Is it really about the art?

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I see that the Calgary Sun is at it again – talking about public art and creating a sensational cover story while doing so.

The issue:

Within the last few weeks, a new sculptural work that serves a dual purpose of lighting an important intersection and as a piece of art was installed on 96th Street which is located near the airport and near the edge of the city.  It is also visible from Deerfoot Trail.  This work was conceived by a Berlin-based artist group called inges idee but was fabricated in the city according to the artists’ and the city engineering department’s specifications.

The background:

In 2004 City Council enacted a Public Art Policy (CPS2003-95 and as amended CPS2009-33).  The sum total of City Council Policies (of which this is one) must inform decisions that City Council makes, and Policy must also be considered when budgets are being prepared.

As part of this Policy, the framework was created for what is commonly known as the 1% for public art program.  This governs all capital projects over $1 million, and does not include land purchases or depreciating assets (i.e. computers, equipment, vehicles, etc.) along with other items specified in Council Policy.

According to Council Policy an open competition was issued for proposals of artwork under the 1% for public art program and a jury convened to decide which project from those submitted would move forward.  In this case, a jury of five community members met and the proposal by inges idee was selected.

The controversy:

In today’s Sun we see the headline (see photo above) where it is intoned that the City “wasted” $470,000 worth of tax dollars.  The story then goes on to state, “it seems all too fitting that Calgary’s latest public art project is a giant hole — it should serve as a symbol of money thrown away, for all the good it does us.”

But the “wasting” of money is not the real issue.

The real issue is stated in the very first sentence.  It states, “to bicker over $4,800 in suburban development costs, when the city has $470,000 to blow on bad art.”  We know this, because the writer returns to this comment, by stating, “When Naheed Nenshi’s entire re-election campaign based on a $4,800 per-house levy he wants to charge for new development in the deep suburbs, you’d think blowing 98 houses worth of cash on bad art would have the mayor and his aldermanic allies livid.”

Art is always subjective and one person’s “bad art” will be another person’s masterpiece.  So I will take the Sun’s interpretation of this as being “bad art” with a grain of salt and consider it as having little value outside of a personal opinion stated by the writer.

Personally, I think it looks interesting although I have not seen it yet.

Where does the $4800 vs. $470,000 comparison come from?

Recently, Mayor Nenshi posted a platform in his re-election campaign – see http://www.nenshi.ca/endthesubsidy

Boiling down what is stated in the Nenshi platform is that city voters as a group are subsidizing each new home built in a greenfield development.  On a per home basis, the city funded infrastructure builds during 2012, which was incurred to the tune of $4800 each.  That $4800 is used for things like new highways, the 1% for public art that goes with the resulting infrastructure, new streets, sewers, electrical, parks, fire stations, medical facilities, etc.

This is no chump change.  If what Nenshi states is correct, that works out to $33-million of subsidies that goes to developers that would otherwise have to be spent, if new developments had to be built with full infrastructure in place prior to occupancy.  I am not an economist, so will take the numbers at face value, given the reference in this story.

The $470,000 I must assume is the cost for this work of art and other related costs to install.

The analysis:

If the writer wanted to be factually correct, he should be doing an apples to apples comparison, instead of the apples to oranges comparison which he did in the article more than once.  If so, we would be comparing $33-million to $470-thousand.

But that would mean that the numbers for art might seem reasonable in that context.

Ironically, this new artwork is placed near new developments on the outskirts of the city and the infrastructure needed to efficiently service these new communities.  Knowing how long it takes to get a major art project like this from idea to installation, it wouldn’t surprise me that the jury convened in 2011 or 2012.  So what this means is this project more or less represents the 1% of the $33-million subsidized infrastructure build during the 2012 period that Nenshi talked about.

Further irony abounds when one realizes that only a handful of current council members had anything to do with initiating this Council Policy or even the 2009 amendment.

As much as we would think this is about the art.  It is not.

It is about politics.

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Art Box on 17E

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If one looks at a map of Calgary which is populated with cultural amenities marked on it, one fact will be readily noticeable.  There are significantly less spaces for the arts on the east side of Deerfoot Trail, as compared to the rest of the city.  Of course this information can get blurred somewhat if one uses a broader definition of the word cultural to incorporate things outside of the arts.

This past week there has been a fair number of stories in the press about Forest Lawn.  As long as I have lived in Calgary, I have noticed it is a community that has a strong sense of pride, but it also deals with some challenges as well.  It is a blue-collar community with all the strengths normally connected to that type of neighbourhood – hard-working, stand-up, straight-forward, no BS, tell it like it is community.  Although I have never lived there, I must admit there is a lot to be said for these qualities which can sometimes be referred to as grittiness.

Author Candace Bushnell once commented about the gritty roots of New York City this way, “the city was different back then—poor and crumbling—kept alive only by the gritty determination and steely cynicism of its occupants. But underneath the dirt was the apple-cheeked optimism of possibility.”  This could also be applied to our city if one looks back with a long enough vantage point.

Two community organizations that are trying to change this disparity in cultural amenities on the east side of Deerfoot, combined with their “apple-cheeked optimism of possibilit(ies)”, are the International Avenue BRZ along with the International Avenue Arts Centre.

If one travels down 17th Avenue it is possible to see the various murals championing the cultural heritage of the community.  Also the BRZ came to the rescue of Market Collective not long ago helping them find a temporary space in the community with short-notice.

This past August 1st the International Avenue BRZ and the Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA) together, hosted an open house to unveil a new arts facility.  It is called Art Box on 17E.  I attended this opening and was happy to see the newly appointed President & CEO of CADA, Patti Pon make her first official appearance there on the same day she stepped into her new role.

Like the Seafood Market in East Village a few years back, this space is a short-term space available for a year and a half.

Some of the ideas that are currently achieving traction in cultural thinking are the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement; the use of pop-up spaces; and creative placemaking as an agent of change in urban planning (see http://www.83degreesmedia.com/features/place073013.aspx).  All of these ideas are present in the Art Box on 17E project.

As the facility is still in its early stages, it will be interesting to see how this facility evolves and what type of projects take advantage of the space made available.  At the unveiling an announcement was made that in cooperation with Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, there will be multiple performances of I-Robot Theatre in that space during the Beakerhead Festival which occurs middle of September 2013.  The space, with its high ceilings and large footprint, lends itself to theatre, dance and rehearsals.  In addition there are smaller spaces upstairs which could be used for various purposes such as studios, offices and the like.

It is always interesting to see these projects develop and change in response to demand and interest.  I wish them well and am interested to follow what will happen there.  Knowing some of those involved, I am sure something interesting will come from it.