Shiny new art installation changes the view; jury still out on whether it's for the better

A recent $1 million art installation on the transit garage in northeast Edmonton reflects the city’s policy of committing one per cent of a project’s budget to an associated piece of art. 

Bus garage artwork in northeast Edmonton is part of city's one per cent policy

Each block in the installation represents a mountain landscape from a location in another part of the world that sits on the same latitude as Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

A recent $1-million art installation on a transit garage in northeast Edmonton has some questioning the city's policy of committing one per cent of a project's budget to an associated piece of art.

The five shiny metal blocks that make up the piece of art, called 53° 30'N, are on the soon-to-open Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage on Fort Road. 

Each block represents a mountain landscape from a location in another part of the world that sits on the same latitude as Edmonton. The city commissioned German artist Thorsten Goldberg to create the artwork to accompany the $142-million transit garage.

It's the latest example of the city's one per cent spending policy, which Mayor Don Iveson continues to support.

"I thought it was kind of neat," Iveson said of 53° 30'N.

"Public art is a priority in our city," he said. "It's a part of building great public spaces and enhancing our buildings and making them lively and supporting artists and the arts as well."

Abubakari Mejida works near the new transit garage, set to open later this year. He's happy to see the new facility on the stretch of formerly vacant land but he isn't quite sure what to make of the artwork.

"I hoped to see something, 'Wow.' But this view doesn't wow anybody," he said Wednesday. 

He added that he isn't quite sure whether the work is finished or not. When told that the blocks represent mountain ranges, Mejida pondered that for a second. "Hmm. I have no words. I'm lost of words."

53° 30’N is at 12404 Fort Rd., on top of the soon to open Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Coun. Aaron Paquette, whose Ward 4 is just northeast of the transit garage, said he supports the city's art policy.

In this case, he said, the art may be overshadowed by the structure.

"It kind of looks like, almost like a prison — that's what I've been hearing from my residents — it kind of looks like a prison," Paquette said Wednesday. 

"You've got what is actually quite beautiful art that kind of gets lost in the mix because everything is this monochromatic grey." 

Paquette suggested the city could be more careful in how it chooses projects. 

"You don't want to live in a city that's just grey concrete, but at the same time you want to know that you're getting the most bang for your buck." 

It's not the first time the city's choice of art has raised eyebrows.

Talus Dome — otherwise known as the Talus balls — at Quesnell Bridge and Fox Drive, has been the focus of public criticism for years.

Sanjay Shahani, executive director of the Edmonton Arts Council, said the city asked for public feedback in 2015, and got responses from 3,500 Edmontonians  before the selection committee chose the art. 

Shahani thinks the piece reflects a connection between Edmonton and pier landscapes around the world. 

"It connects Edmonton internationally," Shahani said. "This is a transit garage. One of the things that public transit does is that it connects Edmontonians to places. This artwork definitely connects us to our place, and how our place connects with places around the world."

Thorsten Goldberg's rendering of the larger-than-life artwork on Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, depicting five geographic areas at the same latitude as Edmonton. (Thorsten Goldberg)

Questions about the city's investment in art came on the same day council discussed budget priorities — what the city should spend money on in the future. 

The city is reviewing its 73 program and service areas to help come up with a new set of priorities heading into the next four-year budget cycle. 

Coun. Michael Walters called for a re-evaluation of what the city is responsible for versus what the province or private contractors should handle, like housing and infrastructure. 

"Use money we spend on low priorities to support those higher-priority items and not actually have to raise taxes for citizens," Walters said. "That's something we have to believe is possible, I think that's the first hill for us to climb."

Iveson still believes part of that is investing in art. 

Future public projects could be broken into small chunks, so they're more accessible for Edmonton artists to bid on.

"I think there'll continue to be a conversation about local impact versus building an international portfolio." 

Paquette said the $1 million could have been broken up for smaller pieces of art scattered around neighbourhoods.