British Columbia

Vancouver library art installation dismantled 10 years after Olympic debut

The City of Vancouver quietly dismantled a $200,000 public art installation in front of the downtown library this week after it was found too pricey and old to maintain.

Artist proposed taking it down after the city found it too costly to restore

The installation, designed by Vancouver-based artist Ron Terada, was unveiled in the library's south plaza in January 2010. (Robert Keziere/City of Vancouver)

For more than a decade, six neon words in front of Vancouver's downtown library — "The Words Don't Fit The Picture" — drew in tourists, polarized residents and slyly questioned the library's Roman-inspired architecture.

This week, the city quietly dismantled the $200,000 public art installation. All that remained at the corner of Homer and Robson streets Friday was a blue porta-potty.

Maintaining and replacing the installation's 1,280 LED light nodes, which relied on aging technology, proved too costly, according to the city. 

"I feel sad about it," said Eric Fredericksen, head of public art for the city. "I think it's a fantastic work."

The installation, designed by Vancouver-based artist Ron Terada, was unveiled in the library's south plaza in January 2010 as part of the city's efforts to bolster public art for the Winter Olympics. 

The three-dimensional sign pitted the downtown library's grandiose design — inspired by the Colosseum in Rome — against its dutiful civic function. Its Las Vegas-style letters nodded to the city's legacy as one of the neon-sign capitals of North America in the '50s and '60s.

Tourists and locals often posed for photos in front of the sign. (City of Vancouver)

'Constant repairs'

But according to the artist, the sign was never installed to his liking.

"It was meant to be placed on the facade of the VPL," Terada wrote in an email. "Instead, it functioned more like a typical plop sculpture. Worse still, the lighting on the work was nearly always down and in need of constant repairs."

In October, the city's public art committee was told the installation hadn't been lit for several months. The city estimated restoring the installation would cost $75,000. Moreover, the library had plans to redesign its plaza, and relocating the sign would add $53,000 to the price tag.

The site, pictured Friday, where the installation once stood. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"Given this situation," Terada said, "I proposed an easy way out: dismantle/terminate the work." 

The city's public art committee voted in November to take down the sign. Crews spent three days this week disassembling it. The removal drew a divided response online.

The 2010 installation marked a shift in the city's public art efforts toward more ambitious projects from local artists, Fredericksen said. The city commissioned more than 20 temporary and permanent works for the Olympics, including Ken Lum's East Van Cross. It later launched a reserve fund in 2014 for "signature projects" at high-profile public spots each year. 

The library sign, conveniently situated steps away from tourist bus stops, ascended to Instagram fame, with travelers and locals regularly posing in front of its gaudy letters.

Its poetic expression — the title of a Willie Nelson song — "points to ways that public spaces are never as singular as they may appear," Jeff Derksen, an art critic and professor at Simon Fraser University, wrote in a brochure for the city.

Rather than preserving the letters, the city is destroying them, a practice that's common with public art built for specific locations, Fredericksen said. 

"You have a responsibility not to let it live on in a sort of souvenir way, or let zombie versions of it re-emerge."

Terada, the artist, said he never anticipated the installation would last for ten years, given other installations were removed shortly after the Olympics. 

"It was good while it lasted." 

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously reported for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.

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