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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It’s like déjà vu all over again

DSC_0739 (939x1024)

It was refreshing to pick up the Calgary Sun this morning and see that they corrected some factual errors that were made in yesterday’s paper about the inges idee sculpture entitled Travelling Light that was recently installed on 96th Avenue NE.

I am also glad to see the conversation is continuing.  This will create a greater understanding about how public art makes its way onto specific locations.  It is an important ongoing discussion to have.

A bit of controversy is welcome too.

As Yogi Berra is purported to have said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

I recall the uproar that surrounded the Santiago Calatrava Peace Bridge that opened a few years back.  As it is with this project, there was a large amount of dislike surrounding the bridge at that time.  Now whenever I walk or ride over it, there are always people there, unless it is very late at night – even then there often is.  I believe that a lot of opinions have changed about the Peace Bridge over time as well.

That speaks well of the Spanish architect’s concept and design.  I foresee a similar situation happening here as well.

Now if only someone or a group of yarn bombers would yarn bomb it and make it into a giant dream catcher.  Or close off the bridge and get a Johnny Cash tribute band up here to do a concert and sing The Ring of Fire while the pyrotechnics are going on behind him.

They would both be awesome ideas!

But, I jest.

At the same time, there might be something there that is worth considering.  By doing something like this, it would give a reason to talk about public art and get a huge buy-in from the general population while we are at it.

Now if only someone was willing to take this project on and make it happen.

Is it really about the art?

Sun$470KStory (872x1024)

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.