Calgary: 1% for public art is a pittance!

Editor's Note: This blog was commissioned by the Calgary Herald and published as a guest editorial on Saturday, February 21st in response to City of Calgary Councillor Peter Demong's pending motion to suspend the City's spending on public art for 2015.) Photos and photos and reader's comments have been added to create a more engaging read. 

Downtown Calgary has hundred's of public artworks scattered throughout the streets, parks, plazas, lobbies and +15 elevated walkway. It is a huge art park! 

Reader's Comments: 

BL writes: With respect to public art. I am a great lover of art and a believer that art enhances life. The city's public art policy fails because it is arbitrary and because it is poorly implemented.

There are many great examples of public art in Calgary and around the world; so the debate should not be about the value of art, rather the debate should be about how to encourage and implement a public art policy which enhances our built environment instead of causing people to say WTF is that!? 

To date, most of the art projects funded by the city's policy have been of questionable quality. There are those who believe that art is of value for the simple fact that it incites a reaction, but let's face it, a piece of crap is still just a piece of crap even if you call it art.

We should be asking why the public art funded by many private donors and companies, is usually successful, while the "art" commissioned by the city often turns out to be so poor.

My simple answer to that question is that artists working for private benefactors are likely more motivated to ensure that they please those benefactors; while artists working for a public committee made up of volunteers and bureaucrats, none of whom have any "skin in the game" are less likely to produce a high quality result.

The whole selection process is also questionable since the private benefactor can use whatever sourcing manner he may wish, including very simply sole-sourcing the artist based solely on his merit; while the public process of judging and evaluation may even ensure that the very best artist may not be selected, and might even be discouraged to participate.

Like many good public policies, the concept may be sound but the devil is in the details.

Blog: Calgary: 1% for public art is a pittance!

Let the debate begin yet AGAIN? Is public art a luxury? Does it add any real value to the everyday lives of everyday Calgarians?

Before the current same old Council debate on public art goes any further, somebody on Council should say, “let’s stop the micro managing and act like Board of Directors and not like a working committee!”  Can you imagine the Board of Directors of an major oil company saying to their senior staff,’” I think we should start the cost cutting with the art acquisition budget!”

If Council really wants to save - or delay public art spending - in 2015, it would be wiser to look strategically at the City’s $22 billion dollar capital and operating budget for the 2015 to 2018 period.  It should really be asking Administration to provide them with a couple of scenarios that would result in say a 3% and 6% savings in 2015.

What would make even more sense would be to ask Administration to determine how they can better manage its capital projects to bring them in on budget. It is not unusual for the City’s capital projects to be tens of millions of dollars over budget. That is a luxury we can’t afford going forward.

Any budget cuts for 2015 should be strategic, not a “knee-jerk” decisions.  At this point we don’t even know how much money will be saved - Demong estimates $2 to $4 million, a pittance in multi-billion dollar budget. As some of my corporate board member friends like to say, “that is just a rounding out error.”

Value of Public art

One of the things I love about the City’s “1% for Public Art Policy” (1% of the budget for all capital projects up to $50 million must be set aside for public art and .5% for projects over $50 million) is that it places public art in our suburban parks, LRT stations, recreation centres and yes even bridges. 

For some young Calgarians, it will be their first encounter with “real” art. It will be an opportunity for the child to say, “What’s that?” and for parents or grandparents to begin a discussion that could go on for years. Priceless.

Sure, I could go on and say things like public art is important for creating a sense of place, celebrating local history, adding character and charm, creating community pride or heaven forbid, “beauty.”

This little guy seems to be quite intrigued by the ghost-like figure made up of letters from different languages by Jaume Plensa. 

Importance of a Creative Culture

It is not easy to quantitatively measure the value of public art. In 2010, Calgary Economic Development’s 76-page profile of our City’s Creative Industries provides some facts and figures that relate to the significance of creative individuals in our city.

Did you know?

  • 67,000 Calgarians or 8% of the workforce work in creative industries, everything from artists to architects, from website developers to CEOs.
  • Calgary ranks 3rd of Canada’s major cities for attracting cultural migrants. Yes, people move to Calgary for reasons other than to work in the oil patch!
  • There are 19,000 creative establishments in Calgary – everything from artists’ studios to recording studios, from major architectural firms to private art galleries.
  • 7,000 students graduate each year from a creative industry program at one of Calgary’s post-secondary schools.
  • Cultural tourism is one of the fastest growing and lucrative segments of the North American travel industry.  
  • In the profile, Calgary Economic Development also recognizes the importance of fostering a creative (out-of-the-box thinking) culture as a critical to generating new ideas.  Great cities are incubators for new ideas!

While it is hard to say any one public artwork is critical to fostering a creative and critical thinking city, collectively, they make our city an attractive place to work for the creative class, as well as others.

Families love interacting with this public art piece in Vancouver's English Bay. 

Last Word

Over the past 30 years, I have sat on several selection committees for public art. Without exception the community representatives shared with the other jurors how excited the community is to be getting public art.

Brookfield Residential has already created a major piece of public art for its new community of SETON. Why? Because Brookfield gets it, recognizing the value of public art as one of the pillars of a great community.

The 1% for Public Art Policy, initiated in 2003, is just over 10 years old – a very short time in city building.  Calgary has over 200 communities; I don’t think we should stop creating public art until there are several pieces in each of these communities. 1% is a pittance to invest in making a good city GREAT!

By Richard White, February 21, 2015

Chicago's Millennium Park has become a mega tourist attraction mainly because of two fun interactive public artworks. 

Chicago's Millennium Park has become a mega tourist attraction mainly because of two fun interactive public artworks.