Another mysterious piece of public art

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I am sure this has never happened to anyone else.  You walk past something 1000 times or more over the course of many years.  You never notice that something has been there all that time, then for whatever reason you notice it and realize how oblivious you have been all that time.

Yup!!!  That was me yesterday.

I mentioned my find to a colleague that I saw at a function last night.  I described them.  I even mentioned the artist’s name.  She indicated that she should be aware of them.  She drew a blank as well.  So I informed her that she should check my blog in the next few days for more info.

So here is the public service announcement.

I am assuming that the two of us are not alone.  We look at public art.  We look for it too.  If we have not paid attention to them, chances are it is not even on the radar screen for others.

Public art is a curious thing.  Sometimes it is bright, flashy and you can’t help notice it.  Sometimes it is not.  Sometimes it is ephemeral.  This one is the one that is easy to miss.

The artist.  Derek Besant.

The City of Calgary has a 1% for art program.  Just like many other municipalities, provincial and state governments, and the federal government as well.  I have written about it before.  I am sure I will write about the 1% for art program again.

Briefly, the program designates that capital project budgets over $1-million should allocate 1% of the capital budget toward public art.  This public art is sited and embedded in close proximity to the capital project that the 1% relates to.  For more info, click here.

I realize that the above is very much a complete simplification of the process.  In talking to those involved, I believe that in Calgary there has never been a case where new public art related to this program has gone over the 1% budget – not even close.

There is a seedy block in the downtown core that has been quite seedy for a very, very long time.  It is along the Seventh Avenue C-Train line.  Any long-term resident that has spent any amount of time in the downtown core, will know exactly what strip I am talking about, even though it is not nearly as seedy as it once was.

Yesterday I walked along that strip.  It is directly across from both Art Central and the new Telus Sky development.  It also borders where the former MaVA project was to have taken place, before the deal for MaVA fell apart sometime during the last year or two.  If someone who reads this has info on the MaVA project I would like to talk, and I would be very interested in receiving documentation relating to it.  But I digress.

Regardless of that, I stood at the intersection waiting for the light to change.  I have stood at this intersection many, many times since 2007.  I stood there when I had a dog that used the shrubbery in the area and I am positive that he even used the lamppost where this artwork was found to do his business when I had a place across the street in Art Central.

Do you think I ever noticed them before?  Nope.  Not even a clue.

Yesterday I did.

Today, I took photos.  The work is text based so I recorded what the text states.  Each work is on a two inch (approximately) high on a stainless steel band that fully surrounds each light standard and/or power pole.  One must circle the entire post to read what it says.  There are six bands attached to six different light standards on this block.  The same font is used on each band so I assume that they were laser-cut.  All six pieces were attached to each lamppost at eye level and located on the shady side of the block – between the Hyatt and the Bay.

Starting at the Central United Church end of the block, while looking across the street toward the C-Train platform, and moving toward the Palomino and the Hyatt as if reading a book, the six read as follows:


Each band almost as if it is an incomplete fragment of a thought.

I did some further research and from sources I believe to be dependable, there should be four more located near City Hall for a total of ten pieces.  As a result, I walked the 7th Avenue corridor between the Bay and East Village on both sides of the street and then walked around City Hall and Olympic Plaza as well.  I could not find them.  I wonder whatever happened to the other four poles that the artist has indicated should exist.

Maybe I am blind and can’t see them, but at least I now know that they should exist – somewhere.

Yet another mystery on my hands.  Now to find them.

Requiem for Art Central

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Last week I walked past Art Central.  I noticed the signs on the door indicating that effective today, the +15 will be closed to all foot traffic between it and adjoining buildings.

It is a bittersweet day for me – ironically falling on Remembrance Day.  Like when a long-standing relationship draws to a close – one remembers both the good times and the bad.

I used to have a space in Art Central.  Truth be told, I had four or five of them over the years.

This is my story.

Sometime around 2001-2003 the leasing agent for Art Central came to visit both the owner of the gallery I once worked at, along with myself.  He was looking for established galleries to anchor the development.  After his presentation and others I attended in that timeframe, along with discussions with other dealers who were located close by, it became clear that it the location was not suited for a gallery and probably why no pre-existing and established commercial galleries ever a space.  Of course, there was Rob and myself but we both had pre-existing histories with galleries, but started afresh when we opened in Art Central.

The concept itself was very interesting, but as they say in real estate it is all about location, location, location.

Unfortunately, Art Central never had that.

I attended the grand opening of Art Central in conjunction with the grand opening of ArtCity probably in 2005.  There was no power to the building except as hooked up to a generator which gave a rawness to the building which was rather edgy.  The downside was once the party starting to roll, the music was shut off and we all got kicked out early for whatever reason.

Once the building was open in late 2005, I would often visit the First Thursday celebrations with my then new girlfriend.  She had never been exposed to cultural activities or galleries before we hooked up and this was a good introduction for her.  During the three and a half years we were together I was able to introduce her to other cultural experiences, something I took great pleasure in doing.

During this time, I was also running another gallery.  When things started rapidly going south at that gallery in March of 2007, I had to look for new space.  It was during a time when the overheated commercial real estate market had vacancy rates of less than ½ of 1%.  My choices for retail space were extremely limited.

For about week I would drop her off at her job downtown, park the car and then go to Art Central to see what the traffic patterns were like in the early morning prior to opening the old gallery in anticipation of signing a lease.  The foot traffic was very good as the C-Train station was just outside the door and it was still cool outside, so lots of people passed through.

Without getting into the gory details, I moved from a 3000 sq. ft. retail storefront space on one of the best streets for art galleries to a 300 sq. ft. space on the +15 level and was open for business two days later.  On one of the first days I overheard a short conversation during the afternoon foot traffic rush hour which sadly defined the remainder of my time in that building.   Two guys that I assumed were co-workers saw each other on the central stairwell.  One said to the other something to the effect of “I’ll race you and see who gets out of the building faster.”  Like relationships, sometimes when you start on the wrong foot, it influences everything else to come.

I have described my gallery as similar to a corner store on the 401.  Sometimes people need a drink or a bag of chips.  Most of the time they don’t and zoom right past without a second glance.

At first sales were okay.  But then the York Hotel came down across the street the next summer and the construction of the Bow Building and the huge underground parking lot with all the dust and noise only affected business even more.  The construction of the Bow was the beginning of the slow death of Art Central.

I left the building just before the current owners purchased it.  All I can say is that I am glad I left when I did.

Toward the end, tenant turnover was very high.  There were very few occupants in the Art Loop in the basement.  First Thursdays were nothing like they used to be and for the last couple years the basement had their lights turned off and the only activity was the music and a few small openings.

I am sure that by the time I left, the many accumulated disappointments and unmet expectations during my nearly five years there, only served to acknowledge that this chapter of my life had ended.

I look back on my time in Art Central with bittersweet memories.  I did some amazing shows there that few noticed and I met top drawer people.

When I left, I took the summer off and then started on a new passion – trying to figure out why this city is so weird when it comes to the visual arts.  After nearly two decades of running galleries and siting on boards and being actively involved in the community, I don’t believe that I am any closer to figuring out what makes this city tick when it comes to the visual arts.  Maybe I never will.

Art Central was a great concept that failed to deliver.  I am glad that I was part of it.

To an old friend.  Goodbye.

Wreck City update

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Last night was the final walk-through for a new large-scale arts project forming on the horizon – Phantom Wing.

Phantom Wing is a project that was initiated earlier this month by cSPACE projects – the good folks connected to the Calgary Arts Development Authority that are developing the 100-year old King Edward School into an arts incubator scheduled to open sometime in 2014.  The Phantom Wing project incorporates a physical space slated for demolition.  It is large addition to the King Edward School built in 1967 including the library, approximately ten classrooms and offices, all enveloping a small private open-air courtyard.

cSPACE contacted the people who put together the Wreck City project to coordinate this project as well.  Calls for submissions will be accepted until the 26th with the event to take place around the time of year that ArtWalk has traditionally taken place – the official dates for Phantom Wing are September 24-28.

This prompted me to make a visit to the Wreck City location, since both projects involve physical built spaces slated for demolition.

After the Wreck City event ended, very little has been heard from or about it.  Wreck City was an event held between April 19-27, 2013 and because of the nature of the project this is not surprising.  Once the project is over, and outside of an annotation in a peer-reviewed history paper or a line entry on a curriculum vitae for those artists involved – most people will forget the event even existed.  This is unfortunate, but more often than not – a reality.

Approximately 80-90 artists/performers/arts practitioners of various stripes converted nine residences (and/or other built spaces attached to the properties) out of a row of eleven old homes, that were slated for demolition – into temporary exhibition spaces and performance venues.  These eleven houses or small apartment blocks, dated mostly from the early 1900s, were all located along one street facing the base of McHugh Bluffs in Sunnyside, close to the C-Train station.  It is a bit of an awkward place to find when driving, as there is only one way in and the same way out.  This makes for a quiet location with a small park across the street.

No doubt, this quiet location close to amenities was appealing to a developer. In the typical Calgary way of progress, the developer purchased all the properties and is looking to build a new beige four-storey, 115 unit, residential condo project scheduled for occupancy in fall 2015.

So what has happened since then?

All the eleven buildings have been razed and the debris removed.  There are a few divots left in the ground, where homes once stood and the grass has been allowed to grow.  There is a construction fence surrounding the site and beyond that, the developer is probably waiting for enough deposits to come in so that they can start building.

It is now a quiet memorial to what once was.