ART OF THE MATTER
Councillor calls for funding freeze
Flashbacks to Calgary’s infamous Giant Blue Ring are troubling a city councillor who hopes to put a freeze on public art funding after the latest controversial installation — the $500,000 Bowfort Towers.
Coun. Sean Chu plans to put forth the motion when council reconvenes in September. He said the temporary halt to funding would be a practical measure to help ensure Calgarians survive in a struggling economy.
“If someone lost their job, do you think they’re going to buy some expensive art to put on the wall? No. They’re going to buy food first,” said Chu. “We have to listen to people. It’s our job.”
Last week, the Bowfort Road overpass art project, a quartet of steel poles holding Rundle stone aloft, was unveiled along the Trans-Canada Highway at Canada Olympic Park. The project, which enlisted New York artist Del Geist, sparked public outrage with criticism over its price tag, location and perceived lack of consultation with Indigenous people.
Chu agreed to put forward the motion after talking with Colin Craig, interim Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, on Friday.
“It’s certainly inappropriate for the city to be spending millions on public art when Calgary is leading the nation in unemployment,” said Craig.
“Certainly, the price tag for the exhibit is raising a lot of eyebrows — and for good reason.”
Craig said a better alternative would be pushing public art projects from the public to the private sector — financed by corporate sponsorships or donations.
A similar motion, to temporarily slash public arts funding, was put forward by Coun. Peter Demong in February 2015. Chu supported the proposal two years ago, but it didn’t garner enough support to move forward.
Chu hopes council members rethink their position this time around.
However, some of Chu’s colleagues are calling for a less abrupt approach.
Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra thinks a discussion on whether public art should be funded is “unfortunate” considering public art is proven to make a city more desirable.
“I, personally, am a supporter of our public art process and the approved approach we took following the outrage surrounding the Giant Blue Ring,” said Carra.
Although he said he doesn’t particularly like the Bowfort Towers, he said people are “overly outraged.”
“Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said.
In 2014, the city tweaked its public art policy.
One of the biggest changes was made to how it’s funded. Under the new policy, 1% of any large infrastructure project under $50 million goes to public art, while projects over $50 million see halfof-1% of their budget put toward esthetics. Council also brought in a $4-million cap for public art.
Previously, 1% of the budget for all projects over $1 million went toward public art.
The amendments to the policy also added two new members to the selection committee, looked to increase local artist involvement and focused on lifting restrictions that placed art in lessfavourable locations.
Despite the focus on local talent, two artists from New York were chosen to create the Bowfort piece. They were able to apply for the open competition because of international trade agreements.
Over the past few days, many Calgarians have turned to social media to voice their anger at the city’s choice and condemned the decision to push money outside of the province. Carra said this is unreasonable, considering 80% of the $500,000 went to Calgary construction firms.
Unlike Chu, he isn’t concerned with funding. He thinks the policy should only change if it becomes clear it appropriated Blackfoot culture.
At the unveiling of the
Bowfort Towers on Thursday, Sarah Iley, manager of arts and culture for Calgary, said the piece is meant to align with Blackfoot symbolism. Since its unveiling, many people have commented on the lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples and condemned the city for not hiring a local Blackfoot artist.
Although Chu is supporting a freeze on public arts funding, he said more public input is necessary if the policy remains. Rather than several people making the final decision, he thinks residents should be able to vote for their favourite proposals online — making the process more democratic and less bureaucratic.