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.

Human Weather Vanes

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This past Thursday I was downtown for most of the day. In the afternoon, I had coffee with a friend and we sought out a place to sit in the hot afternoon sun.  We were soaking up what, based on the weather advisory issued by Environment Canada last night calls for 5-10cm of snow tomorrow, which in turn would indicate that probably was the last non-coat wearing day of the year.

We found a nice coffee shop with sunny, street-level, outdoor seating alongside the building with the handsome and ruggedly elegant Beverly Pepper sculpture outside the front doors, across the street from Bankers Hall.

While sitting there I noticed that within the last week or two construction hoarding has gone up surrounding the series of Colette Whiten and Paul Kipps life-sized sculptures of people walking just outside the doors of the Bankers Hall East Tower.  The series of outdoor pieces are continued inside the building and reside in the cavernous lobby on similar mounts.  They are entitled Weather Vanes and probably work as described, as the sculptures are mounted on poles and are quite flat and made out of what I would assume is copper sheeting which appears to be hammered or shaped in some way.  If nothing else they give the impression that they probably move in the wind as you can see by the photo I took earlier this month.

It would not surprise me if this is the intent to work with the wind.  The building owners of Bankers Hall also placed what I can best describe as giant kitty litter scoops which in my own personal opinion only, are completely out of scale for the confined space on Stephen Avenue Mall between Bankers Hall and TD Square, almost to the point of being oppressive and overbearing [1.].  I am sure that they would be quite appropriate in a different context, but in my opinion, not there.  As I recall, when they were placed around the time the second tower went up, it was indicated in the media that they were intended and designed to break the wind that gusts in that corridor.  Whether they actually do that or not, I have no idea.  But I digress.

The city is very fortunate that we have two major sculptures by Colette Whiten.  As an artist Colette Whiten just won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts earlier this year, which recognized her achievements over the past number of decades.  As a result of this Award she was included in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada between this past March through July.  One of the pieces included in the show entitled Watermark bears a continuation of thought from this work where it is stated she “rais(es) ‘home life’ from the realm of the mundane to that of art.”[2.]  In the Bankers Hall work, she used images of everyday Calgarians which brought together a cross-sampling ranging from mother holding the hand of a child to lunch-time athletes and business people – where, as in Ottawa, she raised the mundane to art.

The other major work of hers in the city, is located at the University of Calgary just outside of the Kinesiology Building near the Olympic Oval and MacEwan Hall.  It was commissioned by TransCanada PipeLines in the time leading up to the 1988 Winter Olympics.  For a brief post-Olympic period of time, it was located in front of City Hall and its short tenure there was full of controversy.

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I exaggerate, but not by much, as this was the case with almost every other piece of public art connected to the Olympics.

One of my early jobs was working in the public relations department at TransCanada PipeLines.  During that time I was fortunate to join the team which planned the move of her sculpture from City Hall to the University of Calgary on the Sunday of ArtWalk in conjunction with ArtCity.  Unfortunately I was unable to take part of the move, (even though I did get the tee-shirt which was destroyed in a bicycle accident a few years later) as I had previously committed to sit a commercial gallery for a couple who observed their religious practice on the day, as they had done in years prior.  If I was to guess the move happened probably in 1992, maybe 1993.  It has certainly found a very good home on campus where it is definitely appreciated and suits the surroundings.

With my short (ok maybe not so short) diversion – I go back to the hoarding and the Colette Whiten sculptures.  This summer I have noticed a lot of construction happening in lobbies and exteriors of buildings in the downtown core.  Why this is happening, I do not know.  Maybe it is an outcome of the flooding during the spring, maybe it is keeping up with the Jones’, maybe it is the economy, maybe it is an awareness that the buildings just need to be updated.  Whatever it is, it does not matter.

Obviously some sort of work is planned for the building lobby, or exterior, or both.  What it is I do not know.

What does intrigue me about office building renovations of late in Calgary, is that more often than not, artworks (and especially publicly situated artworks) are usually the casualty when this happens.

In renovations, the artworks seemingly disappear without a trace, often leaving behind sterile environments without any real personality.  They end up looking a lot like every other corporate lobby (lots of polished stone and glass), which is just slightly different from most others, based on the architect used to design it. [3.]

I have mentioned this before, and will mention it again as an example.  There was a major work by Takao Tanabe from his The Land series from the 1970s.  It was restrained, almost monochromatic and powerful, but yet at the same time it was very meditative.  If I was in the building and had a minute or two, I would stop in and pay tribute.  It was located in the main lobby of the Dome Tower in TD Square.  The building is part of The Core which has been undergoing renovations over the last number of years.  Somewhere along the way it disappeared and was replaced by a wall of polished marble and nothing else.  I am going to put this out there.  If someone reading this knows where it is and if it is currently unloved and under-appreciated in a warehouse – if the owner wants to give it to me, I will be humbled, but very happy to find a good home for it.

I could mention other examples, but I do not want to make this into a really long essay, as it is already long enough.

In closing, if this work by Colette Whiten is to be moved or removed, and I sincerely hope that it does not.  But if it does, it would be nice to find a home where the works will be appreciated – maybe even somewhere it could have an interesting dialogue with Bill McElcheran’s sculpture of two businessmen talking entitled The Conversation located only two blocks away.

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NOTES:

[1.] White, Richard. Calgary Herald.  October 26, 2013.  Public art best when it spurs debate. see http://www.calgaryherald.com/opinion/op-ed/White+Public+best+when+spurs+debate/9087316/story.html

[2.] Mallet, Josée-Britanie.  National Gallery of Canada press release dated March 20, 2013: see http://www.gallery.ca/en/about/1431.php

[3.] Krause, Darren.  Calgary Metro.  October 29, 2012.  Unbuilt Calgary.  Maverick mentality should extend to city architecturehttp://metronews.ca/voices/krause-encounters/419984/unbuilt-calgary-maverick-mentality-should-extend-to-city-architecture/