Controversy is always a fascinating place especially when art is involved.
It usually ends up being a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of scenario. It is a pretty hard place to be in. It usually ends up being a situation where someone ends up being the bad guy.
This is one of those situations where I have to feel sorry for those involved, but as the saying used in this context goes – it is what it is.
A couple news reports today and maybe there will one or two more by the morning. CBC News broke the story early this morning and predictably because it involves controversy in the arts, the Calgary Sun is all over it and will have this one in tomorrow morning’s paper.
Briefly, it would appear that this seems to be a case of simple miscommunication; making assumptions that are not correct; and acting on them without asking the right questions or getting the right approvals.
My guess (without talking to any of the parties involved, and only using my finite knowledge of human nature) something like this probably unfolded. Of course, I could very well be corrected, and I would be happy to hear it if this is the case. This is my speculation about how this miscommunication probably occurred. Understand this is rank speculation on my part (so take it with a grain of salt):
Property manager has a meeting (whether it was a formal meeting or not, doesn’t matter) and says something to the effect of “I was driving past that utility box we have over by building X this morning. I noticed some punk (or whatever descriptor was used) decided to tag it overnight. I keep seeing these utility boxes around town, they are getting painted. In fact I saw someone working on one by my house a few days ago. It is good idea, nobody seems to tag them as much when they are painted. Why don’t we find an artist and give them a couple hundred bucks to do it for us. Maybe we should look into that.”
Perky little secretary (or executive assistant) pipes up and says something like, “there is an art supply store in one of our buildings, just a short distance away. They have art classes. My girlfriend and I are thinking of taking one of their courses sometime soon.”
Property manager says, “Oh great. Why don’t you contact them, find out the process and see if someone there might be interested in doing a painting for us. I guess we should probably figure out how best to do it. They might have to make a proposal of what they are thinking of doing or something like that. We will figure it out. We definitely don’t want something ugly.”
Secretary says, “I will go wander over sometime today.”
Property manager responds, ”sounds good. I will leave it in your capable hands. Let me know how it goes.”
Long story short, she probably wanders over to Swinton’s Art Supply Store since it is on Fisher Street close to the utility box in question. After discussion with someone that works there, she finds out some more information. I have attached below a Google street view image which is within 100 metres of where Swinton’s is and it is possible that this is the box that was painted based on info found in the Calgary Sun article and searching for utility boxes on that street using Google street maps. She meets with the property manager and passes on this information. She possibly may have brought over something put out by the City for the official utility box project that was on the bulletin board. After discussion, they decide to put up a sign at the art supply store that is somewhat close to what the City is doing. This would seem plausible as the artist has indicated she has taken workshops at Swinton’s in her cv. This is all speculation, of course.
There is no intent to do something wrong, they just wanted to beautify their property. They probably received a couple applications and together they decided on which artist will do it. One of the applications had trout jumping and the major public art project on Glenmore Trail is only a few blocks away. Since there has been little controversy about this project, they probably thought it would be safe to go with that theme, especially since the artist selected Mary-Leigh Doyle, had done six other utility boxes previously. Here is a picture of the Glenmore Trail fish, once again from Google street maps.
They sign the contract, get the artist to do it, and do all the right things that needed to be done – except contact the utility.
Then this probably happened. As the artist is painting a couple of the guys from Enmax are doing the rounds. They drive past and see her working on the utility box. Then as the Sun story quotes the artist, “Two men wearing hard hats walked up and said ‘nice painting. Who gave you permission to do this?’”
CORRECTION and EDIT (2014 June 12)
I found a posting that the artist did which is located here. I probably should have searched for prior to my writing this last night. In the grand scheme of things, it is a relatively moot point, as the information is not material. The only information that has changed, is that Mary-Leigh Doyle provided a physical address for where the utility box is located – 6712 Fisher Street SE in her blog post. It would appear as if the box is set back from the street about two blocks away from where I posted the image using Google Street View above. It is for this reason I was unable to find it when searching, but is a relatively minor correction that needed to be done to provide correct information.
So there you have it. A bunch of miscommunication, on more than one level.
- The two guys working for Enmax were probably concerned (rightfully so) that painting a metal box with 22,000 gigawatts of electricity flowing through it, is probably worth checking into. They did the right thing.
- The utility company (Enmax) probably was thinking liability and what happens if she gets electrocuted. The automatic response is – cover your ass. They did the right thing by stopping it until the facts are known.
- The artist is probably upset because this was a commission and she may not be able to complete it. If it does not get completed, she does not get paid. I understand that too, it is always appreciated when you get paid for work that you do. She was working as if everything was legit and is as it should be.
- The property management company is probably upset because it was an honest mistake, possibly as a result of inexperience and not knowing what questions to ask, which may cost them money to rectify. Hopefully the employee(s) involved doesn’t (don’t) lose their job over it and they are able to chalk it up to a lesson learned. They were showing initiative and trying to make the city a better place. That is something admirable.
Of course something like this in the short-term looks bad on almost everyone involved. It shouldn’t. Enmax obviously did have real concerns from a liability and occupational safety perspective – and so they should. It is unfortunate for them that it made the news the way it did.
It is my opinion, all parties had the best outcomes and responsibilities in mind for their individual decisions and what they did. There is no bad guy in this scenario. It just might not have played out as best as it could. I guess the people involved are all human. It is not necessarily a bad thing.
In a way, this is one of the hazards of public art.
What is a straight-forward and easy to fix issue for a private company, such as the property management company; is not always as straight forward when it comes to the City or civic partners such as Enmax. The government agencies have a higher level of accountability and processes and policy they must follow have been put into place for a reason. We must respect that, even if it causes frustration at times.
I am sure it will all work out in the end. It usually does.