By Richard White, October 30, 2013
This blog was written for the Calgary Herald's Insight section and published on Saturday, October 26th with the title: "Public Art best when it spurs debate." I have added different photos with text to help illustrate the essay.
When is comes to public art, it seems everyone has a love or hate opinion. The love/hate debate raised its ugly head recently with the installation of “Travelling Light” aka the “Blue Circle” on the Airport Trail bridge at Deerfoot Trail. This time the debate is not just the usual conservative vs. liberal community dichotomy, but also within the arts community as well with respected artist/curator Jeffrey Spalding and Mayor Nenshi (both arts champions) have publicly stating they don’t like it.
Debate aside, I think most would agree public art enhances the urban environment when done right. However, doing it right is difficult and subjective. Having served on numerous public art juries over the past 30 years, I know how hard juries try to find an artist who can create an artwork that will capitalize on the place where it will be installed, as well as engage the public in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, juries are not always successful. No city has found a formula to guarantee every piece of public art will be critically acclaimed by professions and adored by the public.
I recently began serving on a City of Calgary public art jury and it was the most professional, rigorous and open jury process I have experienced. We were given the applications weeks in advance to independently review, then spent an entire day discussing them as a group before choosing three artists to submit more in-depth, site-specific proposals. In the new year, the same process will be repeated to choose the artist and artwork. It should be noted the jury note only has equitable representation from the two communities impacted, the City and art professionals but despite the diverse backgrounds, our three short-listed choices were unanimous.
I smiled when the debate regressed to “why wasn’t a local artist chosen?” Local artists were invited to submit their portfolio, but were not chosen. That is how the process works, like any RFP (Request For Proposals) process that most Calgarians have experienced at one time or another. I believe it is important local artists are given a chance to submit, but I don’t think we should limit our public art solely to local artists. Artists from other cities and countries see our city differently and more objectively adding new dimensions to our understanding of our sense of place.
Similarly Calgary artists are often creating public art for other cities. Calgary’s Derek Besant, for example has numerous pieces in New York City, Toronto and Edmonton, as well as Calgary. Calgary artists and the public are served best when we have open competitions for public art.
As a member of Calgary’s arts community in many different capacities, I am well aware of the ongoing debate re: the need, value and role of public art. Historically, public art has been something found mostly in the downtown as part of new public buildings or office buildings. Over the past 30 years, downtown Calgary has become an art park with100+ sculptures, murals and paintings commissioned for plazas, parks, sidewalks, lobbies, LRT stations and +15 walkways.
My favourite public art project was the “Colourful Cows for Calgary” in summer 2000 which saw 100+ cows (painted by professionals and amateurs) temporarily placed throughout the downtown (including one in the lagoon at Prince’s Island). I believe it was the city’s most successful public art project because it captured the public’s imagination and engaged thousands of people to venture downtown to see and discuss the statements each cow made about Calgary’s sense of place. Yet there were some who thought it was too populist.
To me, public art must engage the public. It must motivate them to think outside their everyday box and look at the world we share in a different way. The best public art I have encountered has always been a “pedestrian” experience where people can stop, interact with the art, reflect on it, discuss it with friends and take pictures in close proximity. One of the reasons most Calgarians love William McElcheran’s two businessmen “Conversation” on Stephen Avenue is that you can walk right up to it, view it at different angles and relate it to the real businessmen walking the street.
On the other hand, “Travelling Light” doesn’t allow you to walk around or through it; it’s a drive by art experience. Yes, there will be a public pathway in the area, but even then you will still only see it from a distance. This is not a good public art location.
Similarly, I have questioned the location of Julian Opie’s (British) Promenade 2012 next to the Fifth Avenue flyover bridge in East Village. It too is mainly a “drive by” experience. A great piece, but it would be more engaging if placed on the sidewalk in East Village or along Riverwalk where pedestrians could interact with it.
In contrast Ron Moppett’s (Calgary) 33 meter long by 4 meter high ceramic mural on the retaining wall for the LRT tracks only a block away from Opie’s piece is far more successful partly because pedestrians are invited to sit and ponder the piece in a comfortable setting. Good public art has a synergy between the art, its surroundings and the pedestrian.
In 2004, the City of Calgary adopted a “1% for public art for all City capital projects: policy. As a result, public art is now popping up everywhere - from LRT stations to recreation centers and yes, even bridges. Calgarians, more than ever, are experiencing public art as part of their everyday experience so it is not surprising they are also commenting on it. Debate is healthy and I am glad Calgarians care enough about their city’s evolving sense of place to comment.
The time to judge a work of art is not 10 days, not 10 weeks but 10 years after it is installed (the Eiffel Tower was hated at first). It will be interesting to see in 2023 what Calgarians think of “Travelling Light” versus say “Wonderland” (the “child’s head” sculpture on the plaza of the Bow office tower) or the Peace Bridge.
I believe the majority of Calgary’s new public art projects have been well received and I don’t believe the selection process is flawed. Urban design and creating Calgary’s unique sense of place is an ongoing experiment. We should not be surprised that some of our “experiments” in public art, architecture and public space design fail to please everyone. However we should learn something from every experiment on how best to link our diverse visions with the reality as we transform space into place.