In April (13th-16th), Aberdeen hosted NUART, a street art festival established in our twin city of Stavanger, Norway. For the entire weekend, the atmosphere in the city was palpably different: people were acting as flaneurs, exploring the city and the way that the street art transformed forgotten or overlooked corners of Aberdeen. Walking tours with several-hundred-strong crowds visited areas that they would perhaps never normally have need to visit. In this way, NUART deeply engaged Aberdeen’s citizens – it was the prevalent topic of conversation both in the city and across social media throughout its run – but how long-lasting has this engagement been?
It is important to note that none of the invited artists were Aberdonian. Whilst Aberdeen does have a strong and ever-growing artistic community, its cultural presence is often overlooked at international levels. Inviting global artists to showcase their work in the city helps to establish international artistic ties but fails to provide opportunities for Aberdeen’s own street artists. This becomes even more problematic due to the commissioned nature of NUART’s pieces – Aberdeen’s street art is generally created covertly, blooming across walls as if from nowhere. Because of the illicit nature of most street art, can NUART truly be considered a street art festival, or simply a festival for art that happens to be on the street? It could be argued that commissioning NUART’s artists to create risk-free, site-specific works overshadows the already present street art in Aberdeen.
On the other hand, it could be said that NUART helped to inspire a new wave of street art that is sweeping Aberdeen, and encouraging appreciation of works that were already present. Springing up across the city in recent weeks have been works of art ranging from the small-scale, such as white elephants painted on to building bricks and lined up on Queen Street, to the large-scale, such as the paste-ups of Aberdeen Football Club players which appeared around the city in the lead-up to the Scottish Cup Final. It may be that art like this has always been in Aberdeen but we are only paying more attention now due to the influence of NUART, or it may be that NUART has encouraged more street art activity.
However, these works are receiving far less attention than any of NUART’s commissioned pieces – they are free and easy to access; one might incidentally come across a piece whilst taking their regular route through the city, yet people do not seem to be taking notice in the same way. With the Art Gallery closed for refurbishment and galleries such as Newave sadly closing down, Aberdeen is losing city centre arts venues, yet the city’s surfaces are being transformed into a sprawling arts venue all of their own. Aberdeen’s interest in street art was momentarily piqued in the wake of NUART, demonstrating that if events like this are provided in the city, people will attend and enjoy, but how can this interest be sustained without the aid of a dedicated festival?