Committee votes to keep Calgary's public art program frozen for another year

Council voted to suspend the program in 2017 while a review is done after public outcry about Bowfort Towers, a large scale work by an artist from New York City.

Proposal to continue the suspension will now go to city council at an upcoming meeting

Travelling Light, Bowfort Towers and Wishing Well are three public art installations in Calgary that have generated controversy. (Left photo: CBC, centre photo: CBC, right photo: Genesis Centre for Community Wellness/Facebook)

A city council committee has voted to keep Calgary's controversial public art program under suspension for another year.

It endorsed the recommendation of administration to keep fine-tuning the program before any new works are commissioned.

The proposal to continue the suspension will now go to city council at an upcoming meeting.

Council voted to suspend the program in 2017 while a review is done. The move came after public outcry about Bowfort Towers, a large scale work by an artist from New York City.

The installation raised hackles of Calgarians and council members alike.

The committee on Community and Protective Services heard that there are no plans to change the funding formula for the program. For most projects, one per cent of the capital cost of an infrastructure project must be allocated for public art.

Found on Highway 1 just west of Calgary, Bowfort Towers has become a contentious piece in the city's public art program. (CBC)

But the city's new head of the public art program, Jennifer Thompson, said that art no longer has to be located next to the infrastructure project.

It means that instead of being next to a bridge or a road, the public art could possibly be located in a park or some other place where people could appreciate it.

Thompson said they're planning to build in better communication on future projects so that there's greater awareness of a new artwork before it is actually completed.

That communication would loop in not just city council but also members of the public.

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

Also, Thompson said they're looking at ways to allow for more local and Indigenous artists to be selected for city art projects.

"One of the foundations that we want to build the program on going forward and how we measure success is to prioritize local investment," said Thompson.

The chair of the committee said she likes what she's hearing but "we're not there yet."

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart said more work is needed. But one thing she is liking is new leadership that's been brought to the file.

"Some of us worked very actively to get a huge change in leadership here at the City of Calgary," said Colley-Urquhart.

"We had people that thought that this was just city administration's work and they made some of these decisions without consulting community."

She credits former city manager Jeff Fielding with making staffing changes.

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

"You had engineers making decisions on some of these projects before right? Along with inadequate leadership from the City of Calgary. So we've cleaned that up."

Coun. Jyoti Gondek said she appreciated the work that's been done and the renewed focus of the public art program. But she also said that it's important for the city to keep funding the program..

"I think if we don't invest in ourselves, nobody else should be expected to," said Gondek.

Several members of the city's arts community spoke to the committee.

Tristan Surtees, who moved his business from Scotland to Calgary in 2011, said there's been a noticeable change in attitude in the program.

The Wishing Well sculpture at the Genesis Centre for Community Wellness has been moved into storage for safety concerns. (Genesis Centre for Community Wellness/Facebook)

"Thank you for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater or passing the program to a third party arms-length, as I'm sure you've been tempted to do," said Surtees.

"Please don't underestimate the importance of this."

Given past controversies, council seems well aware that not everybody will like every art project that's paid for with public dollars.

But Coun. Shane Keating said he hopes a balance can be found.

"Where we have to get in some ways is art that's acceptable. In other words, you're not going to walk by it and say 'my tax dollars went on that?' And we haven' t gotten to that point yet," he said.

While the program has been suspended, smaller community projects or works that were in the procurement phase have gone ahead. That will not change for 2019, regardless of whether council decides to keep the suspension formally in place.

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.

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