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.

___________________________

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/

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Back to the 80s

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Tonight the third iteration in a five-part series focusing on individual decades in Calgary opens at the Glenbow Museum.  The first in the series was the 1960s.  Tonight’s decade of focus is the 1980s.

This was an interesting decade in Calgary with the boom which began in the mid-1970s through the beginning of the decade which helped define the modern architecture of the city, along with the subsequent bust also at the beginning of the decade.  The decade closed out with the 1988 Winter Olympics being hosted here and the subsequent awareness that the city was now a player on the world stage, regardless of a few arts related SNAFUs that happened around that time.

I had the opportunity to have a sneak peak yesterday to the part of the main part of show which opens tonight, but only viewed the second floor of the exhibition which is split between the second and fourth floors.  There also will be a continuation of the 1980s exhibition to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) which will open on the 21st.

In the works that I saw yesterday there are some excellent examples of works from artists who made a huge impact during this decade.  Compared to the 1970s show which ended last month the big difference is how large the work shown was scaled up from previous decades represented.  No doubt this had some connection to the large corporate edifices that were built during the boom, but also reflected the larger scale works which were a continuation of the color-field and formalist theories from the 1970s and the influence of Clement Greenberg, even though his impact in Calgary was negligible at best – as compared to Edmonton only a short distance away, where there was a definite Greenberg influence during this same period.

Some highlights:

One of the works that did show some Greenbergian influence was a work by Harold Feist who was on faculty at the Alberta College of Art and Design when his now famous musician daughter, Leslie Feist was born.  A very strong Ron Moppett multi-panel piece that probably stretches 10 metres or more with a red line that ties the panels together on a quiet and restrained background from the early ‘80s.  This was a very nice contrast to another work of similar scale from late in the decade from the Glenbow collection.  The small painted Mark Dicey construction from the Nickle Museum was very strong, surprising given the quietness of almost monochromatic work.  It was nice to revisit a couple of Iain Baxter& paintings of apple trees with polaroid apples affixed to the canvas.  They were included in a solo show of his works from about two years ago also at the Glenbow.  The conceptual roots in these important works (even though there were also a few pieces also selected as produced by Baxter&’s N.E. Thing Co. in Ron Moppett’s curated 1970s show), will be no doubt referenced (but not directly) in Nancy Tousley’s curated iteration of works from the 1990s that will open in the winter 2014.  The quietness of Takeo Tanabe’s large “The Land” paintings was evident in the two selected works.  They, like the Feist work show some awareness of Greenberg and his theories.  This made me wonder whatever happened to the magnificent Tanabe probably three metre square painting from the same series, that used to reside in the lobby of the Dome Tower for a long time.  It was removed in the renovations a few years back and has been replaced by a stone wall that matches the rest of the lobby and the lobby now is so much more clinical as a result (but I digress).  It was also nice to see one of Marianne Gerlinger’s still life paintings that referenced the influential American 19th century painter William Merritt Chase.  This painting was a large two metre square painting of a watermelon and knife, but yet had staining to the side that referenced Chase’s paintings of dead fish (a subject that Gerlinger also referenced in the 1980s although none were selected for this show).  Of course the two works of double self-portraits by Chris Cran must be mentioned.  These are some of the most important works Cran has done and the fact that they are almost all located in public art collections speaks to this statement.  The fact that the Glenbow chose to use one of these paintings Self-Portrait Watching a Man about to Shoot Himself in the Foot, 1985 (illustrated above) shows the sense of irony and humour that make this series of works so important.  Of course I would be remiss not to mention John Will.  It was nice to see the long narrow text based painting along with one of his lithographs from the Great Moments in Sport series.  As a professor emeritus of printmaking at the University of Calgary this work is probably very important as it would be one his first attempts to transition from a purely printmaking practice to one that almost exclusively painting now..

This show is well-worth visiting as will be the upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on the 21st.  In talking to the sculptor Katie Ohe yesterday she indicated that the third of three works from a series she worked on during the 1970s and 1980s will be located at MOCA.  Most people will know this series from her sculpture entitled the Zipper located in the Sciences Building lobby at the University of Calgary.  They will recognize it, as quoted in the U of C Gauntlet, through the “mesmerizing turning of the “Zipper” (it) is said to bring peace to the students, allowing them to concentrate on the ever-important studies or test writing that takes place in the classrooms adjacent.”

As expected from a curated show by Jeffrey Spalding, this show was well conceived, thoughtfully selected and well-placed.

The show will continue until January 5th and while there one might as well see the very rare chance to see a large group of landscapes by the great German expressionist Otto Dix who is shown alongside Canadian Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson which is located in the next gallery to the 1980s show which is also on until January 5th.

Diversity in the workplace

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Husky Energy today celebrates Diversity Day.  Some of the events are open to the public in the main floor lobby of their Calgary corporate headquarters, located at Western Canadian Place, 707 – 8 Avenue SW.

The abbreviated program of public events is as follows:

  • 08:00 – kick off and cultural performance
  • 09:00-14:00 – “diversabilities” activities by Champions Career Centre
  • 09:00-14:00 – art exhibition of works by Mona Ahmed

Because this is an arts focused blog, I want to talk about the art exhibition of works by Mona Ahmed and not the other events.

Mona is a student at the University of Calgary in the faculty of fine arts at the undergraduate level.  She is presenting for one day only, a series of photographs on the main floor, and another series on the +30 level.  The series on the main floor is called Incomplete (see photo above) and the larger series on the +30 level is entitled Hello my name is.

I have chosen to write about this for a few reasons.

Most importantly, it is about an artist getting their work out for people to view and have a dialogue with.  This show is a very good choice for a corporate day to talk about diversity.  The works are all photo-based.  Briefly both exhibitions have good talking points about our own personal filters as it relates to diversity.   In the Incomplete series, the same model is dressed in different outfits and it asks us how our perceptions are made by what they wear.  The Hello my name is series shows a series of people who are in various stages of focus (as in blurry or not), which explores the idea of how easy each person’s name is understood.  It is a show that is well worth visiting.  Unfortunately it is only up for a few hours today.  So if you miss it you may not see it again.

The second reason I wanted to write about this show, is this type of event is reflective of a trend that I seem to be noticing more frequently of late.  It is where a corporation or other entity sponsors or initiates a short-term exhibition, arts event or performance under the auspices of a larger umbrella – in this case diversity.  These events usually take place outside of traditional exhibition or performance venues.  This makes these events interesting as well.  As they introduce the possibility of developing new audiences and partnerships for all involved.

But I digress:

Having previously worked in the arts industry as an administrator for a very long time and as a result I miss having to think about esoteric topics sometimes.  Because of that, I could go into an extensive dialogue involving the pros and cons of this theory.  Some of which I was on the leading edge of locally in terms of practice.  I choose not to do so, for many reasons – chiefly, that this is the wrong platform, and that the discussion would lend itself more to academia.

This event and show also talks about the issue of where does public art begin and private, corporate or public patronage end; along with the concept of blurred urban, public spaces in an environment that is increasingly becoming more privatized and the democratization of these spaces – along with a whole raft of inter-related questions.  This is an area I am also very interested in.

Back on track:

For those involved it is a much appreciated gesture, especially those who are fortunate enough to receive funding or benefits as a result.  Some recent events that fall under this type of umbrella are the upcoming Phantom Wing project, corporate parties, in-home concerts, and the list goes on.

Regardless of my diversionary rambling, the sponsoring corporation or entity usually receives benefit and good-will from doing these events – and as a result it generally is, but not always is, a win-win for all involved.

If possible, check out Mona Ahmed’s photos today.  Talk to Mona for a few minutes on your lunch break or coffee break to see and get a renewed understanding of challenges some will face and why it is important to talk about diversity in the workplace.

More questions than answers

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I see the Edmonton Journal picked up a story yesterday that surfaced during the middle of last week. First a bit of background. The current dean of the arts department Lesley Cormack sent a memo informing faculty that “effective immediately, I am asking (the registrar) to begin suspending admission to the following (20) programs or concentrations” in the humanities. She then went on to request that “arguments against these recommended suspensions should be made, in writing, to the Dean, by September 3rd.” See the full memorandum here http://artssquared.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/memorandum-from-dean-of-arts-16aug2013.pdf

Then according to the article covering the same story in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal – see http://www.edmontonjournal.com/entertainment/Simons+Between+rock+arts+place+Proposed+program+cuts/8808713/story.html we read the following:
“The timing is far from ideal. Classes start in less than a month.
And many academics and university administrators — including, as it happens, the dean of arts herself — are on vacation. The situation leaves professors scrambling. Incoming and returning students wondering whether the courses and programs in which they’ve enrolled will have any future or if they should change majors now, before they end up headed down a dead-end road.”

Seriously? The Dean drops this bomb and then goes on vacation? But I digress.

Nor am I am not even going to touch on the recent news as of late yesterday afternoon that the province is investigating the University of Alberta finances as per the attached update from the chair of the Board of Governors http://www.ualbertablog.ca/2013/08/board-chair-cip-response-received-key.html as it is an administrative matter and not germane to my comments.

* * * * *

This situation is somewhat reminiscent of the highly publicized local situation that elicited front page coverage in Calgary for a while.  It also is an issue that both Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary had to deal with, just after the school term ended this past spring. Both universities (as did other local educational institutions) took the budget cuts announced by the province on the chin. Which programmes were the losers? One could probably figure that out by doing a simple online search – but similar to what is happening at the University of Alberta now, it largely was the humanities and arts.

Clearly there are issues that need to be addressed. Hard decisions must also be made. There are no easy solutions.

Having said that, this prompts the question, why does it appear that the arts and humanities typically are the first programs to get axed when funding cuts are announced? Are they extraneous programs that should only be funded when times are good?

The follow-on question is – at the undergraduate level should students be more interested in getting a liberal arts education or a technical education?

The American Council for Education wrote about this matter just last year (see http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/Myth-A-Liberal-Arts-Education-Is-Becoming-Irrelevant.aspx). Here Clare T. Christ, president of Smith College in Northampton, MA states:
“Yet, judging the value of a liberal arts education, even with a purely economic calculus, shows it to be more relevant than ever before. It is no longer news that career trajectories are varied and multiple; that our professional pursuits have distinct chapters over the course of our lives; and that, especially for women, the ability to step off and back on the career track during childbearing years is critical to advancement. Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that more than three-quarters of employers would recommend an education with this emphasis to a young person they know.”

Also this past Spring the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote a report entitled The Heart of the Matter (as found here http://www.humanitiescommission.org/_pdf/hss_report.pdf). In this report they set forth three goals.
1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;
2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;
3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

Just today in the Washington Post an article was publishing about the importance of changing the current vogue of a STEM-based educational stream that has been popular since the 1990s into a more balanced STEAM-based educational stream instead – see the story http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/therootdc/the-smartest-summer-ever-full-steam-ahead/2013/08/21/8c5399ac-0a63-11e3-8974-f97ab3b3c677_story.html

We must ask both ourselves as taxpayers and voters a few questions – do we want technical universities that teach its students to do skills, or do we want our students to be capable of thinking, creativity and communicating information in a world that is rapidly changing? Where the skills one learns early in one’s career are not the same that they will use when they retire? What skill sets will still remain relevant during that timeframe? And, is cutting these programs now something we will regret doing in a few years?

To borrow from the paragraph copied above in the Edmonton Journal – which educational stream is the “real” dead-end road? The “liberal arts” or a technical education.