Strategic approaches – Essex County Council

Theme: embedding art into capital projects

Chelmsford Park & Ride, Bruce Williams, 2006. Photo: courtesy ECC and the artist

Chelmsford Park & Ride entrance, Bruce Williams, 2006, commissioned by Essex County Council (ECC). Photo: courtesy ECC and the artist

Best practice in: embedding public art within Council-led capital projects.

Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent. 

The programme is currently in its third year. It encourages the private sector and social housing providers and other public sector developers to play a part in the commissioning process in order to integrate art within their schemes and ensure effective use of funds.

ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’

ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.

The Public Art Common Fund is also about an embedded approach and means funds are assigned to developments at a very early stage.  However, it still allows for the use of Percent for Art, as well as money via section 106 agreements, where relevant.

Programme Development:
Permanentcommissions currently being realised under the Genius Loci programme include Jacqueline Poncelet’s work at Flitch Green Primary School, which includes input of colour and design into the courtyard windows and panels, and Roman Vasseur’s work with a developer’s design team regenerating the market quarter in Harlow.

Temporary commissions include Open Space, a Genius Loci project of four temporary commissions for 2009, curated by Jane Watt for public realm in Harlow, Colchester and Basildon.  Appointed artists are all based in Essex or have a strong local connection.  The intention is to “create a higher public visibility for Genius Loci whilst the major commissions are realised and to present new processes and works of contemporary art to local audiences”.

Facts and Figures:
Key factors for success:

  • A county-wide approach to supporting art in the public realm.  While many of the 14 district and borough councils have little or no infrastructure for commissioning (such as a designated public art or arts development officer), ECC’s overall support and approach means major commissions can still be realised.
  • Strong cabinet support, including a cabinet member in the Public Art Strategy Group.
  • The development of a variety of funding mechanisms.
  • Occasional use of external organisations to help run commissions, (for example, Commissions East), helps spread work load and bring in additional expertise.

Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).

Andrew Hunter, Public Art Officer, Built Environment Branch, County Hall, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 1QH, Email:

Essex County Council’s Public Art Guide, published February 2008, DS06_750 E012029 available, plus other ECC public art information.
Genius Loci: Open Space Programme
Essex County Council's public art strategy