Controversy, blue rings and moving forward

Blue-Ring-Sculpture-Calgary-Sun-Photo

The Blue Ring (pictured above a.k.a. Travelling Light) is shaping up to be the public art story of the year in Calgary.  With only a few short weeks left in the year, it would seem unlikely something else will overshadow it.

So what is the big deal this time around?

Tomorrow morning, according to an article in the Calgary Sun this past Thursday, a proposal will be brought to City Council by Councillor Shane Keating, et al in the form of Notice of Motion 2013-34.

Councillor Keating (along with Councillors Evan Wooley, Druh Farrell, Peter Demong, Joe Magliocca, Richard Pootmans and Mayor Naheed Nenshi) who all signed the notice of motion, propose to “increase (citizen) participation in the process of selecting public art.”

Together they propose that (City) “Administration be directed to undertake a review of the (Public Art) Policy”, including (as stated in NM 2013-34):

  • developing options for a sliding scale of percentage funding based on the amount of capital budget for projects, including consideration of placing a maximum dollar amount for any capital project;
  • developing options for greater public participation including but not limited to changing the composition of project selection juries, the method of selection of the project jury, as well as increasing opportunities for input by the general public into the selection process for the public art;
  • developing a strategy to help build local capacity of artists to compete for public art projects locally, nationally and internationally;
  • amending the Policy for greater flexibility in the use of a portion of Public Art funding for the restoration and/or enhancement of on-site heritage assets;
  • amending the Policy for greater flexibility in incorporating public art as functional components of the infrastructure; and
  • developing a strategy for pooling of funds in locations with a high public benefit or for long term creation of large iconic or monumental pieces at key locations within the city;

What does this mean?

1.)    There is some feedback going to the Councillor’s offices from voters that the “Policy” as it now stands is deficient and needs to be reviewed (and/or updated);

2.)    Alternatively, there is the possibility that those involved in the process of administrating the “Policy” are constrained by rules in the Policy as it now stands and notice weaknesses and challenges that should be amended ten-years after the “Policy” was enacted by a previous Council in 2004;

3.)    Or in the further alternative – both.

One of the more controversial proposals is to increase citizen involvement in selecting artwork, as stated in the Calgary Sun and also mentioned in the Notice of Motion.

As someone who has worked in the field and having dealt often with average citizens and their connection to art – I am of two minds on this topic.  I see merits of increased involvement from the citizenry, but also see merits in not doing this as well.

Let me explain why.

1.)    By increasing citizen involvement in the selection (which may or may not include the potential for a plebiscite) process:

  1. PRO: The citizenry should not complain that they are not involved in the selection of major public artworks;
  2. CON: The City probably will end up getting “art selected by committee” which is a most-definite and sure way to select forgettable, average or below-average art that does not stand the test of time;

2.)    By keeping the status quo or involving only those who are artists, arts professionals (i.e. curators, administrators, instructors, dealers and other related professionals) and/or interested and involved citizens in the selection process:

  1. PRO: Depending on the jury selected for each proposal the probable outcomes will most likely be stronger on average, and potentially more controversial as a result;
  2. CON: There is the potential to have continued negative press with charges of “wasting of public money, etc.”

On average, I would tend to fall on the side of option two, where increased or continued arts-aware selection committee members are convened to select further artworks as part of the Public Art process.

Consistently, I would rather have strong artworks that create controversy, than average artworks that create none.

There are a number of obvious parallels between the “Blue Ring” story and the controversy surrounding the purchase of the seminal American artist Barnet Newman’s painting Voice of Fire which was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1990.  The controversy was enormous.  In fact it is still very much alive in some quarters nearly 25 years later which speaks to the controversy that raged in 1990.  Regardless of that fact, it is my opinion that was a very good acquisition made by the NGC.  If anything the controversy surrounding the Voice of Fire only added to the previously existing national importance of this work.

Controversy is not a significant problem in my books as it relates to visual art.  I welcome controversy.

All great artworks and movements have had controversy attached to it at some point.  It is the controversy that engages, reflects undercurrents and discussions that the artworks talks about, and adds value to the artwork and the movements they are part of.

Thank you to the citizens of Calgary for making Travelling Light (or more colloquially known as the Blue Ring) the subject of controversy.  I still have yet to see the artwork, but will in due course. Like the Peace Bridge, it has become something we can be (or will be) proud of and something that adds to the fabric of what makes this such a great city.

So City Councillors discuss this all you want, but please do not make artwork selection a plebiscite issue.

The Parks and Recreation, Public Art Programme professionals are doing their part, the Calgary Arts Development Authority staff and the volunteer citizens on the Public Art Board, along with all the other arts organizations (MOCA, AGC, Glenbow, IMCA, Contemporary Calgary, TNG, Truck, Stride, IKG, Nickle, Esker, Untitled, cSPACE, National Music Centre, Alberta Craft Council, Epcor Centre and the many others including the commercial galleries, festivals, theatres, dance companies, artist cooperatives and underground collectives, etc.) are all trying to make this a great city as it relates to the arts.  It is an amazingly vibrant community that many don’t appreciate.  This is not an easy city to be a successful visual artist in.  They are doing the best they can, with the resources that they are given.  Please don’t make it more difficult than it has to be.

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One comment on “Controversy, blue rings and moving forward

  1. […] where there is little, or to be kind, marginal interest in it. This is evidenced by the ongoing controversy over spending on public art and the 100 year history of various groups trying to establish a civic […]

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