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Fighting about public art is a waste of time

By Derek Baker, March 5 2015 —

On Monday, Feb. 23, city council rejected a motion to scrap funding for public art in Calgary.

Currently, one per cent of construction costs on city infrastructure are set aside for public art. The proposed motion scrapped this allotment for 2015. It was made because of fear that Calgary’s infrastructure budgets would be slashed by the provincial government in light of the low price of oil.

Calgary’s funding scheme is in line with other Canadian cities, including Toronto and Ottawa. Unfortunately, the program is controversial because of one infamous project.

Calgary’s most notable public art failure is the big blue ring next to an overpass in northeast Calgary. The installation, called Travelling Light, cost over $400,000 and has the honour of being called ugly by both the Calgary Sun and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

The ring is a disaster. It’s expensive, you can’t get near it and it wasn’t made by local artists. But one bad piece doesn’t represent all art in Calgary.

The majority of projects commissioned by the city add culture to Calgary’s often drab landscape. This includes the metal human figures on Centre Street LRT station, the weird signs by the river, the jumping trout on the underpass of Glenmore Trail and Elbow Drive and many of the bronze statues in plazas and parks downtown.

The vast majority of art in Calgary is made by local artists. Only 15 per cent of public artwork comes from outside our borders. But local, accessible projects are overshadowed by the controversy of artwork that is ugly, international or both.

Public art is important to Calgary. We don’t live in the most beautiful city in Canada. There’s snowmelt piled on concrete roads, odd skinny trees on the side of motorways and an endless expanse of beige houses.

Public art is what makes our city bearable. It’s more than inaccessible sculptures, and everyone has the capacity to enjoy a little more colour and vibrancy in Calgary’s landscape.

With the looming economic downturn, the price of public art is going to be criticized even further. But cutting the tiny fraction of the budget set aside for public art won’t balance the municipal budget. The time city councillors spent debating this motion would have been better spent on an other topic.

I know the giant blue ring is ugly. But fighting about the importance of public art isn’t going to help Calgary weather the low price of oil.

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