Calgary public art program may stay frozen as committee approves overhaul

Calgary's public art program may remain suspended until next spring so changes can be made to update how art is chosen.

City administration has been studying how to update the controversial selection process

Travelling Light is a commissioned art piece near the Calgary airport. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Calgary's public art program could remain suspended until next spring —until changes can be made to update how art is chosen.

The city's community and protective services committee met Wednesday and agreed to recommendations made in a report from city administration to update the controversial program.

The recommendations now move on to city council, which will discuss the report at a meeting later this month.

The review was ordered last fall after widespread outcry about the public art display at Bowfort Towers, near Calgary Olympic Park. 

The half-million-dollar display was created by a New York artist and incorporates rock slabs held up by rusty steel beams. It has been called an eyesore and at first was deemed by some as insensitive to local Indigenous artists.

The controversy sparked the report and a freeze on most new projects until it was done.

Bowfort Towers, a public art project, has been installed as part of the new interchange at Bowfort Road N.W. and the Trans-Canada Highway. (CBC)

"I know the board did take those conversations to heart and we are looking for opportunities to be, to provide a more engaging process," Calgary's public art board chair Katherine Wagner told the Calgary Eyeopener before Wednesday's debate.

"Art, its very nature is subjective, and I think that the public art program allows us the opportunity to have those conversations."

Changes include locating art wherever needed

To fund public art, the city allocates one per cent of budgets of capital projects worth up to $50 million. For projects worth more than $50 million, the allocation drops to a half per cent for the part over that amount. The maximum public art allocation for any project is capped at $4 million.

In one of the biggest changes, the committee agreed to pool public art money and give them the freedom to locate public art projects anywhere in the city.

For example, if the money comes from a transportation project, the art display doesn't have to go next to the bridge or the interchange.

Should city council agree with the recommendations, city staff may be directed to look at changes, such as:

  • Developing a program to encourage more art applications from diverse local artists.
  • Forming a public art steering committee.
  • Hiring an external consultant to review the public art board's mandate.
  • Improving various engagement strategies with the public and artists.

Because the changes will take time to implement, the committee suggested public art projects should remain suspended until early next year, adding four months to the program's current suspension.

There are still new works of public art underway because some were in the commissioning phase when the program was suspended. Small neighbourhood projects have gone ahead, as well as public art associated with the 17th Avenue S.E. BRT project.

With files from Danielle Nerman, Scott Dippel and the Calgary Eyeopener.