Yet another public art situation in Calgary

Inspector_Clouseau (1024x768)

Photo above: Councillor Peter Demong inspecting the fine print on his forthcoming Notice of Motion. Here he is checking to make sure that the use of the word “that” is used correctly in the second to last paragraph in his Notice of Motion NM2015-03, while neglecting to look at other large ticket items in the 2015 city budget.

There are days where it is disheartening to be either working in or closely affiliated with the visual arts in Calgary.

The last two days of this past week have been those type of days.

Sometimes, I wonder why I still live in the city and have not decamped for places unknown. An example would be other cities that place a higher value on cultural activities.

I have two stories that I plan to post today. Both are long reads.

This is the first.

There is a proud tradition (unfortunate is probably more like it) of the diaspora of Calgary artists and arts professionals who leave the city to go elsewhere, although that net migration out of the city has been in abeyance during recent years. It may however, begin once again. This opinion piece that was in Calgary’s FastForward Weekly that was published last November entitled Calgary Doesn’t Care About You which sums it up quite well. But I digress.

Yesterday all three newspapers (Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and the Metro) and each of the primary local TV stations with evening news coverage (CBC, CTV and Global) all had stories about a proposal made by Councillor Peter Demong.

Briefly, his proposal is to de-fund all public art projects that are tied to capital and infrastructure projects in the city. In addition to this, Demong’s notice of motion also calls for the termination of the Public Art Board for an indefinite period of time. Also he proposes that any unspent monies to be returned so that it can be reassigned for other capital projects (i.e. roads, transit, buildings, etc.).

This notice of motion is scheduled to be put forward and debated at the next City Council meeting to be held this Monday morning (February 23) at 9:30AM. His proposal will be agenda item 9.1.1.

DemongNoticeOfMotion2015Feb11

Here is the notice of motion (NM2015-03) as seen in the image above, which also has been transcribed in its entirety below:

RE: PUBLIC ART FUNDING

COUNCILLOR PETER DEMONG

WHEREAS the current state of the Alberta economy has been impacted by the low world price for oil

AND WHEREAS the Federal and Provincial Governments have indicated there might be funding delays and shortfalls which may force them to consider restricting funding for capital projects until the economy recovers

AND WHEREAS every day we are informed of more and more corporate cutbacks and employee layoffs;

AND WHEREAS according to the Public Art Policy up to $4 million from any single capital project can be allocated to public art;

AND WHERAS it behooves us as The City to show our citizens some restraint in how we allocate scarce resources in times of economic stress;

AND WHEREAS it is only prudent to conserve capital cash when times of economic uncertainty are apparent;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that all funding intended for public art be suspended for 2015 and any unused portions from previous years be returned for reallocation;

AND FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that all funds not expended by public art during this time frame be tabulated and that Administration return to Council with recommendations for projects that could be funded with this revenue;

AND FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that Council should review funding status for public art no sooner that (sic) January 2016;

AND FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED; that the service provided by the Public Art Board be temporarily suspended until further notice.

In one of the news stories covering this news item, Calgary Metro News “Council to vote on ‘suspending’ public art funds ” fellow Councillor Brian Pincott is quoted as saying:

“This is a yearly assault on the Public Art Program and the assault has been unrelenting through good times and bad times,” he said. “To say now we’re tight on money is facile and simplistic.”

Pincott also said Demong’s motion would amount to “killing” the Public Art Program.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” he said. “If this passes, it’s not coming back.”

Sadly, this statement is most likely true.

Background information

One only has to look at the evidence that this program has been fighting an uphill battle since it became policy in 2003 after years of community consultation and further community consultation when the program was re-evaluated in 2013 as well. As an example I will only reference recent activity, because I don’t have the time or inclination to go back any further.

In 2012, (see Calgary Herald, 2012 March 24, “How a bridge divided a city” page B1) we find that controversy over the Peace Bridge saw that the public art component connected to the bridge was cancelled. From this same article we have this quote, comparing two infrastructure projects happening at approximately the same time:

Road projects hardly ever got the same pushback, said transportation GM Mac Logan, noting the $70-million price tag for the 4th Street S.E. underpass.

I think it’s just the mindset,” he said. “Fourth Street carries cars. And a delay to a car to sit and wait through two lights is seen as a big deal. But a pedestrian that has to walk an extra kilometre is not important. Weird.”

Later that year after at least a month or two of debate (Calgary Herald, 2012 September 25, “West LRT art faces $3.5M cap” page B3) we read that:

. . . managers never set aside the funding in the west LRT budget, (and) transportation officials have pulled together $3.5 million in public art money from other projects for the LRT’s beautification.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Someone supposedly FORGOT to include an automatic 1% budget line into a major infrastructure project. Not that the 1% for public art has EVER been fully used. But I digress.

Then in December 2013, a result of the Giant Blue Ring project being installed near Airport and Deerfoot Trails around election time (fall 2013) the public art budget was put up for further discussion again. The proposal was to cut the budget. After six months of going through the process, the Calgary Herald (2014 May 27, “Council criticized for trimming art budget” page A6) once again reported:

Calgary’s new public art policy will cut $188,000 out of the roughly $5-million annual art budget, though councillors came close to stripping even more from the controversial beautification program.

The revised policy provides one per cent of budgets for art for projects up to $50 million, and half a percentage point for any expenses above that level. Chu, wary of spending tax dollars on art, proposed the threshold at $25 million.

So yes, Councillor Brian Pincott is absolutely correct – this IS a yearly assault on the Public Art Program, through good times and bad.

* * *

Now for my editorial on the public art issue.

The whole concept of cutting visual arts, public art, the creative industries and innovation is incredibly short-sighted and misinformed.

I am not alone. As stated in the Globe and Mail, Calgary’s Todd Hirsch wrote:

We have to stop thinking about arts and culture as simply nice-to-haves. They are just as important as well-maintained roads and bridges. By giving us the chance to stimulate our minds with new ideas and experiences, they give us the opportunity to become more creative. Arts and culture are infrastructure for the mind.

The world has changed. No longer is the North American economy driven by manufacturing. Increasingly, as a general population, we are increasingly working in knowledge-based, creative and/or service industries.

Ironically, art making is still involves the manufacturing process. As any standard economic text will state, it is manufacturing which is the true wealth creator. It is through manufacturing that economic value is created from raw materials and value add is provided. As very good example of this, the Blue Ring involved a significant local manufacturing component, in fact it can be stated with a fair bit of certainty that a significant portion of the expenditure for this work stayed in the local community. This reality, is contrary to the fabricated claims made by the trolls who populate comment boards on newspaper stories that still have nothing better to do than talk negatively about this piece two years later.

Here are a few reasons why this Notice of Motion is short-sighted

As the saying goes, “no one ever visited Paris, to see the parking garages”. Travel is an important business, especially with visitors from around the world who pass through our city every day en route to the scenic beauty of the nearby Rocky Mountains and the panoramic views just a short distance away.

A significant amount of travellers do engage in what is known as “cultural tourism.” A recent study (November 2012) commissioned by the Ontario Arts Council found the following results:

  • tourists who participated in arts and culture activities represent over one fifth of the 42.8 million overnight trips to Ontario in 2010 (22%)
  • Arts and culture tourists outspent typical overnight tourists in Ontario at a rate of almost two-to-one. On average, they spent $667.00 per trip in Ontario, compared to $374.00 spent by the typical overnight tourist.
  • At $1.7 billion in taxes, all levels of government benefited from spending by arts and culture tourists in Ontario during 2010. Of the $1.7 billion, approximately $1.0 billion were federal government taxes, a further $0.7 billion were provincial taxes and $11.0 million were municipal taxes.

Cutting funding to this important segment of the tourist market would appear to be one of ignorance of the facts shown above.

In the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy – a study of economic impact of the creative community in California (the new report will be released in the next couple weeks) we find key findings, such as:

  • In the Los Angeles/Orange County region during 2012, the creative industries accounted for 10.4% of the gross regional product (or an economic contribution of $80-billion). The creative industries had a total impact of $140-billion of economic activity and tax revenues of $6.9-billion.
  • 1 in 7 (13.8%) of all workers (direct, indirect and induced) are employed in the creative industries in Los Angeles/Orange County; and 9.7% are employed in the creative industries in the state of California.

As seen, there is a lot of potential here.

I could go on about the local economy, but I know that the Calgary Economic Authority has done a 97-page study about this issue in 2010. As a City Councillor, this study should be on your bookshelf for reference. If you haven’t read it, I would suggest reading Richard White’s synopsis in the Calgary Herald seen here.

Public art serves an important function.

It is NOT a luxury.

It feeds our souls. In times of economic hardship and difficulties, art is what helps bring meaning and a reminder that there is beauty in spite of all the ugliness that surrounds us.

It is okay if you don’t get it, or it is not your thing. Not everyone is going to like the same type of art. That is the beauty of it. One person likes western art with cowboys riding horses and the next person likes non-representational art and the next likes new media art or sculpture. I have worked in the business for over a decade and have visited hundreds of people’s homes and offices to view (and sometimes install) art since I began working in the field long, long ago – back when dinosaurs still ruled the earth.

Is one person’s aesthetic better than the next?

Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, on a strictly personal level, if the person who lives with the work, actually likes it, and it gives them pleasure – what does it matter?

However, as the analogy goes, why would someone purchase a home and not bother to plant any flowers or plants in the garden?

* * *

My action item for the reader.

I would like to see the Council Chambers filled with supporters of the Public Art Program this Monday morning. I would like to see something like what was done when the Public Art Policy was presented to City Council in the spring of 2013, just before the flood.

If you can’t make it, then at least contact your Councillor and let them know how you feel. Calgary Arts Development Authority yesterday published a letter that the CADA Board Chair, Dean Prodon, wrote to members of the City Council. It is available here. You can use this letter as a template to let them know your feelings about this Notice of Motion.

Postscript edit: (2015 February 22 @16:36)

I see that my proposal that I first made on someone’s facebook posting a few days ago, is now gaining traction. I just received notice that ArtsVote YYC has just issued a call to action. They also want to do the same thing as I have proposed. Here is their call to action.

Finally, the last word comes from the Giant Blue Ring itself!! (2015 February 22 @23:07)

Giant_Blue_Ring_Comments_2015_Feb_22

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2 comments on “Yet another public art situation in Calgary

  1. JohnE Moors says:

    Your last paragraph spells out what must happen!! If that council meeting is not absolutely packed with every artist living in Calgary and those that live on the jobs associated with the arts then they will have no one to blame but themselves; and this short sighted councillor will have his way. YOU ELECT THEM LET THEM KNOW THAT !!! Good Luck.

  2. SomniVision says:

    Reblogged this on SomniVision Art and commented:
    Government funding for public art could be completely cut out in Calgary. The arts are already inaccessible as is but now this bullshit?

    As quoted by Home of the Muses writer “no one ever visited Paris, to see the parking garages”. Truth – but we have a bunch of roads here instead as we like to keep parking prices high enough to break world records.

    Although I don’t believe our mayor Naheed Nenshi​ supports this motion anyways as he is known to be in favour of the arts, this type of backward thinking by Councillor Demong reflects how the majority of people still feel that art is a luxury item for the 1%.

    Oh how the times have changed…

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