Do we really need all of this public art?

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.

Found this public public art piece in downtown Portland the "Bike Capital of America." What do you think? Does Calgary need more bike art? More horses? You can't please everyone. 

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.

Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" is so popular with the public that it has a nickname - THE BEAN! When the public gives an artwork a nickname you know they like it!

"Root Like a Liquid Flung Over the Plaza" by Acconci Studio graces the corner in front of the Memphis Performing Arts Center.  It has many of the qualities of Kapoor's "Cloud Gate," it is fun and there are interesting reflections and places to sit, yet it attracts no crowds.  

Juame Plensa's "Crown Fountain" is popular day and night. It is a wonderful place to linger.  It attracts thousands of people most days spring, summer and fall.  

Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" located on an office plaza in downtown Calgary attracts only a few visitors a day. 

Come on admit it, even this photo of "A-maze-ing Laughter" brings a smile to your face.

Calder's "Flamingo" was unveiled in 1974.  It is fun, colourful and playful piece, but it doesn't invite any interaction. Over the years it has become less and less a magnet for tourist and locals to visit.  

William McElcheran's "Conversation" on Stephen Avenue Walk is very popular with the public.  Often people will place a coffee cup in their hand or add a scarf to one of the figures.  The public loves to have their picture taken with the two businessmen. 

Barbara Paterson's "Famous Five" sculpture in Calgary's Olympic Plaza invites the public to come and sit with them, have your picture taken and some even like to leave a tip.

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.

Claus Oldenburg and Coosjevan Bruggen's "Big Sweep" sits outside the entrance to the Denver Art Museum. It is fun, but static, and there is signage next to it with several rules that restrict how you can interact with it. 

This piece sits outside the Tucson Public Library in their Cultural District.  I couldn't find information on the artist or the title.  We passed this piece several times and never saw anyone stopping to look at it. 

The City of Calgary allows office developers to build taller buildings in return for pubic art on their plazas like this one. The developers get more space to rent and in theory the public gets a better quality urban space to enjoy. In reality this space on the southwest plaza at Bankers Hall is enjoyed by only by a few smokers a day. 

Nashville's fun bike racks as art program adds some whimsy to this streetscape. 

Lessons Learned

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.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

The Famous Five at Olympic Plaza 

Public Art Love It or Hate It

Putting the public back into public art

Confessions of a public art juror