Photo: City of Calgary

The politics of public art

Can an arms-length agency make it less of a political football”?


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In 2017, Calgary’s discourse around public art was at one of its lowest ebbs.

That summer, Bowfort Towers, a public art installation of steel beams and Rundle stone, was unveiled along the Trans Canada Highway by Canada Olympic Park.

Everything about the project—the piece itself, the $500,000 price tag, the New York artist, the fact that many Blackfoot critics felt it looks similar to traditional burial scaffolds—seemed to rankle with the public.

That August in the Calgary Herald, Calgary Coun. Sean Chu voiced disapproval for the towers at a time when he said “thousands” of Calgarians were out of work. “This actually burns me,” he said.

In a statement at the time, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi declined to comment on the exhibit’s esthetics. Rather, he expressed concern that the city’s public art policy, which had been changed to get public input on projects, didn’t seem to be working. "I want to figure out how we wound up with art that many people don't like,” Nenshi said.

Four years later, the project still casts a long shadow on conversations surrounding public art in Calgary. In the aftermath of the Bowfort Towers debut, the City of Calgary decided to suspend the public art program, freeze funding and review its public art policy.

After hiring a consulting firm to find a third party to manage the program, the city announced in March that Calgary Arts Development (CAD), its arts funding arm, would run it. The transition is slated to begin this year, although CAD will likely assume full responsibility in 2024.

I want to figure out how we wound up with art that many people don’t like.

Naheed Nenshi,

Mayor, City of Calgary

In its own announcement, CAD said that it intends to streamline Calgary’s public art program, make it easier for artists to participate, and increase public engagement opportunities for the sake of transparency.

But what does this mean in practical terms? And what was so broken about the city’s public art policy that such radical change was necessary?

Public art history (and policy)

The Bowfort Towers isn’t the first public art project to gall Calgarians.

Greg Burbidge, CAD’s research and policy manager, is quick to recall the online discourse around Travelling Light, a 2013 piece incorporating traffic lights near the Airport Trail and Deerfoot Trail interchange. More colloquially, it’s known as the “blue ring,” especially in online commentary.

“I shouldn't read the comment section of anything ever, but I do,” Burbidge says.

Like Bowfort Towers, Travelling Light was a lightning rod for public outrage around the City of Calgary’s management of public art dollars. An argument Burbidge often hears in response to these projects is that the city could have spent the money on something else. “Well, no,” he says. “There are rules. [The city] had to spend it there, and so you end up with a blue ring.”

Burbidge is referring to the “percent for public art” funding strategy laid out in Calgary’s public art policy, which stipulates that 1% of the budget for a capital infrastructure project must be allocated for art. But there’s a catch: the policy also requires those dollars to be spent on-site. So, if the city is building a bridge with public dollars, 1% of the budget must go towards public art that lives on or in the immediate vicinity of that bridge.

(This condition, however, is set to change: the city and CAD are now working towards a model where all the pooled money from the 1% policy can be applied more flexibly within the community surrounding capital projects.)

There’s also the problem of scale. Jennifer Thompson, manager of arts and culture for the City of Calgary, explains that in the city’s hands, both a $5 million construction project and a $250,000 public art project need to be communicated and procured in the same way. “When we explain that to citizens, they’re like, ‘Well, that doesn't really make any sense at all,’ ” she says. “This should be run by an organization where they can manage the risk and manage the operations at the arts level, and not at a $4 billion corporate level.”

One of the challenges that the city faced—a challenge that CAD will inherit—is the gap in public understanding around how public art is funded and implemented.

“When we talk about the Green Line, we know multiple levels of government are going to be involved,” Burbidge says, and that means following rules from multiple levels of government. “I don't expect anybody to know how that affects public art ... [but] all those rules about infrastructure are where the 1% dollars come from for public art.”

Local artists speak out

What happens if the city council elected in October is mostly made up of rookie councillors, and potentially stacked with outspoken critics of the city’s public arts sector?

“I bet all those incoming councillors love public art,” Burbridge says wryly.

However, he adds, by taking public art management out of the city’s hands, CAD hopes it will become “less of a political football.”

Visual artist Eric Moschopedis puts it less delicately. He believes that housing the public art program with an arms-length contractor is a “desperate move by the city to save public art” from being defunded or cut entirely by city council. But it was the best option available, he adds, because when the city was researching ways to change the program, it did so “without the expertise of artists.”

Some Calgary artists believe that the city should hold on to the program and improve it.

While management under CAD gives the program a layer of protection, some critics have concerns about how siloing public dollars with an arms-length organization could impact public art.

Rather than hand it off, some Calgary artists believe that the city should hold on to the program and improve it. The Calgary Public Art Alliance—a coalition of artists, critics and arts professionals—argues that a civic program is vital to the integration of artists working in the public realm, and that there are existing models for how to successfully run public art within the city. For instance, the award-winning public art project WATERSHED+ was embedded within the city’s utilities and environmental protection department.

Thompson sees it a different way. Far from just a corporation, she explains, CAD is a non-profit that has already been working with artists in a development capacity for over 20 years. “This is about getting the public art program to a place where citizens, the arts community, and cultural community members have ownership over the program,” Thompson says. Placing public art management in the hands of a local non-profit that understands its community is a step towards achieving that goal, she adds.

She also points to jurisdictions where this model for oversight of public art has already been implemented. Edmonton’s public art has been managed by the arms-length Edmonton Arts Council for over a decade. Winnipeg’s public art offerings, on the other hand, are managed by two third-party organizations: the Winnipeg Arts Council and The Forks.

After consulting both of those cities, Thompson adds, the City of Calgary learned that governments need to “get out of the way in the world of art so that you can really get down to the grassroots community level and engage with artists where they're at.”

Despite their concerns, some members of the alliance are cautiously optimistic about the new model, and they’re now preparing to work with both CAD and the city to ensure a successful transition.

They have a right to be angry about public art, especially if they were not involved in the process.

Eric Moschopedis,

visual artist

Ciara McKeown, a public art commissioner and curator who is also a member of the alliance, hopes the city’s commitment to returning the program to the community will foster “a closer and more intentional relationship” between Calgarians, visual arts workers and public art commissioning processes.

“Although we should all be concerned about the removal of delivering culture as a public service through the city corporation itself,” she adds, “there is potential for the program to be more responsive—if freed of civic bureaucracy—to visual artists and contemporary art practice.”

A need for ‘honest community engagement’

While there are many different visions for what the public art program needs to be successful, everyone agrees that a more thorough consultation process will be crucial to improving Calgary’s relationship with its public art.

Burbidge underscores CAD’s commitment to “public art for public good,” which he describes as art that shapes and is shaped by its surroundings, so that community members can see themselves reflected in it.

Thompson echoes this sentiment, and adds that citizens’ attitudes toward public art are shaped by whether they were consulted during each phase of the project. “Calgarians want to be involved, before and after,” she says. “They want to be engaged with the art.”

Moschopedis also stressed that “honest community engagement” would make for better public art. He urges Calgarians to understand that these projects belong to them. “They have a right to be angry about public art, especially if they were not involved in the process,” he says. He believes that art can be a tool “used to create honest dialogue amongst citizens about who we are and what we want to become.”

Fundamentally, most stakeholders in the arts community agree that the success of this transition rests with CAD’s ability to rebuild trust—both with artists and with the broader Calgary community. But more than that, McKeown says, CAD, city council and the city corporation need to stand up for public art and trust the visual arts community. “Trust that Calgarians have an appetite for interesting public art,” she adds, because the future of public art in Calgary depends on it.

Miranda Martini is a writer, editor and musician in Calgary. She's also The Sprawl's associate editor.

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