Nenshi says Bowfort Towers debate shows need for public buy-in on tax-funded art

Calgary's mayor says the dust-up over the recently unveiled half-million-dollar work by New York artist Del Geist points to the need for more public buy-in for taxpayer-funded public art.

Calgary mayor also says 'sometimes statues of a guy or a gal on a horse can be really nice'

Each Bowfort Tower sculpture incorporates Rundle rock, which are found only in Alberta. (CBC)

Naheed Nenshi says he hasn't yet seen the controversial Bowfort Towers art installation at the western edge of the city and doesn't want to pass judgment on its artistic merit.

In a post on his Facebook page Friday, the mayor sounded wistful for a day when public art was more approachable.

"When I heard about the Bowfort Towers last week, I have to admit that my first thought was 'just once, can't it be a statue of a historical figure on a horse', but I don't get to decide that," he said on Facebook.

On Thursday, Nenshi told reporters the dust-up over the recently unveiled half-million-dollar work by New York artist Del Geist does point to the need for more public buy-in for taxpayer-funded public art.

"There are two pedestrian bridges over the Bow River that were built at roughly the same time," he said, referring to the Peace Bridge and the George C. King Bridge over St. Patrick's Island.

"One of them caused a lot of drama, and now you can't get on it in June because of all the brides lined up to take their wedding photos. The other one, which was more expensive, didn't cause any drama at all. And one of the reasons for that was because the public was really involved in the decision of the design of that bridge. And I think that's a good thing."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says city administrators followed the policy on Indigenous consultation properly. (CBC)

Bowfort Towers is one of two new pieces of public art on display as part of the new interchange at the Trans-Canada Highway and Bowfort Road N.W.

In his Facebook post, Nenshi said he and his council colleagues have to do more to get Calgarians engaged in selecting public art.

"I don't believe politicians should be responsible for selecting public art," he said. "But really, sometimes statues of a guy or a gal on a horse can be really nice."

Indigenous consultation

Geist said the work benefited from conversations he had with members of the Blackfoot community, and its four towers align with the First Nation's cultural symbolism.

A spokesperson for the Tsuut'ina First Nation was critical of the project, saying it was inappropriate to try to reflect Indigenous symbolism without collaboration with First Nations artists and elders.

But Nenshi says a "particularly skilled" knowledge keeper, with expertise in Blackfoot archeology and symbolism, was consulted.

One per cent of the capital budget for every infrastructure project is dedicated to public art. (CBC)

"The city followed the Indigenous consultation policy to a T on this," he said.

"Should that consultation be different? Maybe. But I certainly can't fault my city administration colleagues, because they did exactly what the policy asked them to do."

Nenshi also said the team that worked to choose the art installation has been unfairly singled out for criticism.

"I don't like the fact that these volunteers have sort of been in line for a public lynch mob on all of this. And I know they worked very hard, they looked at lots of different proposals, and this is what they felt made sense for that location," he said.

"I want to try and figure out how we end up with stuff that's maybe not all that nice all the time, but I certainly want to honour that work."


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