public art is often not art, and sometimes not even public.

Art consultant Andrew Knight is not only acutely aware of the failings of public art ('I hate the term'), but he has proven in several projects how art - real art - can be part of the public realm. His successes include Fish Pavement in Hull, a series of small casts of fishes in paving slabs around the old town by Gordon Young, and Bridlington's South Promenade, where he co-ordinated architect Bauman Lyons with sculptor Bruce Maclean and writer Mel Gooding. These projects are notable for their sense of rightness, a feeling of compatibility between the place and the installation - what Knight describes as the product of a 'rationale about why each piece is where it is', but depending on 'a sense of inevitability rather than conscious reasoning'. He is working for Nexus, the regional transit authority, on the Tyneside Metro extension to Sunderland, and as a board member of the Hull Truck Theatre Company, he has a leading role in creating the new theatre within Foster's masterplan for the Ferensway development in Hull.

Knight's achievements come from having a thorough intellectual grounding in art, an understanding of the public realm, and a grasp of how they can work together. While studying fine art at Newcastle in the 70s, he realised he was 'always more interested in other people's work than my own'; later he ran a gallery where he enjoyed 'how the work changed the space each time you made an exhibition'. While 'working quite intimately with a small space', he developed a 'resonance for working with artists in a particular space'. His interests were becoming architectural, if not explicitly public. But when he found that he 'was more interested in watching responses to art than in selling work', he moved on.

His direct involvement with public art started 10 years ago when he contributed to a strategy of bringing in artists to the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation's area. He admits: 'My first art in a public place was a cast bronze in a new development.' Nevertheless, his other reservations about this phase show his evolving appreciation of the public realm. 'We didn't have the strength to address key environmental issues about the barrage,' he says, and 'Cardiff is still not joined-up thinking; you can't get easily from the city centre to the Bay'. These are concerns which have profound effects in the public realm, but in which artists need not have an inherent interest. Armed with this insight, he moved in the early 1990s to Humberside as public-art officer. Fish Pavement was an early project devised in part to establish the possibilities before writing a policy.

Knight had come to appreciate the folly of trying to pre-determine results. Similarly, he understood that art and architecture are different: 'I don't like artists who want to be like architects. It is the difference which creates ideas and trying to smooth it out results in blandness.'

'Artists,' he explains, 'discover the nature of the work in making it. In architecture it has to crystallise fairly early on ... that's a fundamental difference one's looking to accommodate'. In creating a team, his role is almost akin to that of project manager, establishing ground rules for the relationship and ensuring that all parties understand each other's jargon.

Bridlington, finished in 1997, was a summation of those principles. Young architects and more-established artists produced a seafront promenade that is functional, robust and enjoyable. Knight also showed considerable acumen in using new sources of funding, including the lottery and the erdf, to create an alchemist's brew of a budget. Each part was vital and depended on the presence of the others. On its success, he became a development officer within the East Riding Council; he had fun helping to produce village design guidelines with direct but structured involvement of the communities themselves; when a planning officer moaned that it was 'raising aspirations' too far, he decided to go back to what he really likes: 'spending time with artists and architects'.

His present work for Nexus and Hull Truck draws variously on his experience. Both involve a creative understanding of what the lottery can do, showing how relatively small amounts might help to unlock potential for a more general and significant aesthetic reconfiguration of the environment; this is an economic counterpart to the sense of enjoyment, ownership and belonging that he hopes the art programmes themselves engender. Nexus, he points out, has always worked with artists on capital projects; the Sunderland extension will reduce journey times and increase frequency of travel between Sunderland and Newcastle, causing a major change in mental geography. The half-million lottery bid should be enough to produce an aesthetic 'top up'. Footbridges have obvious potential; Knight wants to address 'the trackside environment' and 'get into the tunnels', rather than concentrate on stations.

Knight even talks of 'another aesthetic' coming from engineering, recalling an exhibition he curated which included Joseph Swan's early drawings for a lightbulb. 'He was,' says Knight, 'thinking through the process of what a filament could look like and using drawing as a tool.' Indeed, drawing like a sculptor - or like an architect.

'The act of drawing is also very important in organising production,' he continues, reinforcing his work's collaborative aspect.

'Theatre', he says, referring to Hull Truck, 'has to be collaborative'. Parallel-tracking a lottery bid and a cpo, producing an icon building for a company whose heavy touring means their reputation is not deeply associated with the building - and when 'timing is not great' - reinforces that collaboration. 'Timing never is [great],' he says. 'You have to be agile.' It is that agility, his ability to bridge, for example, the discrepancy between 'the huge chunks of time in the two-stage lottery proces' and the construction industry ('which doesn't necessarily have the time'), where Knight continues to prove his worth.

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