Council rejects call to apologize for controversial public art program

Coun. Jeromy Farkas asked city council to apologize to Calgarians for the way the public art program has been working. But council rejected the idea.

Coun. Jeromy Farkas says acknowledging mistakes would help rebuild public trust

Travelling Light is one of the controversial public art pieces that prompted a Calgary city councillor to call for a public apology to city residents. (CBC)

A city councillor thinks Calgarians are owed an apology.

His problem is: his council colleagues don't agree.

Coun. Jeromy Farkas called for an apology as an acknowledgement that the public art program has fallen short of its goals and failed to meet public expectations.

"This city council is ultimately responsible for the conduct of city administration, the policy we craft and the results," said Farkas.

He cited the 2013 controversy over Travelling Light — a large blue ring that sits beside a busy road in northeast Calgary — and then after public outrage, a new controversy in 2017 caused by Bowfort Towers.

That art installation, done by a New York artist, also sits beside a busy road in northwest Calgary and prompted council to suspend the public art program while it is reviewed.

Farkas feels that an apology would send a message to Calgarians.

Coun. Sean Chu agreed.

"In order to right the wrongs, first of all we have to admit that we were wrong."

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

But Chu and Farkas are the only ones who think saying sorry will help anything.

Council voted 9 to 2 against issuing a public apology.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi told council that he thought an apology would be meaningless.

He said that symbols and gestures matter. But not in this case.

"They're also dangerous. They're dangerous when they're used for politics. They're dangerous when they throw people under the bus. They're dangerous when they actually don't accomplish anything to make the community better," said Nenshi.

The mayor said that changes have been made to the public art program and more changes are coming.

Earlier this week, council voted to pool the funds for public art projects so in future, art won't necessary be placed beside the capital project that is funding it.

Council also wants to review the public art board's mandate.

Nenshi said the public art program hasn't always met its goals.

However, he pointed out that the vast majority of public art projects have succeeded as opposed to a handful that have been problematic.

For his part, Farkas said the decision by council demonstrates that it is not aligned with most Calgarians when it comes to public art.

"I think that it speaks again to the culture, perhaps the group-think, that we don't fully grasp the level of frustration that Calgarians experience with this policy, especially during economic downturn," said Farkas.

Farkas walks out

Later in the evening, Farkas repeatedly walked out of the council meeting when it had switched to a closed door — or in-camera — session. 

Coun. Jeromy Farkas repeatedly walked out of a closed-door session of council on Tuesday evening. (James Young/CBC)

It's not known what topic was up for discussion, but he said the matter pertained to a council member, and he argued it should have been dealt with in a public session.

"As a council, either intentionally or not, we stray off topic into topics that are more convenient in private rather than having a legal reason. I didn't want to be part of it," he said.

Twice Farkas went back into the in-camera meeting, only to walk out again.

"I would argue that if a personnel matter is a specific member of council, if that councillor was fine with their confidentiality being waived, then it should be a public meeting," he said.

The mayor and the city solicitor disagreed, so whatever it was that frustrated Farkas will remain secret.

Farkas said he was warned soon after being sworn into office last fall that if he ever reveals what happens in a closed session, he could be kicked off city council.