Rise of public art Decline of public galleries

Got my Gallerieswest summer ‘13 magazine in the mail this week – a good read as always.  Jeffrey Spalding's column, "In My Opinion" always interests me as he has great insights and insider information.  However, this one lacked the positive insights that usually characterize his rants.  His laments about the lack of support for public art galleries in Calgary and Canada.  This is not a new cry as public art galleries and museums in Calgary have struggled for over 25 years.  The Glenbow has never been in a strong financial position, which Spalding knows all too well as he served as the President & CEO from December 2007 to January 2009.  

The Art Gallery of Calgary too has struggled ever since they moved from the Memorial Park Library to their own building on Stephen Avenue.  The Triangle Gallery now MOCA Calgary has struggled to find its place in the visual arts community for over 20 years.  And the Illingsworth Kerr Gallery at ACAD or Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary have never captured the public's imagination. The idea of a true civic art gallery in Calgary has been debated to death for over 50 years and still nothing.  

Spalding’s position is "if you want vital public art museums, then the public has to pay for them, period."  The corollary of this statement would be "if the public doesn't want to pay for them, why do we have so many public or quasi public art galleries?”  Do we need a new model for public art galleries?  Do we have too many public galleries? Does Calgary really need the Glenbow, Art Gallery of Calgary, MOCA Calgary, Illingsworth Kerr and Nickle Galleries? 

n opening night at the Esker Foundation Gallery.  Interesting to note that for most visitors it is a quick look at the art and then stand around and chat.  The gallery experience is 30 minutes at best for most people. 

One has to wonder why an individual visual arts patron decided to build and operate the Esker Foundation Gallery on his own dollar, rather than support and an existing public art gallery? Opened in June 2012, it’s one of the largest privately funded non-commercial gallery in Canada.

Perhaps it is time to face the reality that the visual arts appeal only to a small fraction of the population. As a former Director/Curator of a public art gallery and a modest art collector, I know I don't go to the galleries as often as I should.  And when I do go, it is often is a 30-minute experience at best.

Fact is, there is a glut of art on the market and for many people; there is no urgent need to go to galleries to see art. If you miss one show, there is another one coming on its heels. Or for some, there’s the Internet, not like seeing the real thing, but for some it is “good enough.”

Calgary is a culture of recreation, not arts. That is not to say we don’t have some great theatre, music venues and festivals, or that we shouldn’t continue to foster our arts groups. However, what does it say when the city is building four recreation centers with a total price tag of $450 million, yet we struggle to raise $138 million for the National Music Centre.  The City has also recently initiated a $25 million bike-friendly program and Calgarians are much more likely to spend $2,000 on a new bike than on a work of art. What does that tell us about Calgarians and their support for public art galleries?

Calgary is home to perhaps North America's largest retail bike shop - Bow Cycle in beautiful downtown Bowness. 

While public art galleries are struggling to survive in Calgary, public art seems to be on the rise in Calgary.  Over the past 10 years, we have seen numerous new public art works installed throughout the city, including the very popular "Wonderland" by Jaume Plensa on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower.  The Downtown has over the years become an art museum without walls - public art can be found on almost every corner and in the lobby of most office buildings.  Even condo developers are adding public art as part of their amenities (e.g. MARK on 10th will have Calgary’s first Douglas Coupland artwork.)  

Rendering of lobby of MARK on 10th condo with the Douglas Coupland artwork which will be visible to pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The City of Calgary has initiated a 1% for public art program (i.e. 1% of construction cost of all city capital projects must be set aside for public art) which means LRT Stations, overpasses and all City projects have public art included as part of their design.  Over the past 10 years, the City has invested $12 million in public art and there is already $16 million in the hopper for future projects.  It could also be argued that the City has invested $50 million in two pedestrian bridges (Peace and St. Patrick's Island bridges), both of which are works of art.  

And back in 2000, Calgary hosted one of the most successful public art projects in Canada - Colourful Cows for Calgary.  That summer, over 100 cows grazed in the downtown and other public spaces attracting thousands of Calgarians, as well as visiting family and friends downtown every weekend to see the wild, wacky and weird bovines.  

In 2010, another public art project captivated Calgarians when artists floated 500 multi-coloured orbs down the Bow River and created “River of Light” as one of six temporary projects celebrating the Bow River.  Over 10,000 people lined the river that night to watch.Riv

iver of Light project in 2010, attracted over 10,000 people to watch 500 orbs float down the river.  It was magical!  

More recent a group of local artists transformed eight homes (that were about to be knocked down for a new development) into works of art. Wreck City attracted over 8,000 people to visit the temporary public art project in just one week.  That would probably be more than the all of the other public and quasi-public art galleries in the city combined.

Perhaps it is time to face reality! Times have changed it is no longer the early to mid-20th century which was the heyday for public art galleries and museums. In Calgary, and more and more other Canadian cities, the public-at-large just isn't into public art galleries. 

An example of the public art that can be found on almost every block of the downtown core and in many cases two or three.  The lobbies of the office buildings are full of art, making the downtown a public art gallery without walls.

Comments: 

I enjoy your continued focus on the clash between reality and ideology when we consider all the elements of city building. If people aren't engaging at length with public galleries, do we reconsider the intent or push forth with a dated concept? Love it!

J.G. May 10

"New rec centres in NW and SE will have art galleries, studios for residencies, and 300 seat purpose built theatres" T. R.  May 9

RESPONSE: This is true, however this could be more evidence that Calgarians are more interested in recreational arts than the traditional academic approach to arts and culture, which is what Spalding is looking to create. Both are good and add value to community. Everyday Tourist