By Richard White, May 16, 2014
It hurts me to say this, but “do we really need all of this public art?” Over the past year, I have visited dozens of cities making a point to always seek out the public art wherever we go. I have seen literally hundreds of public artworks, big and small, abstract and representational, local and international artists. I have served on a jury for selecting a public artwork for a Calgary LRT station and I have written several blogs and columns on the pros and cons of public art.
In all of my travels (dozens of cities across North America) I have only experienced four public artworks that I feel have captured the public’s imagination enough to make them stop, look and interact with the art. Sadly, most public art within a few months quickly becomes just a part of urban landscape. More often than not, public art doesn’t really add to the urban experience by creating a unique sense of place or a memorable experience.
While I love art, I appreciate that I am in the minority; that for many, there is not much public appeal in public art that is being installed around out city (and other cities). It is therefore not surprising that many Calgarians as well as many in other cities, question the value of spending tax dollars on art that adds little value to their life.
Fun & Interactive
Of the four pieces of public art that did engage the public, two were in Chicago’s Millennium Park – Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa and Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. These were by far the most successful with hundreds of people actively engaged by their intuitive playfulness.
In Vancouver, “A-maze-ing Laughter” by artist Yue Minjun in a small pocket park (Morton Park) next to English Bay beach seems to always have people young and old wandering around the 14 (twice life size) bronze cherub-like, laughing figures. The park is full of laughter and smiles, something urban spaces need more of.
The fourth piece is Jeff de Boer’s “When Aviation was Young” at the Calgary Airport West Jet waiting area. This two-piece, circus-looking sculpture with toy airplanes that spin around when you turn the large old-style key is a huge hit with young children waiting to board a plane. Like most successful public art, it is fun, and encourages public interaction.
In Calgary’s downtown the two pieces I see the public most often stop, take pictures and interact with are “The Famous Five” on Olympic Plaza and “Conversation” on Stephen Avenue Walk. Interesting to note that they are both figurative, pedestrian scale and located in an active public space. Downtown Calgary boasts over 100 public artworks, but none of them are a “must see” attractions (at best they area a “nice to see” and get a walk-by glance).
For all the hoopla over Jaume Plensa’s “Wonderland” (big white head) when it was first installed on the plaza in front of the Bow Tower, today it sits alone attracting only a few visitors a day.
This is not just a Calgary dilemma. Even in Chicago, major public artworks by the likes of Picasso, Calder and Miro (three of the 20th century’s most respected artists) situated on office plazas just a few blocks from Millennium Park, are devoid of any spectators outside of office hours.
Big Names / Big Deal
Commissioning a big name artist clearly doesn’t guarantee the artwork will be successful in capturing the public’s imagination.
Claus Oldenburg’s “Big Sweep” sculpture in front of the Denver Art Museum or “Roof Like a Liquid Flung Over the Plaza” by the Acconci Studio on the plaza of the Memphis Performing Arts Centre are both major pieces by established artists, yet they have done nothing to animate the space around them.
Perhaps we need to thing differently about commissioning public art. Nashville has a program, which commissions local artists to create bike racks that serve a dual purpose. Some are very clever and some I think are tacky, but at $10,000 each you can afford to have a few duds.
In the early ‘90s the Calgary Downtown Association initiated the “Benches as sculpture” project, commissioning local arts to create sculptures that also serve as benches. The artwork (benches) have become a valued addition to the downtown landscape, so much so that the Provincial judges lobbied to make sure the “Buffalos” were returned to the courthouse plaza after it was renovated to add a parking lot underneath.
It hurts me to say this, but Calgary is not being well served by the millions of dollars we have invested in public art, both publicly and privately. In my opinion, what would be best is if we pool all of the available public art money (bonus density and 1% for public art) and create dedicated art parks. I am thinking we could have sites in each quadrant and perhaps a couple in the greater downtown that are designated for new artworks. When a new project is approved the public art contribution would be designated to the closest art park.
The current, “democratic” approach of placing public art of all shapes, sizes and subject matter randomly throughout the city (parks, LRT stations, bridges, plazas) simply fragments and isolates the public art experience. What was supposed to be a program to humanize and make the urban environment more interesting and attractive, has only served to outrage many and create rifts in our community.
The time has come for Calgary and most cities to rethink their public art policy.