News / Calgary

Taking the politics out of Calgary's public art

As the city grapples to dampen scandals, Edmontonians are launching into thoughtful discussions with citizens about art.

Traffic passes a sculpture by New York artist Del Geist, which is called &quotBowfort Towers" and is located near Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

Traffic passes a sculpture by New York artist Del Geist, which is called "Bowfort Towers" and is located near Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017.

As Calgary works on another public art fix, Edmonton's approach is actually engaging citizens on an arts and culture plan to talk about the future of public art in the city.

Last week during a Calgary committee meeting, councillors were asked to allow certain small-scale public art projects to continue despite a program-wide pause, but the item lead to a debate about the city's program and how it could be improved.

The program, which was initially launched in 2004, sees 1 per cent of capital project cash put toward art projects, but as the controversial project enters its third council-requested review, some are losing faith in the city's ability to make the program work.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, their arts council is taking on a huge engagement program to see what art means to citizens, and help shape the next 10-years of programming, planning and public art – they're going to include community sessions.

Right now, the City of Calgary looking into procurement for public art projects works, and how closely funding is tied to the infrastructure project the art is being built for. And, as it turns out, administrators aren't sure why projects end up at interchanges and overpasses.

"A lot of it is ... we've historically done that so that's the way we've always done it – but is that the right way?" asked Transportation General Manager Michael Thompson.

Location is one of the big conversations around public art, and local artist and advocate Caitlind Brown thinks the city should be looking at the way Utilities and Environmental Protection works with artists as part of their WATERSHED+ program – a group she sees doing amazing work, with little controversy.

"They've been so successful," said Brown. "Really beautiful residency projects to do multi-year research, respond to the city, and the watershed."

She doesn't think public art should all be pedestrian or park based, or by the side of a road – but would like to see artists integrated earlier in infrastructure projects to find appropriate locations that fit – instead of plunking a piece into a box, giving an artist more freedom.

Brown wants to see the successes that UEP is seeing translated to other city departments as guiding principles.

On the committee floor, Coun. Druh Farrell said that public art is near and dear to her heart, but during the Bowfort Towers controversy, where the narrative about a piece became unclear and at one point suggested the art was an indigenous inspiration made by a non-indigenous man, she said she had a hard time arguing for the program.

In Edmonton, the arts council is an arms-length body founded in 1992. The money is funnelled through the group and they administer the cash posting their own Request for Qualification postings.

David Turnbull, director of public art for the council, said their status gives them a lot of flexibility in how they dole out cash. And although some of their projects are tied to locations they have had situations where they've split funds where appropriate to use cash as a public art contribution in other locations – where appropriate.

"We have a process in place where we could have a conversations with the city and client group about that," Turnbull said. "We can't make a top down decision, but one where everyone agrees."

Local artist daniel j. kirk said he thinks moving to an arms-length body would help take the politics out of public art.

"It doesn't always have to come back to be this major thing where it's being reviewed and it's a waste of money," kirk said. "Whether people like it or not is a subjective thing."

He said as an artist public art is the ideal place to be working to create public discourse and share ideas in a democratic and open way.

Politicians aren't consulted on Edmonton's public art. Turnbull said they have better things to do with their time. But they have brought the public in on their process. Turnbull said for their $1 million dollar northeast transit garage project they gave Edmontonians a peek at the second stage of the project.

"When we had the second stage artist proposals come in we actually put those out," he said. "Not to vote, but we wanted to get their opinions on which ones are their favourites, what do they like about certain ones ... it wasn't a question of should we have art at this location, and it wasn't do you like this one or do you hate this one."

Turnbull said they've had their fair share of art outrage, but it's because art is subjective, and not everyone is going to love every piece in the public art collection.

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