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Outrage over public art unwarranted

By Jason Herring, September 5 2017 —

Calgarians are mad about public art again. It’s been a few years since the city’s last public art-fueled outrage, with expensive projects like the Peace Bridge and the “Travelling Light” — the giant blue ring near the airport — attracting the most resentment.

The culprit this time is the “Bowfort Towers,” a still-incomplete art installation on the Trans-Canada Highway in the city’s northwest. The artwork consists of four sets of steel beams holding large rocks and is meant to represent Blackfoot culture. As it stands, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing piece of art I’ve ever seen, but it’s also not the repugnant mess many accuse it of being.

Many complaints about the Bowfort Towers art are valid — most notably, those questioning the consultation methods that the City of Calgary followed with the Indigenous communities the piece ostensibly represents. That’s a big deal, and the city needs to address the flaws in its process surrounding art that represents other cultures. But the wider vitriol over the cost and value of public art projects is overblown.

Caitlind Brown and Wayne Garrett, two local visual artists and veteran creators of public art, addressed these complaints in a blog post. They explain that public art is unavoidably expensive and costly large-scale installations aren’t exclusive to Calgary. And that price makes sense — a piece of art that’s on the side of a highway has to be pretty damn big for passersby to get an impactful impression of it. And anything that large won’t be cheap — most estimates for the cost of installing traffic lights at an intersection ring in at over $200,000.

The other reason for seemingly exorbitant costs is the huge amounts of bureaucracy behind converting art from concept to reality. The process involves an open call, a selection period, consultations, production, engineering, installation and more. Each of those steps has a price.

Public art is an easy thing for people to get upset about because of differences in taste and the inevitability of missteps. That’s why Calgary goes through this same song and dance every few years. But selective mass outrage ignores all the other beautiful and enriching public art that’s commissioned every year in the city. It’s okay to dislike a work of art, but to conflate your disdain for a single piece into an argument against the value of public art as a whole is ignorant.

That’s why a public art funding freeze, like the one proposed by Ward 4 councillor Sean Chu, is misguided and reactive. While our public art would benefit from more consultation — especially pieces like the “Bowfort Towers” that involve Indigenous culture — forgoing it altogether is a terrible solution. After all, what kind of city do we want to live in? One that experiments with and cultivates the arts within its otherwise drab infrastructure, or one characterized by its empty highways and suburbs devoid of culture?

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