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.