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Brian's Beat: Public Art Debate 2015

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Ward 11 official website

Here we are again, a new year and a new debate about public art at City Council. This recurring, yearly debate makes me think that public art is the political punching bag for Calgary politicians. I have been on City Council for seven years now, and I have had this debate at least seven times. Beside the point that I find it incredulous that we have the debate each year in the first place, each year there is a new excuse for trying to reduce/neuter/cut/suspend/kill our public art program. I have also watched during these 7 years the City of Calgary's Public Art Policy and Program go from a leading civic policy to one that at times feels like it is barely limping along.
And all for what? All for a few on City Council who either don't like public art or simply don't understand it to try and score some political points.

So, what is it? Why do we spend money on public art? What good does it do for us or our city?

In the end, I can only speak for myself and what I see around me. Admittedly, this is a difficult thing for me to do. You see, I come from the arts. The value of art is a given, something that is understood without having to explain. Before I was elected to City Council I made my living in the arts for 20 years. I moved to Calgary for our arts community and specifically for our amazing performing arts community. In Calgary, I was able to make a living as a theatre designer and I was able to grow within my field by being exposed to a wide variety of art all over the city. And all of that before the City of Calgary adopted a Public Art Policy.

Public art is, at its core, about enlivening our experience with our everyday surroundings. Thankfully public art has evolved from the time when it consisted of putting up a statue of a dead white guy. Now, we get to experience it across the city and in our neighbourhoods. It is the sculpture on the corner of 8th and 8th, or the fire hoses at Fire Station #5. It is something as staid and solid as the fish along Glenmore Trail or as ephemeral and transitory as the River of Light which lasted only one night on the Bow River. It can be dynamic and changing, such as Chinook Arc in Barb Scott Park, or simple, such as the sitting dogs in Southland dog park. Each piece, whether in a high visibility area or tucked away at a water treatment plant, adds an element of surprise and discovery.
A piece of art is not meant to be liked by everyone. It is meant to challenge, delight and engage. In that light, Travelling Light on Airport Trail is indeed a very successful piece of public art. It certainly engaged the entire community in discussing it and art. We thought about whether it was art or not, about its location and certainly about what it means. The artist got us thinking about all of those things with this simple design. For those who sought to know more about the installation, they learned about our transportation history and the vitality of the Nose Creek valley in our history. In a word, our city was enriched by that piece of art, whether we liked it or not.

It is the role of the City to participate in our public life, to add to it each and every day, and the Public Art Program is one such venue. What better way to fund it than through a 1% for Public Art out of capital projects. Including the funding of public art in those projects, which are primarily funded by either the Provincial or Federal governments, is a simple way to ensure that we are thinking about the public realm when we build a road, interchange, train station or fire hall. When we have money we are adding public art, when times are tighter and have less to spend on infrastructure, we are spending less on public art. Simple. And within a capital budget where we prudently look at 15% of the cost being allocated to contingencies, 1% for Public Art is a minimal part of the cost.

We deserve a city that delights, a city that challenges us and makes us think, and public art is a vital part of that. Our experience going through our daily lives deserves to be enlivened by the art that we see along roadways, inside recreation centres, and on pedestrian overpasses. Each time we engage with art, however fleetingly, we are enriched. That is the city that we can show off and proudly call home.

I believe that without the leadership of Calgary's Public Art Program, we are each diminished. We are each reduced with, in the end, very little to show for it.


This content represents the personal views and opinions of the Ward Councillor and should not be taken as a statement of policy of The City of Calgary. The inclusion of any external content does not imply endorsement by The City of Calgary.

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