Public art has been controversial as of late. I support the current suspension of the program until we revise the guidelines. I’m very much in favor of public art at a high level, but the art we’ve received as a city lately has not been very inspirational to the residents. This is a problem because, for example, the Greenline LRT will, under the current rules, have a single $500K piece of art that will probably be on or near the river tunnel. Given the track record so far, most Calgarians will probably hate it and consider it to be a waste of money. We need to address this issue now.
The current rule is that 1% of the budget of any public infrastructure should go to public art, up to a max of $500K. There is another rule from NAFTA that says that any art project over $75K needs to allow international bidding. We also have a rule saying that the art for the infrastructure must be placed in or right beside that infrastructure, which is why “Travelling Light” (the Big Blue Ring) and the Bowfort Towers are beside roads and not near the people meant to enjoy them. We need to take a close look at how these rules are working together and make some adjustments.
Throughout history, artists have had patrons. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rembrandt was supported by commissions by Prince Frederik Hendrik, and Leonardo Da Vinci painted for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. The common thread for all of these was that the patrons who paid for these timeless works had a say in what the works were, then trusted the skill and vision of the artist to complete the work. The residents of Calgary, as patrons of public art in Calgary, should also have a say in the art in our city, while still respecting the artistic process, just like it’s always been.
I recommend a 5 person panel for any work costing more than 75K: 1 city engineer to make sure that the work is built safely and within the guidelines, one art expert to lend context to the process, and 3 local residents (a majority vote) to make sure the work fits within the community. This makes sure that the people who have to pay for it and look at it every day get a real say in what goes on in their neighbourhood. I’m also in favor of gathering input from the rest of the community as well, as part of my commitment to transparency and accountability.
I’d also like to explore the possibility of breaking up works of art into $75K (or less) pieces, and keeping the artists 100% local whenever possible. Also, as long as the artwork is in the area of the project, I think it’s ok – no need to actually stick it right on the project.
One highly successful public art program the City of Calgary has is the Utility Box Public Art Program, which is inexpensive, uses local artists, brightens neighbourhoods, and much loved by almost everyone. It’s an excellent program that we should look at as an example.