Gushue | Who's afraid of public art?

Sculptures, murals and other works of art raise the quality of our lives, writes John Gushue, who wonders why some people inevitably resist suggestions for new art.

Public art helps make our neighbourhoods more livable and raises our quality of life

The Peter Pan statue is a hallmark of Bowring Park in St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC)

Imagine this: A wealthy businessman would like to grab a prime location in a much-loved public space, and use it for a piece of art he has privately commissioned. The sculpture will be quite tall, and thus will impede the view of anyone who's attached to that specific spot, which overlooks a much-loved pond.

How do you think it would go over? "Sharpen your pitchforks," one of my friends said when I played out the scenario, and I have to agree. If it's not the art that will irritate some people, it's an obstructed view.

Would you object?

If so, would you change your opinion if I told you I was talking about the Peter Pan statue? This of course is the very same statue that Edgar Bowring commissioned for Bowring Park, the lands that the merchant family donated to the city more than a century ago. The Peter Pan statue was made by Sir George Frampton, and is a replica of the iconic statue that Frampton made for Kensington Gardens in London.

(With a significant alteration or two: the St. John's statue unveiled in 1925 is dedicated to the memory of Bowring's granddaughter, Betty Munn, who perished in the Florizel disaster seven years earlier.)

I've noticed, far more than once, that some people immediately get their backs up when talk turns to public art — especially when taxpayers' dollars are involved, but not even then. I've been struck that sometimes there is sheer disdain for the very thought of adding a statue, a bust or even a mural to the mix.

Getting their backs up

But imagine what would happen if anyone proposed taking away Peter Pan, or another work of public art. "The place would go up," another of my friends said.

The rub seems to be the idea of the new … and the debate may not even be that rational.

The Rooms announced in March that it had acquired private donations to refurbish its grounds. (CBC)

My thinking on this was triggered by an incident a little while ago, when The Rooms announced that it had been given $2.5 million in private donations for a substantial overhaul of its considerable (and largely dull) outdoor properties. Some of the reaction to the story on our website was quite caustic, even though our reporting made it clear that no government money was on the table.

"Aren't we in massive debt??" wrote one eagle-eyed commenter. "We need more affordable housing or [to pay down] the debt among other things...... This government has no idea how to balance a budget or to spend wisely," sniped another. "More wasted tax dollars when basic services are being slashed," said yet another. And here's this one, which went so far as to question the very ethics of the donors: "If I had $1 million of my own money to donate, I'd give it to people in need.....but that's just me. some people have morals, some do not."

To be fair, those dyspeptic comments prompted a slew of others who made hay of pointing out a key fact: the cash was coming not from government, but from private sources, including $1 million from an anonymous donor.

Timing was an issue

None of that mattered, though, for some, and I think part of the reaction has to do with the timing. The Rooms announced the donation in March, less than a week before the provincial budget that wiped out almost 1,200 positions — including, it has to be noted, some key staff at The Rooms itself.

Small wonder that some people are feeling raw.

The statue of a student at the former Spencer College stands in downtown St. John's. (CBC)

But I've heard similar complaints about cultural spending - whether from government or private sources — many, many times over the years, in good times and bad. It doesn't take much for some people to use words like "waste" when other words, like "art," enter the conversation.

There's also a sentiment, hardly isolated to here in St. John's, that public art is elitist, that they are the playthings of the rich, that they take money that should be better used for things. I've certainly seen, in our comments and on the air, any number of people who argue that money spent on, say, a statue should better be spent on hospital beds.

The "hospital bed" argument is a false dichotomy. It assumes that we have a binary system of spending choices, either on the acute care end of health care, or not. (Let's leave alone the findings this week from the Conference Board of Canada that found we actually spend more per capita on hospital beds and other resources, yet have among the worst health outcomes in the country. That's a point of discussion for another week.)

My point is that we spend money on many things, and — in any event — a good amount of the public art in our midst has been paid for by private funds. But so what if a percentage of our tax dollars are used for arts?

Improving our neighbourhoods

I've been reading lately the work of Richard Florida, the American writer whose work on urban development and what he calls "the creative class" have found great traction.

This statue of Bob Hope is just one of many examples of public art in San Diego. (John Gushue/CBC)

Florida, who currently works with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, argues that not only are things like public art not elitist, they in fact are the opposite, and help do some hefty lifting in accomplishing things that most people want.

Sculptures and other features — small parks, for instance, or better street design — help make our neighbourhoods more livable, and more walkable. A neighbourhood where people want to walk is also likely to be one where more people feel safe, where there is likely to be outdoor activity, and where families want to spend time outdoors.

The things that trigger this behaviour are little things, but the research is clear on their long-term value.

I notice this when I travel. In San Diego, the city has obviously put considerable thought into public art; once we became aware of it during a trip a couple of years ago, we couldn't get over the number of murals, sculptures, installations and features we saw. Yes, a few pieces struck me as ugly or odd, but overall, I was deeply impressed.

The Al Pittman memorial in Corner Brook was spearheaded by his good friend, artist Gerry Squires. (John Gushue/CBC)

There are many other examples. One I saw recently is the new installation in a small park in Corner Brook that pays tribute to the late writer Al Pittman. The bronze-laden memorial was a labour of love of artist Gerry Squires, and I spent some wonderful minutes exploring it when we stopped by last summer.

Does appreciating public art make you a snob? I sure hope not. I'm sympathetic to those who feel strongly about health care, but I'll make this point: no one says on Sunday morning, "Honey, let's get out of the house - let's go look at the Health Sciences Centre."

We need quality health care, but we also need a high quality of life. That means supporting measures and designs that encourage us to get outdoors, to exercise, to improve and enjoy the communities around us.

One of the recent additions to the St. John's landscape that I love is the sculpture by Quidi Vidi Lake of a rower in full exertion. I've read magazines in his company, walked by him countless times, seen children romp around his outstretched oar and marvelled at how Morgan MacDonald's handiwork glistens in the light of both morning and evening. Several people have told me that it's now their meet-up place for a walk around the pond.

One of our family's favourites is the life-size statue of a little girl who would have attended the old Spencer College school. You know the one: she's near a little parking lot by Rawlins Cross, counting her fingers as she prepares for her next math lesson. We often stop by after picking up an ice cream at nearby Moo-Moo's, or while walking to and from Bannerman Park across the street. I've certainly not been the only person to plop something in the girl's fingers, from flowers to an umbrella.

We need more, not less, of this in our midst. Personally, I'd prefer to see private donations continue to take the lead, but I don't have that much of a problem with government funds being spent on the arts, too. That spending benefits us all.

Another word about Ray

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a tribute to Ray Guy, the wonderfully cranky writer who died in May at 72. At the end, I made the point that something should be done to honour his memory ... even a statue.

I wasn’t quite kidding, by the way. After speaking about this with friends, I'm actually convinced that this would be a rather cool thing to do.

Think about this: Ray on a couch or chair, slouched in his comfortable perch, waiting to dispense his acerbic wit. A loose-fitting sweater would be nice, but the sculptor's goal should be capturing that gleam in his eye?

I'd love to see a statue that takes on an interactive appeal — perhaps there'd be room on that couch for passersby to sit down themselves. I'm thinking of something like the Glenn Gould statue that is outside the CBC Broadcast Centre on Front Street, in downtown Toronto. It's wonderful to see people rush over to have their photo taken with the musing musical genius, and it's even more heartening to see how the statue adds a pulse to a stretch of sidewalk.

Could not a Ray Guy statue accomplish something similar here? I'd love to see it become reality.