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.

An interesting development in the upcoming election

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There was an interesting ad in the Calgary Herald this morning.  It was found on page A11.   I have followed politics all my life, since I was a very young child when I wanted to be a politician for a career.  I rarely talk politics.  Be that as it may – today I want to talk politics.   I have photographed the ad in today’s Calgary Herald for reference.

What makes it worth talking about in relation to a blog that covers the arts, ironically and maybe even surprisingly, has little to do with the arts.

First some background.

McCall Lake is a golf course in the NE quadrant of the city directly south of the main North-South runway of the airport.  It is just east of Deerfoot, between 32nd Ave and McKnight Boulevard and is located in Ward 5.  City Council made a decision to close the golf course at the end of the 2014 season.  This decision was made during a city council meeting in November 2012 with the purpose to convert it into a business park with green space.

McCall Lake, quite frankly, is old news.

Why is this an interesting story?

These facts together make it an interesting story with future implications:

  • One, is that it is a full-page ad in the front section of the Herald containing six candidates, none of which are incumbents.
  • Two, none of the potential candidates are running in ward 5, where McCall Lake is located.
  • Three, Alderman Ray Clark (the incumbent for ward 5) is running unopposed with an election happening approximately five weeks from now.  If it really was an issue he would have someone (or many) running against him.
  • Four, it does not even mention the golf course
  • Five, the group states in fine print, “This is an independent opinion and does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of one person or the other; nor does it constitute a Party or a Slate.”

So what makes this story and ad interesting for an arts based blog?

It really has no related and direct arts content to the story.

However, be that as it may, three of the six candidates have run previously in the last election (Oct. 2010), placing 2nd in each case.

  • Sean Chu ran against Gael McLeod in Ward 4 losing by 1,288 votes (6000 vs. 7288)
  • Kevin Taylor ran against Druh Farrell in Ward 7 losing by 1,252 votes (10,658 vs. 11,910)
  • James Maxim ran against Brian Pincott in Ward 11 losing by 1,449 votes (9,385 vs. 10,834)

This also appears to be a “shot across the bow” to present a potential slate on an issue that is more or less a red herring.  However there was a very interesting piece which contains food for thought on The Homestretch show on CBC Radio this afternoon.  http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Local+Shows/Alberta/The+Homestretch/ID/2406694679/

With the YYCArtsPlan going to City Council early in the new Council term, it will be important for those whose interests lie with arts related issues to be aware of the potential political implications (if any).  It may even be worth it to support the activities of; ask the candidates what their thoughts are on the arts; or at the very minimum check http://artsvotecalgary.ca/ who will ask these questions on your behalf as the election draws closer.

As a sidebar, it also prompts me to question if this might be the beginning of a move to introduce a backroom slate and in so doing try  to introduce party politics into civic elections.  This is something thankfully we have not had to contend with, as it allows the successful candidate to respond to each issue on its own merits alone, without the the rigours of having to vote party line.

I will definitely be watching this development.  Although I probably will not comment further, whether I will might be up for further debate.