Public Art, Not Private Art: leave it to the pros

Sean Chu, one of our Calgary City Councillors, recently claimed to reporters that, “The private sector can do everything cheaper and better,” and wondered aloud why the public sector does public art so badly. He also mused, “The public sector has this view that art should be outside the box. What we should be doing is looking at acceptable public art across the board.”

YIKES! That statement scares me a lot. What is acceptable? Is it a pretty mural of lemons in bowls? Perhaps colts gambolling in a meadow? Art assists in social evolution. It bears witness of a time in history and helps moves humanity forward. It speaks of ideas that define us as a society. It makes us think. Beauty can be an integral part of this definition, but great art is much more than that.

I’m afraid that getting global buy in is an impossible task. But we, the artists and the Calgary Public Art Program, have – and will continue – to engage the community so concerns and ideas can be voiced. In fact, the Calgary Public Art Program has put a lot of dedicated effort into hosting community engagement opportunities for each new artwork. But sadly, very few people show up. Is it poor advertisement of those opportunities or lack of interest from the public? Probably both.

The news coverage of Mr. Chu’s opinion of public art went on to provide an example of a recent successful privately- funded public art work west of Calgary created by Alberta artist Vania Burton who lives near the community of Harmony in Rocky View County. The piece she created seams universally loved by the residents.

The Orchard, a community project in support of the KO Arts Center

A few years ago, I too worked with the developers Harmony Rocky View to create a community art project when they helped to fund an outreach program for the KO Arts Center in Springbank. I feel that this private corporation has an exceptional awareness of the role they can play in society and the importance of art. They consider contributing toward providing artistic expressions to be a primary corporate responsibility.

Sadly though, this is not common in the business sector. It’s been my experience that most business owners are not particularly concerned with their roles in the community, and are largely unaware of the place art occupies in their society. Perhaps they don’t know enough about it, can’t afford the time or resources to be concerned, or maybe it’s because money in their own pockets feels better than money invested in the community. So I’m afraid I have to disagree with Councillor Chu. When it comes to public art, the private sector will most likely “just not do it”, so forget about “doing it better”.

Last week, I was delighted to attend a facilitated conversation with the City’s stakeholder engagement team to provide input on the current Public Art process. Fifty professional artists who worked with the City on Public Art projects over the years gathered to discuss their experiences, and our conversation was passionate and animated. I was among artists who really care about doing a good job, artists who engage and actively listen to the members of the community, who do their best to represent the community’s values in the projects they create. It was an enormously positive experience, and even though we shared our frustrations with the City’s approach to certain aspects of the program, we agreed that there are some very competent city employees in the Public Art Program who seem to be handcuffed by the bureaucracy and by politicians.

I left that meeting even more certain that politicians and reporters should back off. It’s clear to me that the Public Art Program has been high jacked by some of the City Councillors who use it to leverage their own political ambitions. And of course, the news media feeds off that controversy. Back off! Let the professionals to do their job. Leave it to the pros: the City employees in the Public Art Program and the professional artists they work with, artists who are carefully selected and who are accountable.

Creating art for the public is an organic process that needs room to explore possibilities in order for each project to be collaboratively successful. There is not only one way to do this; a narrow path system with rigid boundaries can us of the wonderful and unexpected ways artists can answer challenges. To be honest, although I love the involvement of the community in every Public Art project, it can bog down the process when the moment comes for the artist to take their ideas and put them to work. Once the spirit of the work has the community’s buy in, it’s not necessary to discuss the tools of the artist’s trade. At that point, leave the work of creation to the professional.

Finally, what endears Public Art to people is the way it grows on them. They learn to love it as they see new meanings each time they pass by. My artist friend Sabine Lecorre-Moore says, “Art on the side of a highway just doesn’t work. It needs to be in a place where people can touch it, take a selfie with it, where they can have an experience with the art.” You put a big piece of art on the side of a highway where people can’t connect with the work, you risk missing out on that sense of appropriation. The reality is that people love Public Art and, although most are not aware of the many forms it can take, they cherish the experiences when they are in contact with it.”

The Public Art Program will never be perfect. And that’s as it should be. Public Art will never get “across the board buy in”. Pubic art work is meant to provide people with an experience, to inspire, to astonish, and yes, sometimes it’s meant to provoke us to think. And that’s the beauty of it. But we can all do a better job with the conversation between the artists, the city and our fellow citizens of this wonderful community. Removing political interference would be a great place to start; then we can begin to talk about art and society intelligently.

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2 thoughts on “Public Art, Not Private Art: leave it to the pros

  1. Lisa Sierra

    Great article. I agree with the statement that public art should be able to be touched and interacted with. It should be the start of a conversation and what I like is likely different than what you like.

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