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Build A Giant Horse — And Other Ways Art And Business Can Partner To Enliven Cities

“It’s not art for art’s sake, but art to generate ideas,” says Mark Davy, founder of the London “placemaking agency” Futurecity. “It’s about the arts acting as a sort of trigger, as an agitator for something else.”

Rather than a traditional urban planning firm, the Futurecity folks seem to see themselves as matchmakers between the arts and real estate developers. And they describe these sorts of partnerships as crucial as governments (particularly near the firm’s home in Europe) cut public funding for the arts.

“Many of the projects we get come out of redevelopment by the private sector,” Davy says. “The arts can be treated with respect … and developers can end up with things that are going to make them money.”

Davy will be in Boston this week to give a public talk about his work with Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission, at the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space, 290 Congress St., Boston at 6 p.m. Jan. 20. Admission is $5.

“His work puts art at the center of urban development,” the architects society writes. “Art is no longer simply the ornament but a key asset to any project from its infancy, whether it be a large brownfield site to an urban center. Art is not a small percent; art is the project.”

Mark Davy (Courtesy of Futurecity)
Mark Davy (Courtesy of Futurecity)

Art is one way, Davy says, that a city like Boston can make itself stand out as it competes with similar cities — and tech centers — around the world to retain and attract businesses and workers. A 2015 statement from the firm said: “We see developers as new patrons for the arts demanding a new approach to making places beyond the conventional master-planning approach. Our strategies promote the use of arts and culture to provide authentic and memorable places as part of the burgeoning interest among world cities in the power of culture to drive inward investment, tourism, commerce and regeneration.”

Here are some of Futurecity's approaches to making places:

• Build A Giant Horse. The “White Horse” is realistic sculpture of a horse as big as the Statue of Liberty that’s been proposed for Kent, about an hour drive outside London. It came out of a plan to construct some 20,000 new homes and businesses there. But, Davy says, “It was very hard getting anyone to understand where it was.” So someone joked that the project could benefit from something that would put them on the map, like the “Angel of the North,” a six-story-tall winged figure designed by artist Antony Gormley and completed in the late 1990s at Gateshead, England. But on second thought, maybe it was a great idea. After a landmark design competition selected Mark Wallinger’s horse in 2009, Davy says, “Everyone was writing about it.” Funding has been a problem, however, and the horse has yet to be constructed.

Richard Wilson’s sculpture “Slipstream" at London's Heathrow Airport. (Courtesy of Futurecity)
Richard Wilson’s sculpture “Slipstream" at London's Heathrow Airport. (Courtesy of Futurecity)

In 2014, Futurecity was able to announce the debut of Richard Wilson’s sculpture “Slipstream.” It's 230 feet of twisting aluminum, meant to evoke the path of a stunt plane, installed inside Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 2 in London. “If you fly in our out of the airport, something extraordinary should be waiting to greet you,” Davy says. It has attracted publicity, from media to travelers sharing photos, he says. “The impact of that piece has been extraordinary.”

The artworks, in effect, become advertisements for the real estate projects. In exchange, Davy says, “artists are being given the opportunity to do significant things with a significant budget on a significant scale.”

• Make The Ballet An Anchor Tenant For New Real Estate Development. Or a museum. Or a theater. Davy says, “Increasingly we have developers building … buildings for them as anchor tenants.”

For example, Futurecity worked with the developers of the “London Docks,” some 1,700 apartments plus office and retail space in East London. And the English National Ballet plans to move there. The project’s construction firm, The Guardian reports, “is giving the ENB the shell of the building. The ballet company and its school aim to raise the funds to fit it out.”

Wayward's "Grow, Grow, Grow Your Boat" design. (Courtesy of Futurecity)
Wayward's "Grow, Grow, Grow Your Boat" design. (Courtesy of Futurecity)

• Give The Landscaping Budget To Artists. “If 1,000 trees are going to be planted,” Davy asks, “can that be a land art project?” That sort of question resulted in a recent housing development project at Waterlooville, England, for which the London landscape, art and architecture firm Wayward has proposed growing oaks around steel frames the same size and shape of the hulls of boats that used to be built in the community. “Maybe the park is the sculpture,” Davy says. “Maybe the footbridge across the road is the sculpture.”

Greg Cook Arts Reporter
Greg Cook is an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.

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