Public Art: Building Calgary's civic identity one utility box at a time

Meg Wilcox takes an in-depth look at Calgary's public art and what it says about us as a city. From the megaprojects that are giving our downtown a new sense of cool to the smaller pieces that dot our local neighbourhoods, and how we've even learned to love some stuff we hated. It's a complex system that generates controversy.

'We’re all worried about fiscal accountability'

A wintry scene of Calgary's St. Patrick's Island. Meg Wilcox takes an in-depth look at public art and what it says about us as a city. (Jason Ronald)

The Plensa head in front of the Bow building. The Peace Bridge connecting Calgary's north and south shores. And yes, even the controversial blue ring by the airport, Travelling Light.

As Calgary grows, so does its collection of public art, giving us a whole new set of landmarks as we make our way through the city.

Most city planners and cultural critics maintain a world-class city must have art. Some planners live and die by Richard Florida's theories on the "creative city" — that art is the key to unlocking a city's wealth and potential.

And there's plenty of research to back it up.

From the Canada Council of the Arts, to the Creative City Network of Canada, to the American Planning Association, over and over again, the numbers show that art and cultural development in a city not only improves social cohesion, it also helps foster a sense of belonging and pride in a community.

Aside from government-funded projects, our city's public art can come through private donations, like Family of Horses in front of City Hall, and public-private projects like Wonderland, funded by Encana with creative input by the City of Calgary.

'Family of Horses' in front of Calgary City Hall. (Jason Ronald)

In 2004, the city also introduced a one per cent rule, where one per cent of every city infrastructure project is set aside for art. It's what's funded many of the installations you may have seen at local recreation centres, underpasses or C-Train stops.

It's complicated

Art is a way to explore a community's history and identity, which helps us build a sense of place and ourselves.

It can be an opportunity for diverse groups to meet around a shared project. And, in many cases, it's been a way to mobilize a community around certain ideals or goals.

Plus, art is a way to brand a city and its neighbourhoods — to help set ourselves apart as a space and as a population.

And now Calgary — always trying to make a name for itself on the global stage — is embracing public art. But like most public discussions, it's complicated.

Art as a Calgary story

The idea of public art playing a role in reflecting and building a sense of community is a relatively new one.

It's a modern idea that only began in the late 19th century, according to Catherine Soussloff, a professor of art theory and history at the University of British Columbia.

The statue called The Conversation, bottom right, can be seen among the crowd on Stephen Avenue while the large white sculpture Galleria Trees can be seen looming over the street in the background. (Jason Ronald)

Not to say there wasn't public art before then. There were plenty of festivals and performances and monuments and so on, but none of it was engineered toward building a specific sense of community.

But in current art practice and art theory, community lies front and centre. Even in abstract pieces where, at first glance, it doesn't seem as obvious.

Ask local curator Katherine Ylitalo, and she'll say you can even see it in a big blue ring.

Love and hate for the big blue ring

Yes, I'm talking about Travelling Light — both loved and hated by Calgarians. Ylitalo says the big blue ring with the streetlamps, just off Deerfoot Trail at the Airport exit, says a lot about our city.

A giant blue ring on the overpass at Deerfoot Trail and 96th Avenue N.E. has caught the attention of drivers. (CBC)

"To see that piece, you need to be in a car," she says. "So it totally reflects Calgary culture because we're a car culture. And we were even more then [in 2013]."

But it isn't just the ring's physical location that tells us about our city.

For example, with Travelling Light, the department of transportation oversaw the project. They designed its constraints when asking for proposals.

And, according to Ylitalo, whatever was going to end up on the space wasn't allowed to take up more room than an average streetlight. That meant that, right from the start, artists were pitching ideas limited by space, function and location.

Complex process

The process we use here in Calgary to decide how art gets made inherently influences what we get. There's a complex system of consultation and approval by committees and juries.

Ylitalo says that while some committees have worked together to bring some truly wonderful art to the city, more often than not, group consensus makes for a much less satisfying final product.

"That's our culture, too. We're all worried about fiscal accountability," Ylitalo says. 

"We're not going to trust somebody and say, 'OK, we want a good work of art… you guys take care of it and make sure it happens.' We're going to say 'Oh no, it's not going to be good unless everyone has a say in it.'"

While this reduces the chances of the public getting a completely unexpected (or unacceptable) piece of art, it also limits the possibilities of surprising the community with something truly unique.

But even when lots of voices have their say in a project, that doesn't mean everyone will like it from the get-go.

What we love to hate then learn to love

Our city has a sort of "love it" or "hate it" reputation around public art. But there are times where the hate turned to love.

Case in point: the Peace Bridge designed by Spanish artist Santiago Calatrava.

Calgary's Peace Bridge, which officially opened in 2012, cost roughly $25 million and there was criticism over its unusual design, hefty price tag and a litany of delays in the beginning. (Jason Ronald)

Artist and professor Dick Averns remembers the public outcry surrounding the $25-million pedestrian bridge when it was proposed. The price tag had plenty of people wailing.

Now, Averns says, it's one of the pieces his students write about most in his course on Public Art at the University of Calgary.

It's hard to say what makes a city go from hating a piece of art to loving it, but Averns thinks it's a partly because the public couldn't truly visualize the final product. They focused on the price.

But, when the Peace Bridge was completed, public perception started to change. The "sticker shock" faded.

The polarizing bridge created a stir amongst Calgarians because of its cost, but many argue that it is now enjoyed by many as a work of art. (Jason Ronald)

Averns says now most Calgarians are familiar with the bridge, even using it on their daily commutes. They can appreciate the bridge's unique colour and design. They see it in promotional materials here and overseas.

"This piece goes way beyond decoration," says Averns.

According to Tourism Alberta, the Peace Bridge is one of the most common images seen in international travel promotions of Calgary, our city now associated with a major international artist and designer.

"It tells us that audiences are geared towards how a city is portrayed through public art and audiences beyond Calgary have recognized their value," Averns explains.

But do these pieces, made by established international artists, speak to what Calgary actually is  or is it simply an attempt to be seen by everyone else as a "world class city"?

Special to us, but maybe not so special

What's unique in Calgary, isn't necessarily unique.

Globalization has hit the art world, too — with many cities collecting similar types of art from the same group of international artists and designers.

The Bow Tower behind 'Wonderland' in downtown Calgary. (davebloggs007/Creative Commons)

Calgary-based artist and arts administrator Katie Varney loves Wonderland and admires the Peace Bridge on her commutes downtown. But she doesn't believe they reflect the city's art or culture.

"I think that's what a lot of developers and property managers and planners think they're doing. They think they're bringing a Plensa head [Wonderland] to Calgary and it's a really unique thing. But there are these heads all around the world."

Indeed, you can find large head sculptures by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa in Buffalo, New York City and Liverpool. Aside from these permanent pieces, others have been shown in Venice, Italy, Salzburg, Germany and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Nuria's White Head by Jaume Plensa is exhibited in Paris. The Spanish artist created a three-storey sculpture of a human head for the courtyard of Encana's Bow tower in Calgary. (Canadian Press)

We must have a Calatrava 

The same can be said about the Peace Bridge.

More than 20 cities, from Toronto to Tel Aviv, can boast having a bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava — though, to be fair, Calgary's is the only one that's bright red.

"How original is that, in terms of if you have a broad view of what's happening in architecture and public art?" asks Varney.

"These Calatrava bridges, it's almost as if you need to have one. And you need to have a Plensa head and you have to have these big name big pieces within your city in order to showcase it iconographically as being an important place. But, at the same time, all of our cities are starting to look exactly the same."

Calgary is definitely collecting its "world class city" art collectibles, but is it at the expense of opportunities for local artists?

A pedestrian bridge in Toronto is similar in design to Calgary's controversial Peace Bridge. (Courtesy OpenFile )

Sculptures vs. utility boxes

Varney says the current bidding process for major installations tends to favour large companies. They get the big contracts while local artists are left to apply for the much smaller, locally-focused projects.

"I think that it's doing local artists a disservice […] because in my opinion there aren't enough projects other than utility boxes, and maybe a few project grants here and there, that are really viable for local artists," Varney says.

She laughs, "I mean, how many utility boxes can a person decorate?"

Painted utility boxes pepper the city.

This isn't to say that the city doesn't want to hire local artists, but some, like Varney, feel the application criteria makes it much tougher for them to win a contract.

For example, to win a bid for one of the city's largest and most expensive art projects, like a sculpture or an installation, artists often have to prove they have worked in that specific medium or have previously managed a budget that large.

This may ensure a level of quality and competence on the one hand, but it can also disadvantage potential solo artists, who may not have had the opportunity to lead a major project.

And so, the advantage goes to big international design companies and the artists that run them — the Plensas, the Calatravas, the Inges Idees. That's why they tend to win the biggest contracts here in the city.

Not to say you can't find unique public art in our fair city.

What is that?

Ron Moppett's mural mosaic in the East Village, THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER, is his interpretation of Calgary's history.

Colourful mosaic by artist Ron Moppett brightens Calgary's East Village. (Jason Ronald)

Michel de Broin's metal-and-streetlight sculpture on St. Patrick's Island, Bloom, references his childhood memories in his hometown of Montreal.

'Bloom' stands tall on Calgary's St. Patrick's Island. (Jason Ronald)

And, at the Tuscany LRT station, the bright lights of Vancouver artist Bill Pechet's roger that attempt to bridge the gap between Royal Oak and Rocky Ridge.

According to the city, the artwork titled 'roger that' slowly reveals itself as a pair of radiant constellations and is comprised of two 12-metre sculptures situated on either side of Crowchild Trail. (Jason Ronald)
Light fixture art installation, left, at Tuscany LRT station. (Jason Ronald)

Art, but ... is it good?

Some may argue that, by virtue of simply being there, a piece of public art is successful. Even better if it generates conversation or debate.

But what if it goes unnoticed? Unappreciated? Has public art served its purpose then?

Soussloff says public perception of art is an ever-changing thing, and that public art — designed to hold its ground for decades — doesn't always reveal its value right away.

"We can't assume it's going to be immediately perceptible to everyone what's good or what's bad about something. In another 50 years, people might appreciate a work of art that isn't even noticed at the time it goes out there," she explains.

After all, 40 years ago, Calgarians cried foul when Brotherhood of Mankind was installed outside of the old Calgary Board of Education building. Today, it's very much loved and even inspired the CBE's logo.

Which makes you wonder — 40 years from now, which public art installations will we still be talking about?

The Mario Armengol sculpture, The Family of Man, is outside the Calgary Board of Education offices. (Jason Ronald)

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


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