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The Fallacy of Public Art – Part 2

I have had quite a lot of experience with the Public Art process.

In the 1980’s, I entered many open call civic public art competitions, most of them in the Greater Vancouver area. I was rejected from all of them, and I accepted it as I had not had a lot of experience in my chosen field of stone sculpture.

A significant event occurred in 1990 that was a career game-changer for me. A colleague and I were commissioned by a developer to create a granite sculpture to adorn a public space on one of its properties. The developer was going to give this parcel of land to the City of Vancouver in a density bonus transfer deal. Along with building an underground public parking garage, the developer was going to build a small park at ground level and decorate it with a life size figure sculpture, executed by me and my colleague. When completed, the developer was going to give the property to the City so the building rights could be transferred and added to another site.

The sculpture was going to be a lively Jazz Band of slightly larger than life-sized figures and was to celebrate the many annual festivals that occur in Vancouver. The concept (maquette above) was approved by the developer, and a budget and production schedule had been agreed on. This was an opportunity for me and my colleague to get our foot in the door of large public art commissions, and to prove we are both able to conceive and deliver such projects.

At the very same time, the City of Vancouver was adopting its Public Art Program. Although our project should have been grandfathered, the newly appointed Art Police used our project as their first project to reign over. Acting like schoolyard children, they refused to accept our sculpture, and ordained that this would be their first “Open Call Public Art Project”. It was a debacle. Although we applied with our idea to the open call, and the developer still wanted our sculpture, the Art Police refused. After a botched and costly first competition, they held a second one and finally chose another “artist” who proposed a mechanical device of three merry-go-round wooden daises each turning once a hour, a day and a week to symbolize the cycle of work in the downtown business district. On each dais was a bench (the kind you can buy at the hardware store) and a potted evergreen tree. After being chosen, the “artist” complained he had under quoted his proposal, so instead of being ousted for his bungle, the Art Police allocated more of taxpayer’s money towards his shortfall.

Me, my colleague, and several developers in Vancouver took Vancouver City Council to task, trying to illustrate the foley of this new Public Art Program. Although we made a valiant attempt, we were unable to change Council’s mind.

So I was denied my chance – again, and I have been locked out ever since. Not the career game-changer one hopes for.

Not long after the other “artist’s” piece was erected, the daises stopped working and the trees died. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a hemlock needs a lot more space than a pot for its roots, and Vancouver’s ubiquitous rain will rust mechanical parts. But that’s Public Art Program selection juries for you!

Almost all of the municipalities of Greater Vancouver have now adopted Public Art Programs, and they are all fashioned on the City of Vancouver’s Program.

I can accept that a municipality should have a mechanism by which it chooses what art will go in civic owned properties like parks and boulevards. What infuriates me is that these Public Art Programs target private developers and deem that their land is public and therefore under civic jurisdiction for the selection of art. The Programs are simply a tax grab for the municipality, and politicians love that. The politicians and bureaucrats really don’t care about the quality of the art, they just like the extra money.

Public Art Programs tout that they exist to help to promote and enable professional artists. See my blog on the fallacy of this. On the contrary, Public Art Programs have negated the ability of an artist, or artist representative to sell themselves to private developers. You can argue that there is the “Option C” method for a developer to choose an artist by way of a direct commission. However, if you think a professional artist who has spent a lot of time and energy grooming a customer to the point where they want to commission a sculpture for them, think again – it’s not true. In the direct commission process, Public Art Programs steal 40% of the budget for their civic coffers. So there is absolutely no incentive any more for a developer to directly commission me to carve them a sculpture. That is not only immoral and unethical, but I feel it is criminal.

It’s been more than 20 years since the inception of the first Greater Vancouver Public Art Program. Developers now accept the rules of the art tax, and really don’t care just as long as they get their building permit.

Do Public Art Programs enable professional artists? Not on your life!

Comments: 3

  • Mick Sylvestre

    August 16, 2012

    Not surprised at all. I always had problems dealing with galleries.

  • August 17, 2012

    The city in which I live is much smaller than Vancouver. We do have an arts commission that approves all public art. Our commission is very young. It was put in place less than five years ago. I do feel that the panels making the decisions about public art are not qualified to do so. Since each arts commissioner was selected by a council member, it’s impossible for the commission to be truly independent.

    With that said, my colleague and I were invited by a private corporation to design a trailhead sculpture that would be donated to the city within weeks of installation. Although a much smaller project, it seems to be a similar arrangement to your original commission. We were lucky to have our project proceed with very little city involvement. We feel fortunate to have overcome the hurdles of our first large project, but who knows if there will be more in our futures.

  • August 17, 2012

    Dianne – Congratulations on your success. I, too have only succeeded in my sculptures in public spaces through private commissions that were donated, or through an invited call process. The Open Call process is a farce – see my post on this if you’ve not already:

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