Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard

By Richard White, 

I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.

When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.

Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life.  Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.  

Downtown Decline

The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century.  It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights. 

Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.” 

 In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.

Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger.  Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.

Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.        

 

In my mind, the Boneyard Park is a must see Las Vegas attraction, way more interesting than The Strip.  It is much more authentic and offers an up close and personal look at one of the iconic artifacts of urban design - the neon sign. 

The link between folk art and neon art becomes more obvious the more you explore the Boneyard Park.

I am not sure which came first Disneyland or Vegas but there is a strong link between the two i.e. the sense of play, fun and fantasy. 

A perfect example of how neon signage was critical to the branding of hotels in Vegas. The sign immediately said "Fun" even without the lights on. 

Another example of branding and signage.  Love that the signage is large and easy to read. Too many downtown and suburban buildings today have small signage that is hidden away making it very difficult to find them.

The Boneyard is like a grave yard or junk yard; this just adds to the fun of exploring.  The juxtaposition of the different signs is wonderful. You also get the sense of how sculptural the signage is.  These truly are works of art. 

The Boneyard entrance is a wonderful mid-century modern building that is very inviting and memorable.

Freemont street recalls the main streets of many cities from the mid 20th century when the streets were indeed brighter and more fun visually than they are today.  

The Silver Slipper is fun day and night, male or female, young or old.  

Love the link between cartoons and neon characters.  

A good example of how neon signage can be used to add fun and colour to an otherwise ordinary streetscape. 

Lighting can also used to create a fun facade in the evening, which is even more important in winter cities like Calgary. 

Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park

Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still  wonderful works of art.

Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles. 

Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only.  Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions. 

Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended.  (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).

The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons.  Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.

See Appendix for history of neon.

The crowd gathers waiting for the Freemont Experience to begin.  

Age of LED

Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light.  There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like. 

Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight. 

Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen.  The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations. 

Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.

While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality. 

Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Learn more: Putting the public in public art.

 

The Freemont Street canopy is washed with colour as thousands of people mill about waiting for the show to begin.  

Let the show begin...the canopy becomes a huge video screen for spectacular light and sound show.

Even at night the Crown Fountain attracts hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds to play and interact with the LED faces and the wading pool. 

Take away idea

Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.

They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”   

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun

Putting the public back into public art

Cruising in Chicago

The curse of minimalism

 

 

 

 

 

Neon History (excerpts from www.neonlab.com)

Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.

In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.

After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”

By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.

A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.

Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.

During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.

 

Dogs as a catalyst for healthier happier city?

By Richard White, September 9, 2013

Dog Parks and Disneyland

I am again dog sitting for friends and learning more about the how cities need to evolve to the every changing needs of the people who live in them.  I am not a dog owner, but I am fascinated about how dog ownership has changed since I had a dog 50 years ago.  

Just had a wonderful conversation with a man who told me getting a dog has significantly improved his and his wife's life as they get out and walk more.  Another couple told me how they love coming to the dog park every night just to watch the animation.  The lady said "it is like Disneyland for dogs."  

A summer evening stroll in the dog park is enjoyed by people and dogs of all ages and sizes. 

Catalyst for healthy living

Indeed, the dog park is as important to the humans as it is to the dogs.  In our urban mostly sedentary lives we need a reason to get out and walk.  Every time I dog sit I find myself saying "I must get up in the morning and just go for a walk to my neighbourhood dog park - I don't need a dog." But, I never do it!  

The dog as a catalyst for healthy living will become even more important with our aging population.  Seniors perhaps benefit most from walking a dog, not only for the physical exercise, but the people contact.  It is not very often that I go to the dog park that I don't chat with someone.  It isn't a long conversation, and I don't think I will meet my next "new best friend," but it is a nice friendly chat.  

This is why dog parks are better for socialization (dog and humans) than just walking your dog on the street, as there is a much greater probability that you and your dog will interact with others.  And, isn't that what is great about urban living i.e. interacting with others.  Not sure if it is just me, but people at the dog park seem happier and friendlier than people in the streets.  What's with that? 

Below is an article I wrote back in 2007.  I am now thinking it is not just downtown that needs to be more dog-friendly but the entire cities.  In fact, I am now thinking that all new communities should have a dog park as a key element of their master plan.  It is a great way to meet your neighbours in the new urban world.  

The dog park is the the new town square - all urban villages should have a dog park!  The dog park is used seven days a week year-round, unlike playing fields and many non dog parks. The dog park is as important to many, as the recreation centre or library is to others.  

Everybody needs a drink after a long day and a good walk.

Downtown needs to be more dog-friendly.

This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's Condo Living section March 3, 2007.  

It always amazes me who is out walking in the coldest, darkest days of winter.  It is largely people out exercising their dog or dogs. Even in the dark at 6 a.m., when I’m heading to work, there always seems to be someone out walking his or her pet.

As a non-dog owner, the increasing importance of dogs in our contemporary urban culture continues to amaze me.  I think this is especially true for groups like the young professional and empty nester cultures — which, coincidentally, are also the primary markets for urban living. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising then that we are seeing more dogs along our urban side- walks and pathways and in our parks and plazas.

Literally thousands of Calgarians are in dog parks every evening walking their dogs and chatting with fellow citizens.

In its 13th annual housing survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, RBC Royal Bank said last year that 56 per cent of Canadians have pets in their homes. Experts say that probably works out to about five million dogs and seven million cats. The total market size of the Canadian pet industry was estimated at $3.8 billion in 2001.

City officials have estimated there are as many as 100,000 dogs in Calgary. As many as 2,000 may use the Southland Natural Park area alone on busy days.

“Pets are the new children. It’s the bottom line,” said Michael Bateman, of Chasin' Tails, a Calgary doggie day-care centre, in a recent Herald story.  Such centers offer everything from overnight boarding to boutique areas. In some ways, dogs are to urban living what children are to suburban living.

I appreciate that owning a dog in an urban centre presents a unique set of challenges.  How is housebreaking accomplished in a high-rise building?  Where and how can a large, energetic dog be exercised?  How can a dog be taught to ignore distractions such as traffic congestion and noise, crowded sidewalks, bicycles, roller bladers, interesting trash, back alleys, roadways — and, of course, other dogs?

One solution occurring in places such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix (who knew these were hot spots for urban living?) is the creation of “bark parks.” These differ from “off-leash” areas in that they are parks solely for the use of dogs and their owners.

They are often small parcels of land that are too small for development. They are fenced off and self-governed by a set of rules, much like a daycare (for example, dogs must behave, dogs must be accompanied by an owner, dogs must be healthy and owners must clean up after their dogs).  Some bark parks also have playground-like equipment for dogs to jump over, climb up and so on.

Though Calgary has over 300 “off leash” areas — which may be the most of any major city in Canada— it, to my knowledge, has no “bark parks.”  But you have to think someone is working on a “bark park” in Calgary!

Current policy in Calgary is “if there are no signs indicating it is an “off leash” area, assume it is strictly an on-leash only park.”  It is also surprising that I haven’t yet seen a Calgary condo listing that promotes dog- friendly amenities.

I have seen it many times in Vancouver listings, including one, which read, “just steps to George Wainborne Dog Park, Seawall and Granville Island.” It was amazing to me that not only did the dog park have a name, but that it was listed ahead of two of Vancouver’s biggest urban living attractions.

I am wondering when the first Calgary condo will be built with its own mini “bark park” on site — maybe already one exists?  While “bark parks” and “off leash” areas are great, there is still a need for both dog owners and non-dog owners to learn to share our public spaces including sidewalks. As a non-dog owner, I didn’t appreciate the importance of off leash activities until I started to do a little digging (no pun intended).

I didn’t know “off leash” time is important for dogs to learn to socialize with humans and other dogs. I didn’t know it makes dogs less aggressive and helps reduce neurotic activities such as barking, two benefits which are in the best interests of non-dog owners.

I also discovered dogs are part of urban socialization for humans, especially those who are single or new to the area — as having a dog helps people make friends

There is also research that says dog owners are more physically active than non-dog owners as they are more motivated to get out every day and take their dog (or dogs) for a walk.

I learned there are now “woof and hoof ” outings where dog owners get together on a regular basis to walk their dogs and chat about life (sounds like the Running Room’s programs for joggers and walkers).

Last Word

It used to be that urban planners were primarily interested in making urban areas more pedestrian-friendly places, but now they also have to ensure they are also dog friendly.

As a Calgary urbanite for 20 years, I have certainly seen this evolution happening on my street, in the park across from my house and at the “off leash” area a few blocks away.

Comments:

RJ writes: 100, 000 dogs in Calgary alone huh? I can believe it, maybe even more....I'd say at least one in every ten homes has a dog. Now what we need is playgrounds built within a dog park (none that I have found)....if I could run both my four legged and two legged children at the same time that would be awesome!

Ann Toohey, PhD student, Community Health Science, University of Calgary writes:  My MSc research indicated that older adults (+50) who walk their dogs 4 times/week or more had a higher sense of community than those who walked their dogs less frequently, or non-dog owners. And of course they were much more likely to get 150 min/week of moderate, neighbourhood-based physical activity (as per public health recommendations). For more information on Tooley's MSc research

If you like this blog, you will like:

Calgary: A leader in address urban issues?

What is urban living and who really cares?

Calgary: The Dog Park Capital of North America

The Suburbs Move to City Centre in Calgary

I have lived in Calgary's city centre for over 20 years and observed the evolution of the different communities from cottage houses to new urban communities with a mix of residential homes.  During that time I have also visited many city centres in cities across North America from Portland to Ottawa from Vancouver to Miami. While I have seen some infill homes (the removal of an old cottage home to create one or two new homes) nowhere have I seen anything on the scale of what has been happening in Calgary's city centre.  

In every community within 10 km of the downtown Calgary there is an infill under construction on nearly  every block. Literally hundreds of new homes are being built in the city centre, in addition to hundreds of new condos in mid and high-rise towers. 

The infill homes are on the same scale as the homes in the suburbs starting at  2,000+sf of living space and two car garage.  More and more young families are moving into the communities revitalizing them. I recently looked at the civic census and over 4,500 children and teens live in the north-side city centre communities alone where a lot of the infilling is happening. These communities have great access to elementary Jr highhigh schools  and three post secondary schools, as well as major hospital and children's hospital. 

While Calgary is often criticized for its large carbon footprint is probably the most contiguous urban region in North America with few edge cities and one of the most dense city centres with respect to commercial and residential development.

The following are some photos I took on my morning walk today. 

 

I had to take a second look when I turned on to this Hillhurst street in Calgary's thriving city centre.  At first glance you would think it is a parade of show homes in a new suburb 20+km from downtown. But no this is just one of many streets with multiple infill homes being built within 5 km of dowtown. 

While most of the old homes get torn down some are recycled and repurposed like this one. 

Further along the same street are some older infills with mature gardens like this one. Reminds me of my recent walks through Chicago's Gold Coast community.  

 I love the diversity of design and materials. No cookie cutter homes here. However there is the twin phenomena i.e. when lot divided two homes of similar  design get built so it looks like a series of twins. 

I love the diversity of design and materials. No cookie cutter homes here. However there is the twin phenomena i.e. when lot divided two homes of similar  design get built so it looks like a series of twins. 

 Strollers, bikes and trikes are a common site on the front lawns and verandas. There is also often chalk art on the sidewalk. Playgrounds in these communities have all had mega makeovers to become family gathering places. 

Strollers, bikes and trikes are a common site on the front lawns and verandas. There is also often chalk art on the sidewalk. Playgrounds in these communities have all had mega makeovers to become family gathering places. 

 There is even a new sense of design emerging that incorporates sloped roof lines that reflect the old prairie grain elevator and the jagged rocky mountains.  This house also has an alley home at the back .  

There is even a new sense of design emerging that incorporates sloped roof lines that reflect the old prairie grain elevator and the jagged rocky mountains.  This house also has an alley home at the back .  

A neighbour's backyard becomes the kid's personal playground just like in the suburbs.

One of the many upgraded playgrounds in Calgary's City Centre.  No home is more than a few blocks from a playground.  

The Bow View pool is one of many family amenities in Calgary's City Centre.  

The Riley Park wading pool is park is a summer oasis for young families.  Calgary has over 5,000 parks and 700 km of pathways with the City Centre being the hub.  

Other blogs that might be of interest: 

Calgary: City of Parks & Pathways   

Urban Cottage Living & Gentrification  

 

Urban cottage living & Gentrification!

Recently I have become fascincated with the tiny urban cottages that still exist on almost every block in my mid-century inner-city community. Even after 25 years of constant infilling these cottages remain as reminders of how people lived just two generations ago. There is no room in these homes for a bedroom for every person living there.  There is no master bedroom. no walk-in closets, no media room or home office.

It is interesting to note that, in the '40s '50s and '60s families were larger yet homes were smaller.  These urban cottages are about the size of today's urban condo i.e. 700 to 800 square feet. Some of the new homes being built next to them have an "owners retreat" that is as big or larger. Every new house has a garage that is at least half the size of these mid-century cottages. 

As Canadians have become more and more urban dwellers, we have also become more and more creatures of "comfort, convenience and privacy" (click to see blog on this topic). The ultimate status symbol is the big house with all of the bells and whistles i.e. every member has their own bedroom and own bathroom - heaven forbid we should share. No wonder there is a sense of "entitlement" in youth today! 

As I wander the streets of my neighbourhood I often wonder if those living in these tiny cottage homes could have envisioned the million dollar mansions that are currently being built around them and all the other changes that have taken place in just 50 years. 

I also wonder if we can really envision what this community or others in our city will look like in 50 years.  Will today's mansions be converted into rooming houses like many of the larger homes of the early 20th century were. Or, will we be tearing down the mansions in favour of some other form of urban living.   

One thing is for sure...we will be adapting to a new economic and environmental reality in 2060. Life is just a continuous series of adaptation!

A typical urban cottage on the pariries. White picket fence, porch and large windows make it very welcoming.

Cottage has been adapted for business use, but retains its charm.

Cottage has been renovated to add more space and porch has become outdoor patio / living room

Ranch style cottage

Many of the cottages are today dwarfedby the trees.  This is a lot harder to do with a two story house and underground utlities.

One of the larger cottages. Lots of windows. One of the few with a side entrance.

Red Riding Hood would have loved this little fairy tale like house with the Christmas tree decorations in the tree. 

One of the more unique cottages in the neighbourhood.

One of the few cottages that are set back from the street. You really get a sense of how small they are.  You can see the monster mansion that has been built next door.

There is still an entire block of original urban cottages that seem untouched by time.  

Across the street from the block with the original urban cottages is a row of new infills.  The contrast is wonderful as the new homes have more colour, more design variations and will keep the community thriving for another 50 years.  These new homes accommodate the needs of new families which means the parks, playgrounds and school yards are full of screaming children.  

Example of new mansions that replace the tiny cottages from the '40s.  They come in all styles from contemporary to traditional.  

A blog of urban cottages boarded up and ready for demolition, to be replaced by condos that will cost or rent for twice as much resulting in a decline in the diversity and vitality of the community i.e. gentrification. 

Example of condo projects that replace urban cottages. This is a seniors complex that replace a previous block of tiny cottages for seniors.  It is located next to a power transformer and a homeless shelter and near the Bow River pathway.   It is unfortunate that it isn't a multi-generational complex with say 75% seniors and 25% young artists to add more diversity to the community. 

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 

 

Wreck City: The Experience of Experimentation

As a recent transplant to Calgary, I’m constantly absorbing, searching and learning, about the city, its offerings and its character. I came here with a blank slate, no expectations (having never been here before) or real understanding of the city's identity. Specifically seeking to understand cultural identity, as a creative worker, I tried to piece together some pillars – the larger art institutions, the creative spaces, the galleries and those making it happen. What is harder to tap into is the essence of the cultural experience in a city – the organic, the happenstance, and the interventions that create a positive, vibrant, rich environment.

Thus, I was excited to visit Wreck City: An Epilogue for 809 – the recent public art installation happening in response to nine houses, including beloved garage gallery 809, set for demolition. With 8 curators (Matthew Mark Bourree, Caitlind r.c. Brown, Jennifer Crighton, Brandon Dalmer, Andrew Frosst, John Frosst, Shawn Mankowske, and Ryan Scott.) inviting over 100 artists to participate, this project was something I had not experienced the likes of before, in my  years of passionate exploration of public art. Some works were responsive to the architectural elements of the house, others were about playful interaction with the four walls, while some touched on the past, previous residents and the lives they lived. 

One of the many notes left by the over 8,000 visitors to Wreck City. Illustrates the importance of engagement in public art.

I felt a genuine joy when swinging on a swing, crossing a wooden footbridge linked between two houses, or lying on the floor to see a room created upside-down. I felt simultaneously sad and inspired coming across a wall of messages from “Wreck City” visitors. Their thoughts, reactions and emotions were revealing what Calgarians from all walks of life are thinking about their city. Comments ranged from -   'I feel like crying', 'More fun public art like Wreck City, unpretentious and accessible...', to  'Make it livable. Walk, bike, local markets not big box', 'There is beauty in destruction'.

Though some spaces and works were more successful than others, it was the overall experience of this project that was invigorating, and we need more of it, not just in Calgary, but in many North American cities. We have not left enough room for active culture – continuous, organic happenings that grow naturally as part of our city, or pop-up unexpectedly. Sometimes the best experiences or memories we have happen when we least expect them, when they surprise us, when our plans change and develop. It is similar with art – it needs room to breathe and grow. In our cities, we have over-planned and over-stipulated, placing value on a controlled outcome, rather than the process of creation. The intrigue, the provocation and the daring are replaced with the safe, the comfortable, and the inoffensive. We have created public art with an 'X' to mark the spot – it will fulfil this need, it will check that box, and poof: uninteresting public art.

The importance of experimentation is that it creates a sense of freedom and magic, and opens up the city. It demonstrates that creativity is valued, that all citizens have a voice in their city, and a desire to be a place that embraces fun, new energy, and a dose of self-criticality. Wreck City was an opportunity for people to see Calgary let its hair down, and trust a group of individuals to change the site as they wanted

Bridge by Alia Shahab

Whatever your opinion of the project, its great success was in its transitory, experimental nature. Turning the city into a lab for creativity is something that allows us to share experiences more democratically – with neighbors, residents, artists, business owners, friends and strangers- because there are no boundaries, and art is everywhere.

Wreck City was playful, provocative, and got people together, from all ages and backgrounds. Such experiences shows what our city looks like underneath, stripping away the boundaries (the gallery wall, the museum doors), the regulations and rules, and participating with others to experience fun, sadness, frustrations, together. 

Weaving by Suzen Green

Artist Jeremy Pavka

I think Calgarians are looking for more of these experiences, and want a city that is rich and diverse in interest. There is great power in the unexpected and allowing people to explore and form their own opinions. When we dictate the outcome of the artwork, we are telling people what they should know, how to experience. When there is no room for thought or interaction, it’s a one-way conversation.

Experiments in public space change how we view things and alter our expectations. An un-manufactured experience – raw and genuine- It asks us to be part of something greater, to share, and to learn.

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Everyday Art Tourist recently relocated to Calgary from the GTA and works in the creative sector. With over 7 years of experience in both Canada and the US, large museums, small non-profits, and government, Everyday Art Tourist’s focus is on public art and cultural policy. EAT will be a regular guest contributor to EverydayTourist. 

EverydayTourist note: I received the guest blog this week from a new Calgarian and thought it captured some to the ideas that I have been blogging about recently Calgary: North America’s Newest Design City and Alberta’s Dream and Wonderland public artworks.  I think the author correctly points out that most public art in Calgary doesn’t really capture the public’s imagination and is more or less ignored.  Perhaps it is because it is too contrived, too planned, and too safe and too soon becomes part of the urban landscape.  I believe “Wreck City” had over 8,000 people visit in just one week, the same week that Jaume Plensa’s Alberta’s Dream was installed downtown to almost no reaction.  It created a buzz and an urgency that rarely happen with public art. 

Look for more guest blogs from Everyday Art Tourist in the future.

Cities of Opportunity: Hamilton/Calgary

Just received an email from a childhood friend with a link to a 1940s promotional film "Portrait of a City" about Hamilton, Ontario (our hometown) that sent shivers up my spine.  

It was a 20-minute marketing film that talked about Hamilton as the "City of Opportunity" with an ambitious and enterprising spirit. How the City was the "United States Industry in Canada." here were shots of Hamilton's amazing parks, recreation and sports activities.  

It painted a picture of Hamilton as a place of incredible beauty, with bustling streets, shops and the largest open-air farmer's market in Canada. Hamilton was a city on the rise both a tourist destination and one of heavy industry. A proud city!  What a difference 60 years can make?  

  Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Moving to Calgary

I couldn't help but compare Hamilton in the '40s to Calgary, Alberta today.  A city that is currently Canada's "City of Opportunity" as evidenced by recently being called the #1 destination for U-haul vehicles in Canada (Annual National U-Haul Migration Trend Report). "We're moving to Calgary" has been heard by parents across Canada from their children looking for opportunities to pursue their careers.  

Today, Calgary is often referred to as the most American of Canadian cities with heavy investment from the US oil and gas industry.  It also has the most expats of any city in Canada.  Just this week, the Investment Property Bank ranked Calgary #1 for commercial real estate performance in 2012, beating out San Francisco, Houston, Perth and 28 other cities. 

It is ironic that early this month, Calgary Tourism and Economic Development released its promotional video linking tourism and economic development in much the same manner as the 1940s Hamilton film "Portrait of City."  The only difference being it is shorter and faster paced - a reflection of the times. 

Population Growth

It is interesting to look at where Hamilton ranked with regard to the top 10 ten cities, population-wise, in Canada over the past 60 years (Source: Urban Canada, 2nd Edition, Harry H. Hiller).  

In the 1930s, Hamilton was #5, dropping to #7 in the 40s and 50s, then up to #6 in the 60s and 70s, then down to #9, where it has been ever since.  

At the same time, Calgary moved from #7 in the 30s, wasn't even in the top 10 in the 40s, then #10 in the 50s, #9 in the 60s and 70s, jumping to #6 in the 80s and 90s and then #5 in the 00s and #4 in the 10s.  

The other winners in the "Cities of Opportunity" in Canada over the past 60 years are Ottawa, Edmonton and Mississauga, the losers are Windsor and London.  

Calgary the new Hamilton?

In many ways, Calgary has replaced Hamilton as Canada's "City of Opportunity" since the mid-20th century.  It is Calgary that now has the strong, ambitious enterprising spirit. I had coffee just this week with a young professional (creative class) who moved from Hamilton to Calgary. She liked Hamilton and thought there was lots of potential, but their wasn't the collective ambition, nor the enterprising spirit needed to capitalize on the opportunities.  She commented on how many former Hamiltonians she had met in Calgary since moving here only a month ago. 

I remember attending an International Downtown Association conference in the 90s and one of the senior Downtown managers saying, "every city has its heyday."  Those words have stuck with me.

While I don't believe Calgary has had its heyday yet, we should realize that we need to continue to adapt to an ever-changing world if we are going to remain Canada's "City of Opportunity." Nobody stays on top forever!

Ironically this blog was originally written in 2013, now in 2017 Calgary has fallen into hard times and some are wondering if its heyday was in fact in the early 21st century. 

Link to: Hamilton: Portrait of a City Film 

Link to: Calgary: RightHereYYC video