City of Calgary to decouple public art funding from project locations

City of Calgary to decouple public art funding from project locations

If approved, the change will prevent public art from being tied to highway overpasses and will allow funding to flow to community projects

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The city is putting the finishing touches on its new approach to public art, with a plan it says is more flexible and will help more local artists secure contracts.

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The updated corporate art policy went before the city’s community development committee Wednesday morning.

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The program was frozen in 2017 by city council amid ongoing controversy about art pieces.

The art program previously saw one per cent of any major infrastructure project’s budget put toward public art, but stipulated the art needed to be near the project. That resulted in pieces such as Travelling Light, better known as the big blue ring, perched atop a highway overpass near the airport.

Bowfort Towers near Canada Olympic Park and the Forest Lawn Lift Station were also panned by the public as bad art in poorly thought-out places.

The Bowfort Towers art installation along the Trans Canada Highway on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. The city canceled the second part of Bowfort Road interchange art project.
The Bowfort Towers art installation along the Trans Canada Highway on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. The city canceled the second part of Bowfort Road interchange art project. Photo by Al Charest /Postmedia

The city has since contracted out commissioning of its public art to a third party — Calgary Arts Development Authority — and the recommendations approved Wednesday aim to decouple funding from specific infrastructure projects.

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Chima Nkemdirim, chair of the Calgary Arts Development Authority board, said the one per cent of project funding will still be collected, but that money will now find its way into communities instead of being restricted.

“Essentially, what this does is transfer funds from a restricted pool of money to an unrestricted pool of money,” he said, “which means that for artists, we can do more art projects in the community where the public can appreciate it, as opposed to in locations which perhaps weren’t suited for public art.”

He said communities have been requesting public art and changes to the policy will allow for that, as well as robust public engagement on future projects.

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The changes should also allow more local artists to tap into tenders for future art projects, Nkemdirim said. The city is bound by international trade agreements on art projects but he said those contracts work both ways, allowing Calgary artists to bid on international projects.

However, Nkemdirim said new flexibility will allow them to commission smaller projects in more locations, which would sometimes put them below the threshold for international agreements.

“(We can) divide the money into smaller chunks like we did on 17th Avenue, and really engage local artists to create work and get that experience so they can go and compete internationally,” he said.

The Forest Lawn Lift Station sits with its public art light display in the setting sun in Calgary, Alta., on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015.
The Forest Lawn Lift Station sits with its public art light display in the setting sun in Calgary, Alta., on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. Photo by Lyle Aspinall /Postmedia file

Committee chair Coun. Kourtney Penner said the changes will take art from the concrete jungle and instead embed it into communities.

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“What this means is a public art program that is more responsive to the community and more about place-making in neighbourhoods and communities and public gathering spots, and less so tied to infrastructure projects such as interchanges or wastewater treatment plant upgrades or storm sewer upgrades.”

She said the one per cent funding can remain tied to project locations when it makes sense, such as on new recreation centres or libraries.

Council allocated $12.1 million in its capital budget last November to be used for public art over the next four years. That money will be decoupled from any restrictions if it passes final council approval.

The city also has a pool of $9 million from the one per cent funding from infrastructure projects since the program freeze. A city official said that money has been allocated and details on those art projects should come out once the policy update is approved by council.

The policy update passed committee in a 6-2 vote, with councillors Dan McLean and Sean Chu opposed.

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Twitter: @brodie_thomas

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