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Public Art: What’s the Point?

Chantal Weill | May 1, 2018
Public Art: What’s the Point?
Chicago's Cloud Gate (aka "the Bean"), Richard Serra's controversial Titled Arc in Manhattan, and Kelowna's Rhapsody.
Chicago's Cloud Gate (aka "the Bean"), Richard Serra's controversial Titled Arc in Manhattan, and Kelowna's Rhapsody.

In this century we’ve fallen in love with public art. Banksy is a folk hero, developers trade off their bland homogeneity by funding public art, those darn cows (or in our case moose) are everywhere and the Bean is the most photographed artwork since… well that’s kind of the point. It’s also been known to cause massive dysfunction and discord (and unwittingly betray some fundamental hypocrisies along the way), as in the case of Calgary’s “Bowfort Towers” or Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” in Manhattan. Public art is always a fun topic because it gets people critiquing and praising it from all sides of the political spectrum, and from all walks of life – and not in an elitist gallery setting.

Chicago’s Cloud Gate (aka “the Bean”), Richard Serra’s controversial Titled Arc in Manhattan, and Kelowna’s Rhapsody

Ostensibly meant to bring “art into the everyday”, or perhaps more hopefully to disrupt us out of the everyday, public art is a part of the Kelowna cityscape. The City of Kelowna has announced a call for expressions of interest for a new piece of public art to be commissioned for the forecourt of the new Police Services Building on Clement and Richter. The vision for the project is described as a collaboration between the “City of Kelowna and the RCMP that makes for a unique opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of the Kelowna Police Services in creating a safe, healthy and vibrant community.” With a decent budget of $120,000, no theme or material has been predetermined, it can be abstract or figurative, and of course artists are independent to explore their own themes and ideas for the work.

It is worth noting though, as all you artists start dreaming up all the clever, subversive, and out-there forms of expression, that the adjudication process and its selection committee may not, on the face of it, be as open-minded and curious as they could be. The best practices for public art as outlined by CARFAC (the organization that serves as the national voice of Canada’s professional visual artists) states that the selection committee should be “composed of artists and other art professionals as well as project and community stakeholders such as the sponsoring group or building committee” (one example is here). However, the City of Kelowna document outlines that the artists submissions

“will be reviewed by the Public Art Selection Committee comprised of 5 members representing: the public (2); KPSB (2); and the City (1).”

So in place of professionals or artists from the art community, alongside the city and KPSB, it has listed just the “public”.

This of course opens up the debate around public art about its function. Is it there to please the public, beautify the public space, conform to some type of public consensus as to what we’d like to see (as if that is in any way possible)? Or is it to challenge us, interrupt our everyday activities and open our eyes to new possibilities, surprise or unnerve us, make us look at ourselves in new ways …or at the very least get us talking about art in general (instead of leaving it up to those in the gallery world) and what a civic public space can/should do? Moreover, if we are as obsessed with freedom of expression as recent cultural political debates would have it, should we not put up a few totems to it, in all its idiosyncratic, and not groupthink-y ways?

The Kelowna City website also claims one of the goals of its Public Art program is to nurture and recognize local artistic talent, and that 32 of the 44 projects funded by them have gone to local artists. It can be argued, conversely, that bringing in an artist from another culture or country can make the art less parochial, or make us look at ourselves through others’ eyes and “challenge our assumptions about what we believe to be true of a place”*. However, perhaps we do not need to go too far afield to do this, and that right here we have plenty of “outsiders”.

So here’s hoping that public art in Kelowna moves further away from the decorative and cliché and becomes a little less concerned about pleasing the “public” than respecting its potential. Be bold, trust artists, and please put them on your selection committee – I mean would you want “the public” to decide who designs a bridge, a park, or even a playground?

* The New Rules of Public Art

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