Confessions of a Public Art Juror

By Richard White, March 16, 2014

Recently, I was involved in a jury for a major public artwork (budget $500,0000+) being commissioned by the City of Calgary. Though I am not at liberty to give specifics, I thought EDT readers would be interested in knowing what happens when a City of Calgary public art jury is sequestered for a day to choose a public artwork.

Of the 17 people I counted involved in the jurying process, six had votes; the others consisted of eight engineers and three from the City of Calgary’s Public Art office.  The engineers were there to provide the jurors with technical information as need and to ask questions of the artists regarding installation and maintenance.

Of the sic voting members, there were three people from Calgary’s arts community, one from the City and one “shared” vote from the community (there were actually two community representatives, as the site linked two different communities, but their scores were combined to create one vote between them). 

This meeting followed one held in Fall 2013, when the same jurors reviewed over 50+ submissions from which three artists were chosen to present concepts for the site.  If memory serves me correctly, we were unanimous in our decision on the three short-listed artists.

Given the recent controversy over the Travelling Light (aka Blue Circle) sculpture on the Airport Trail Bridge, I think we were all very anxious about ensuring we chose the right work (whatever “right” means).  While all juries discuss the public accessibility of the work being considered, in this case there was a heightened awareness that this piece had to have widespread public appeal while still having artistic integrity.

The Drop, by inges indee, 2009, is a 65 foot raindrop on the plaza next to the Vancouver Convention Centre.  This is the same team of artists who created "Traveling Light" in Calgary. 

Family of Man, by Mario Armegol (1967) is ten 21-foot nude figures located on the plaza of the old Board of Education Building in downtown Calgary.

Homage, by Derek Besant (1989 is a 20 foot by 18 foot by 10 foot sculpture located on the campus of Mount Royal University, in Calgary.

The Process

Jurors were given background material on each of the artists a week before this second meeting to refresh our memories.  At the beginning of the jurying session, we were also reminded of the goals of the project and why we had chosen these artists.  I won’t bore you with all the details and needless to say the goal was to choose an artwork that would capture the imagination of Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds.

The City’s Public Art Manager then reviewed samples of each artist’s previous public artwork followed by each artist making a 20-minute presentation of their proposed artwork for the site, as well as the rationale for how it would enhance the site’s sense of place and capture the public’s interest and imagination.  The artist presentations were followed by 40-minutes of open “questions and answers.”

I couldn’t help but think maybe we had too much information.  Most people will just see the artwork and immediately decide if they like it - or not.  They won’t have access to or knowledge of the artist’s previous work. They won’t be privy to the artist’s rationale for the work. Sure, some may read about the rationale later or maybe even before they see it, but the majority won’t. Public art is usually a gut response.

Lack of colour 

It is always interesting to hear public art artists talk about their work.  Unlike artists who exhibit primarily in galleries, they are used to talking about their work, as going through a rigorous jurying process; it is part of what they do.  It is a bit like an RFP (request for proposals) process i.e. you are lucky if you get short-listed 25% of the time and selected 5% of the time.

I am also always amazed by their passion, depth of knowledge and the way they connect elements from a diversity of fields of study like mathematics, physics, poetry, history and current events. It is like they flaneur intellectually the many divergent parameters of the public art commission; site, community, city, their work and the work of others to come up with the idea, the metaphor and the materials which become their concept, their statement.  It is a fascinating journey.

I was particularly intrigued by how “out-of-town” artists see our City.  One told us his piece had lots of colour because when he visited Calgary in October (each of the short-listed artists visited the site before coming up with their concept), he was surprised by our lack of colour.  This resonated with me, as I love colour, but one juror didn’t like the colours chosen so while I loved it, another didn’t.  It is impossible to please everyone – even if it is just seven jurors.

Another artist talked about how “sunny” Calgary is and that is why the city is so “optimistic.”  We all smiled.  He also talked about Calgary’s magnificent vistas, something I think we too often take for granted.  It was these elements that inspired him and his team’s proposal.

One artist was asked if he had considered using recycled materials and objects given his piece could be interpreted as an environmental statement.  He explained that uniform elements and materials were critical to his work and added, “people will see what they want in the art.  If you are an environmentalist, you will look for a statement about the environment. If you are a banker or accountant, you will probably look at the cost. The engineer will usually look at how it was constructed. I can just make the best art I can. I can’t worry about what the different publics will think and say.” 

Sadko (red) and Kabuki (yellow) were created bySoel Etrog in 1972. These twice life-size sculptures add much needed colour to downtown Calgary's 2nd Street SW and Bow Valley Square. Downtown Calgary is home to over 100 public artworks, making it one of the world's largest art parks. 

THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER, by Ron Moppett (2012) is 110 feet long and 13 feet high mural constructed out of .  956,231 unique tiles.  It too adds colour and fun to the downtown Calgary's landscape. 

"The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence," by Light & Soul (Daniel j. Kirk, Ivan Ostapenko and Kai Cabunoc-Boettcher) consists of several murals along the River Walk in Calgary's East Village.  This is a temporary installation that was completed in the summer of 2013 and will remain for 24 months.

The Great Debate

Following the question and answer period, the jurors debated the three proposals for over two hours. We talked about each work from many different perspectives. 

The top ten questions I heard were:

  1. Is it stimulating? Engaging?
  2. How does it relate to the history of the site, the community and the city?
  3. Is it innovative?
  4. Is it durable? What about maintenance?
  5. Will it create a meeting/gathering place?
  6. How will it be seen from afar and close up?
  7. Will it create a sense of place?
  8. Is it accessible? Will it work for school tours?
  9. Is it feasible for the proposed budget? (the artists were asked to present a budget)
  10. What are the installation problems and other challenges?

We talked about “quiet” or “silent” art, i.e. art that is minimal or subtle (i.e. doesn’t shout-out “look at me!”).  We used terms like “the vernacular in art,” “mathematics and art” and “engineering aesthetics.” We looked at the universe from the macro and molecular level.  The proposals made links to Stonehenge, the Rockies, Vancouver airport, Ford 150 trucks, pickup sticks, teepee poles and cell towers. We even managed to work in urban sprawl, cycling and nesting sites for birds into the debate.

The Decision

In the end, we had to choose one artwork. Each juror independently evaluated each proposal using a 1,000-point rating system developed by the City of Calgary.  All of the jurors’ scores were added up and the artist with the most points was chosen. In the end, five of the six votes selected the same piece as their number one pick, making it almost a unanimous decision again.

I should also note, all jurors acknowledged all three were strong proposals and all three could have been successful as public artworks for the site.   Hopefully, the one chosen will capture the imagination and the heart of the residents in the communities near where it will be installed, as well as all Calgarians and visitors.  Hopefully too it will stand the test of time, becoming something cherished for generations to come.

Cloud Gate aka The Bean is by Anish Kapoor and was installed in Chicago's Millennium Park in 2006. This giant bean-shaped polished stainless steel sculpture attracts thousands of visitors everyday, who love to look at and manipulate their reflections in the concave and convex mirror surface.  Everyone is smiling and laughing; people of all ages and from around the world are sharing the space in and around this work of art.  The public is engaged, which is what good public art should do. 

A-maze-ing Laughter, by Yue Minjun, was installed in a small park in Vancouver's West End in 2009 as part of the Vancouver Biennale.  It has now become a permanent part of the community and is very popular with tourist walking along the waterfront at English Bay.  It is still very popular with locals and tourist five years later. This piece of art has definitely capture the imagination of the public.  The public loves art that they can touch and interact with. 

Wonderland, Jaume Plensa, 2012, sits on a plaza in front of The Bow office tower in downtown Calgary.  It is a 37 foot high head, made of painted stainless steel.  The piece invites people to climb it as this young office worker decided to do on his lunch hour in his business clothes.  A security guard is now on duty to prevent anyone from climbing the sculpture in the future.  I understand the issue of liability, however, the artist should have know that it is important to allow the public to participate and interact with his work. The piece is too static, you look at it for a few minutes then what?  Plensa's "Crown Fountain" piece in Chicago's Millennium Park is one of the most successful public art pieces in the world today, because the the public is allowed to play with it. 

Last Word

The jurying process for choosing City of Calgary-commissioned public artworks is one of the most rigorous I have ever experienced in my 30 years as a visual arts curator, freelance writer, artist and juror. 

Though it is comprehensive, fair and professional, I can’t help but wonder if there is overthinking and overanalyzing to the extent that the sense of surprise, spontaneity and immediacy that is central to the public art experience is lost to the jurors. 

I wonder too if jurors are sometimes too influenced by the artist’s passion, presentation and personality.  Maybe it would be best if jurors were just given visuals of each artist’s proposal upon which to make the decision.  That way we’d be judging the art and only the art; just like the public.  I once heard “art should speak for itself.” 

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