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The Fallacy of Public Art – Part 3

In 1999, I was invited by the North Vancouver Arts Commission (NVAC) to participate on their Public Art Steering Committee. The NVAC is a municipal agency that decides how the local governments spend public money on Arts and Culture. The District and City of North Vancouver were creating a Public Art Program for their municipalities, ostensibly from the ground up.

I remember thinking “Fantastic! This is my opportunity to really make a difference, and to help my fellow professional artists.” I thought this would be a chance to create a really effective and accountable Public Art Program, as opposed to the bogus one the City of Vancouver had adopted a decade earlier.

The Committee was comprised of 10 people from various backgrounds and all from the North Shore of Vancouver. We were to meet once a month for a year and in that time, develop a Program to implement. The NVAC brought in a Public Art “expert” from Seattle, WA, USA to speak to us. I was the only professional visual artist on our Committee, and I quickly ascertained that the “expert” was instructing us that utilitarian public amenities were perfect examples for Public Art. He told us that discrete sculpture was passé and indeed frowned upon at the end of the 20th Century. The term he used for these artworks was “Plop Art.”

The Kool-Aid was mixed and being drunk, as the rest of the committee nodded their heads.

Over the course of the months of meetings, I proposed several options that I thought were relevant to making a great Public Art Program.

First on my list was the definition of Public Art. I argued against the points made by the Seattle Public Art “expert”, and tried in vain to show the virtue of discrete art works and how they have always played an important role in the beautification of cities around the world and throughout history. Public Art should be just as arresting, thought and emotion provoking as Gallery Art – there just aren’t walls around it. My comments were shot down. The bureaucrats and politicians who were secretly driving the Committee wanted Public Art to be banal and the more Industrial Design, the better. They saw the potential for more tax dollars and a chance to be the jury over what they deemed Public Art should be. If they could make believe a park bench was Art, then they could be seen by their constituents as supporters of the Arts, yet not offend anybody. The Art Police were now gestating in my city.

Second on my list was the screening process for competitions. Our committee agreed that only professional artists would be allowed to apply to Public Art competitions. I understand the word professional to come from the root word profession, the vocation by which one earns one’s living. Since I am a self taught professional, the academic process of screening by institutional diploma or degree seemed unfair. So I, along with a committee member who was a developer, suggested that our Program use the T2 form as a screening mechanism. In Canada, this is the Income Tax form used to declare to the Federal Government what each citizen’s profession is to earn income. The others on the committee gasped in horror and shot us down. They were afraid this would bar many would-be “artists” from competing and not provide a broader spectrum of possible participants. In other words, they wanted to give the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker a chance to compete in Public Art competitions. I said “Pardon?”

Third was my issue with private developers. I feel it is fine for municipal government to have a process in place for it to choose artwork that it will place on civic properties, such as parks and boulevards. But our Committee was segueing into adopting the practice of taxing private developers to pay for art. I pointed out that attacking the private sector and starting to tax it to pay for art was wrong. If a private developer wanted to grace its property with art, let it, as it has always been. It is their property, and usually developers have included some sort of artwork, be it a sculpture outside or a painting in a lobby. But changing the rules so that municipal government has the right to tax the developer to pay for art was something I feel is unethical, immoral and downright criminal. Can you imagine how the public would react if government suddenly announced it was increasing personal property taxes to pay for art? I also noticed that the others on the Committee were arguing what was “good” and “bad” in the chosen art for developments in the past. They felt it was the job of the Public Art Program to make sure the “bad” was stopped in the future.  The Art Police force was getting stronger. I was starting to lose hope.

Fourth was the next domino to fall after the above. The Committee was in favour of not only allowing government to tax private developers to pay for art, but also was in favour of said developers having almost no say in choosing that art. The others wanted to adopt the practice of having a judicial panel of 10 people, but only one person to represent the developer. The rest of the panel were to be art “experts” and community members at large. My argument that this practice was grossly unfair fell on deaf ears. The other members of the Committee also wanted to rubber stamp the three selection processes for Public Art that other Programs had adopted: the Open Call process, the Invited Call process and the Direct Commission process. The Open Call process would shine like a beacon above the other two, and if the Direct Commission process was used, then a 40% project budget penalty for-unfairness-to-other-possible-competitors would be surrendered to the municipality.

Now, I had reached a point in my own professional career whereby I had enough business experience and a broad enough network to be able to sell my abilities for large scale sculpture projects. A large sector of possible clients for me were the private developers, which are the Medici’s of our time. But with these Public Art Programs in place, I am no longer able to exercise my right to free enterprise. I can no longer beat my competition to the client, nor compete on a level playing field for contracts. With mandatory Open Call competitions in place, I am shut out. Since 1990, I was seeing the door closing on my opportunities for large scale sculpture, as each municipality adopted these insidious Public Art Programs. Now I was seeing my own city slipping away from me.

It took nine months for me to discover that there was a hidden political agenda behind our Steering Committee. The NVAC was the darling of one City Councillor who fancied herself a real supporter of the Arts, but in reality she just used it to grandstand and didn’t know a Binkley from a Bernini. The NVAC really wanted to simply adopt a carbon copy of the City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program all along. They were just using us volunteers to complete their mandatory “due process” to make them look good. A local art consultant had insinuated herself into the NVAC’s graces and was gunning for the job of Public Art Program manager, further undermining the process.

I finally resigned my post on the Steering Committee in disgust. A few months later, the District and City of North Vancouver adopted the exact same Public Art Program as that of that of the City of Vancouver and that art consultant did get the job as manager.

This was one of many lessons I’ve learned regarding the politics of Public Art and another example of why it is a fallacy for supporting professional artists.