As the Church Street revamp nears an end, three very diverse and eye-catching sculptures have been short-listed as part of the scheme and have gone on display in Athlone Civic Centre.
Artists were invited - via an open call - to create "an innovative piece of art which addressed Athlone town's urban context, the location of the artwork close to the River Shannon and the Old Rail Trail cycleway, as well as the heritage, memory and environment of the town."
The sculpture, with a budget of €60,000, is intended to be located close to the old Dillon's Shoes premises in front of the Genoa Cafe.
Athlone District Manager Jackie Finney this week invited the public to view the models which are "very well developed and well presented" proposals and each are very different, and she is looking forward to engaging with the public on the sculpture and starting a conversation.
Scale models of the sculptures will be on display in atrium of Athlone Civic Centre until January 28. Comments are welcome from the public and will be fed back to the selection panel who will make the final decision shortly afterwards.
"It is always a delicate balance in putting a brief together – you want to give just enough guidance to ensure an empathetic piece of art, and at the same time you want to ensure the artist has the freedom to create an unique and perhaps unexpected piece, as only the artist can," Westmeath Arts Officer Miriam Mulrennan said of the commissioning process.
"This is always the challenge. Based on the quality of the shortlisted submissions, I think this has been achieved. Each piece is very different, yet they chime with elements of the town's rich culture and history in a way that is visually readable. I believe any one of these pieces has the potential to impact, charge, animate and connect with Athlone in an imaginative and thought-provoking way," Ms Mulrennan added.
While the majority of councillors hailed the progress on the artwork for Church Street, and the fact the trio short-listed were going on public display, the one dissenting voice was Independent councillor Paul Hogan, who questioned what role the councillors had in the final decision, and how exactly the selection group would be made up.
He pointed out that if members of the public are unhappy with the art in a few years' time, it would be councillors they contact to attempt to get the piece removed.
Cllr Michael O'Brien declared himself all for public art, and said there are even diverging views within the chamber regarding the three pieces going on display.
The Independent public representative admitted he would like to see pieces more reflective of Athlone's history, and his expectation was quite different to what has transpired.
Cllr John Dolan said that there had to be local input and that's why the pieces will now go on display. The public are paying for the artwork so it's only right that they have their say, the Cathaoirleach of Westmeath County Council stressed.
Fianna Fail's Aengus O'Rourke had a mixed opinion on the process, saying he would like to see all three pieces in different parts of Athlone. He described as "farcical" the idea that members should vote on the trio of pieces, explaining that a committee with some expertise in this area should have that job with local input.
In response to queries about the makeup of the selection group, Ms Finney explained that there is an artist representative, a retired librarian, a member of the executive, the Westmeath Arts Officer and a member of Athlone Municipal District, and while the public observations will not be counted, it will be interesting to see what the community feed into the process.
Director of Services in the Athlone area Barry Kehoe reminded members that the committee was put in place in accordance with the countywide public art policy.
Ending the discussion, Cllr Hogan said as it is public money he hopes there is “transparency and accountability” and the decision needs to be right, and not behind closed doors.
While it is "somewhat subjective", Mr Kehoe said the knowledge and local information of the groups means they can judge which piece best fits the criteria, and he believes the process is fully transparent and representative.