Public Art

Why is public art such an easy target for outrage?

Everyone seems to feel they have the right to sound off on it without knowing anything about the art, the artist, the selection process, budgetary considerations, or even anything about art in general. Case in point, Bowfort Towers. So here I am sounding off on it too. Well, not on the art, or its cultural associations or significance, or its author, or the budget, or the selection process. No, I am going to sound off on the uproar that went out, by those who know nothing about it as well as those who should know better (namely other artists who compete for public art contracts).

First of all, If you were not interested enough to participate when the call went out for public interest in participating in shaping public art policy (and there are indeed calls, as an artist who is interested in possibly one day getting a contract for a public art project, I am on the email list for notifications from the city, so I know these calls for input and participation in policy have gone out), then for goodness sake, blame yourself for not having input into what gets selected and produced, and quit whining about the need for more community consultation! What do you expect? Someone to go door to door, with a binder of the proposals for each project, to survey every household in the city?

Along the same lines, refrain from making a statement on the lack of consultation with community and cultural groups until you actually know who was consulted. Bowfort Towers came under fire for not having sufficient (or any, according to certain published commenters) consultations with first nations groups prior to approving the design. Later on it was revealed that the city’s process did indeed involve consultation with an indigenous knowledge keeper. The fact that this person might have missed a visual association with a burial platform? Well, I think that is one of those cases where a hundred people may see no visual association between X and Y until one day one person makes an association and says, “Hey, did you ever notice how X looks like Y?” Suddenly, no one can un-see it. Then the association is so obvious, people wonder how it went un-noticed. they start to assume that the association is intentional. Does this mean that a cultural gaffe has occurred, outrage is due, and changes to consultations should be made? I don’t think so, but I will leave that up to you to decide. Suffice to say there are a lot of accidental phallic symbols in yards and gardens in my neighbourhood (two small round shrubs either side of a tall narrow shrub, two small flower beds either side of a straight narrow path). I am not sure that I would get very far insisting that the owners change their gardens to accommodate my sensitivity to unintended and accidental associations.

Second, quit assuming that everyone must like a work of art for it to be worthy of being a public art work! It is not going to happen, ever! You will never achieve public consensus on the relative merit of a work of art, unless the public consists of just one person. To make a comparison, blue and red are equally ‘good’ colours. Yet some people love red and can’t stand blue, while others feel the reverse. Still others love both and others hate both. While I would not paint my house red, I cannot claim that red is not a valid colour simply because it is not my preferred colour. Yet when it comes to art, some people cannot understand that their vision of what is art is not universal, and that there is no one type of art that will be acceptable to all people. It follows then that there is no basis for an individual to claim that a work of art is not worthy of public funds because the style of the art is not agreeable or to the taste of each and every member of that particular public.

Third, quit assuming that artists do not provide economic benefits to the community where the art is being installed, but are merely pocketing obscene amounts of money for little work. There are so many elements here I can’t go into it in just one post, but here are a few points to consider: Bowfort Towers is part of a percent for art policy, common to many cities around the world, one which was reduced over the last uproar, and may be under threat of that again (which is why I suspect that this is a manufactured uproar on the part of city departments who would like to reroute that cash to their own areas). What that means is that a percent (in this case .7 of a percent) of any public works project, goes to art and aesthetics. So Bowfort Towers total budget was five hundred thousand dollars. What does that say about the budget for the rest of the project, a major interchange? Now, if paying for materials, contractors, labour, insurance, manufacturing, permits and engineering for the project itself is going to cost over 50 million dollars, why would anyone think five hundred thousand is out of line for what it is going to cost for an integrated sculpture and earthwork artwork embracing either side of that interchange? The artist may be the designer, but with any artwork of that scale, in the public domain, all the same considerations will apply as would to a public park, building or infrastructure project. Materials aren’t free, contractors expect to be paid, and the city expects the piece will be of a quality to endure and not to endanger the public.

One influential commenter felt it was insensitive when people were unemployed to spend money on public art. I would like to point out that the artist is not able to complete a project of that scale on their own in their free time, with materials scavenged out of dumpsters. Thus people had to be hired, and materials purchased, which again leads to people being paid. It can be argued that it is insensitive to the unemployed to downplay the economic benefit of these public art projects. In fact the artist and the city both made statements to the effect that 80 to 90% of that $500 000 stayed in (or stimulated) the local economy. In essence public art is a local economic subsidy that benefits many in ways besides the aesthetic appreciation. Complaining that too much is being spent on it during a time of unemployment may have the curious effect of causing cuts to funding which promote unemployment further, thus cutting the throat of the complainant’s basic argument, and maybe their income too as the competition for other jobs intensifies.

Next there is the critique that it would be great if the contract went to a local artist, rather than an international one. Yes, I agree in theory it would be great to keep all of that money in our local economy, but I will admit that I don’t know all the ins and outs of why it was not possible. So as a wise person would, I will refrain from being outraged about it. I have heard a number of explanations, such as that contracts under a certain size may be reserved for locals however over a certain size they must be open to international bidders under free trade laws, and to close them might somehow jeopardize local artists from making bids internationally. Maybe this is the case, maybe not, but either way I won’t get angry about it until I know more than conjecture. It may even come down to no quality local bids made it to the table before the deadline. Should the project be held back until a suitable proposal can be filed by a local? I don’t know. I can attest myself to the difficulties in trying to get a proposal together for a large multifaceted project call, as captain, cook, crew and cabin boy of my own ship (dinghy).

So what was the result of all this outrage? Since it is an election year, they have decided to freeze awarding any new contracts until they can review the process (again, it was just reviewed a couple years ago after Traveling Light) by which public art is selected. Meanwhile public infrastructure projects will continue to be needed, so that percent I suppose is in limbo in the budget. Will it be cut again? Will it be consolidated into a mega project? Or will artworks need to be retrofitted to completed projects after construction? What will be the impact on smaller projects, such as the Painted Utility Box Program. Generally well received, it provides small commissions to local artists while helping deter vandalism to the utility boxes. That too is public art.

In the end, politicians like to please people, and if public art controversy does nothing but give them headaches, they have little incentive to support it. Thus I find people who call themselves artists, yet insist on getting on the outrage train, to be the most short sighted of critics; they are only serving to undercut what support the arts have by our civic leaders.

Reading: Extreme You – Part 4: Break Yourself to Make Yourself

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IN Part 1 I explored drive, In Part 2 I looked at standing out, in Part 3 I looked at specialization, and finally in Part 4 I am exploring starting over.

Or more accurately I am looking at Sarah Robb O’Hagan’s chapter Break Yourself to Make Yourself from her book Extreme You.

Essentially she talks about that point in time in your career where objectively speaking everything is going well, and will for the foreseeable future, but there is no growth. It is time to move on. It is time to try something different.

I think that this can be very relevant to an artist career. There is a lot of pressure, if you have managed against the odds to find something that works in the market place, to stick with it and continue putting out visually or conceptually similar work. The famous example of course is Philip Guston, who as a successful abstract painter during the height of modernist painting made a radical shift back to figuration. Below are examples of his later and earlier work. I highly recommend you see more of his work. Google it. Wikipedia it. Go forth. But for now, back to the post.
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So, as I was this saying, this can be a challenge for an artist, because if you break out of what you are known for, well, people can’t seem knowledgable when they look at one of your paintings and can say without looking at the title, “oh thats a Bob Loblaw, I’d know his brushwork anywhere…” or whatever. And your gallerists are terrified that this new work won’t sell, because your established collectors “really like the emptiness of your lake scenes, they find the riotous colours and crowded compostions of the beach scenes to be claustrophobic’ blah blah blah.

Over time though, and from my own experience, every change circles back to a core centre of interest. The change was necessary to approach it from a different angle, a different understanding.

I have come under attack, well not attack, more just criticism, for having wildly disparate styles, sometimes abandoning  what others think I should be following.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that for each person who thinks I should go this way, someone else seems to think the other direction is more interesting!

So despite the pressure to develop my unique and recognizable style as an artist, and O’Hagans prior advice on playing your specialist game (part 3) she (and I) think it is important to maintain the right to explore different avenues, because each leads us to grow, rounds out our understanding of the world, and eventually converges with the other directions.

However, if anyone has a solution to problem of delivering the 30 second elevator pitch with so many irons in the fire,  I’d love to hear it.

Reading: Extreme You – Part 3: Play Your Specialist Game

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In Part 1 I covered personal drive, and in Part 2 I covered my thoughts (and worries) about standing out. Today we will look at Sarah Robb O’Hagans perspective on playing your specialist game.

So, I do take a little issue with this. She talks quite a bit about knowing yourself and what you bring to the table better than anyone else, and sticking to that.


From my experience as a visual artist and a creative entrepreneur, sometimes you have to be flexible, open to new ideas, confident in your ability to learn and adapt quickly, and embrace being a generalist in order to find your path to making your living.

Amoung the many things I do or have done to retain my independence and keep my studio going: Art installations, picture framing, book keeping, art career consulting, show and event organizing, commissions, murals, web design, advertising and marketing, fundraising, art lessons to kids, seniors, adults and the disabled, workshops, arts writing (for news, journals and promotional materials), competitive and performance painting events, socially engaged art projects and public performance art, private painting parties, children’s art parties and art lessons in schools. Also, I have created and sold fine art greeting cards, participated in art fairs, commercial and artist run gallery systems, and explored different media from textile, painting and pottery to video! There is more, but after 20 years some experiences start to get a little foggy.

Where I agree with O’Hagan is in assessing these experiences after the fact and weeding out the ones that really don’t work for you, or fit with your specialist game. Even if that particular venture looks profitable, you have every right to assess whether it aligns with your strengths and temperament and let it go if you don’t see a future in it for you. Others may not understand or agree with your decision, but if you can make out a reasonable pro and con list for yourself, stick with your decision and shift your focus to the things that have greater potential for you.

Reading: Extreme You – Part 2: Get Out Of Line

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In my last post I shared my take a way from Sarah Robb O’Hagan’s book on developing drive. You can read it here.

My next take away is on stepping out of line.

As part of my current 100 Rejections Project, I am sending out a lot of proposals, resumes and calls for submissions. If it were not for the aim of this project, to get over the paralyzing fear of rejection and do it as fast as possible by applying for everything I think I am capable of in the arts, I would not say that this is the best or most efficient method for me to find interesting new projects. Why? Because essentially what I am doing by responding to calls is standing in line, with everyone else who is also qualified and interested in this area. In that context, I am safe, ordinary, and definitely un-interesting.

My best opportunities have come when I stepped out of line. When I did not fill out an application, write a resume or get references. When I saw an opportunity, had an idea, and unsolicited, asked to talk to someone about it.

The problem with stepping out of line, is that it really is risky. In the arts  (a field known for individualism and boundary pushing), it can be a real challenge to step out of line without crossing the line. Consequences of crossing the line in such a social industry can mean no one will deal with you. Yet sometimes those lines can be murky, invisible, or even shift location.

If you must stand in line, there is a way to stand out. You know what the interviewer wants. I know you do. But if it isn’t you, don’t pretend it is! Stay true to yourself. Be honest with them. You may not get that part, but if you impress that person with the strength of your own gifts, they may have a better offer for you later. I have been to interviews where this was the case, and special positions or projects have been created just for me. If you do get the part, you know and they know what they will be getting.

However, knowing that my best opportunities come from stepping out of line, I can use that to quell my fears about the possibility of getting caught out of line. What could be the consequences? What is the likelihood of that? How can I recover if that happens? Is the benefit worth the risk?

A final bit of solace, in the words of Oscar Wilde:

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.