New rules, management for city’s controversial public art program as it nears return

A city council committee has approved a plan that could see new works of public art commissioned starting later this year.

On Wednesday, the community development committee threw its support behind loosening rules on where the city’s public art funding can be spent.

While administration affirmed that the city’s policy of designating one per cent of the budget for capital projects for public art, it’s proposing to untether the location of future artworks from infrastructure projects.

The chair of the committee, Coun. Kourtney Penner, said that means public art could soon be placed in parks or other spaces where people can better appreciate it.

“A public art program that is more responsive to the community, and more about placemaking in neighbourhoods and in communities and public gathering spots, and less so tied to infrastructure projects,” said Penner.

City council voted in 2017 to suspend the city’s public art program after an outcry about Bowfort Towers.

The piece known as Bowfort Towers was unveiled in 2017, but only meant as part of the complete public art project slated for the Trans-Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The artwork, which was placed near the interchange at Bowfort Road and 16 Avenue Northwest, was designed by a New York artist.

There were also public concerns about a lack of consultation about artworks and where they are placed. 

Bowfort Towers and another lightning rod for criticism, Travelling Light (perhaps better known as the big blue ring), both sit next to busy roadways and aren’t easily reached by the public.

In last November’s civic budget, council approved $12.1 million for public art for the 2023-26 period.

That money is in addition to $9 million in public art money that has accumulated during the program’s review.

LISTEN | Public art liason Julie Yepishina-Geller spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener ahead of the vote:

Calgary Eyeopener8:11Public art policy

How the city hopes to avoid public art controversies.

As a result of that review, council decided to turn over the program to the Calgary Arts Development (CADA) to operate it for a six-year period.

The chair of CADA’s board of directors, Chima Nkemdirim, told the committee that decoupling future art from the infrastructure projects that funds them will result in more local artists being commissioned to do work.

That’s because when an art project has a budget of half a million dollars, for example, trade agreements require the city to take international bids.

If the city decides to pursue more smaller projects, he said it will give Calgary artists, as well as Indigenous or diverse artists, more chances to get their work in front of Calgarians.

“It allows us to break the funds up into smaller bits, chunks which can allow more local artists opportunities to participate in the program,” said Nkemdirim.

Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra. (Alex Ramadan)

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, who is a supporter of the public art policy, said he’s glad with the work that has been undertaken to revamp the program.

He noted the program had been “beleaguered and it was under assault.” Carra considers the artwork that has been produced to be a “crowning achievement” for the city.

Coun. Dan McLean is less enthusiastic about the planned spending although he too hopes more local artists will get a chance to show what they can do.

“I have to justify it to my residents saying, you’re making a decision between gasoline, food, high rents, high interest rates. Is $12 million in public art really a priority right now?” said McLean.

WATCH | City’s public art program getting back on its feet following major restructuring:

New rules, management for city’s controversial public art program as it nears return

A city council committee approved a plan Wednesday that could see new works of public art commissioned starting later this year. The CBC’s Scott Dippel has the details.

Nkemdirim said the city’s public art program does have positive impacts on the city and its economy.

He said it supports and attracts artists to Calgary, which adds vibrancy to the city. As well, he said it creates jobs as local contractors work on building the artworks, which can attract visitors or international attention.

The committee voted 6-2 in support of the proposed changes.

City council will vote on the matter next month.

Several public art projects are already in the works and will be unveiled later this year.

Administration officials said new banners in downtown Calgary and window displays at City Hall are already under development. 

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