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New plan for public art in Calgary mulled at city hall

Calgary city council wants a new approach to funding public art installations.

The plan would see public money from infrastructure put into public artworks, but will change where that artwork is ultimately displayed.

The city put its controversial public art program on hold in 2017.

That program saw one per cent of the money spent on public infrastructure projects like roads and overpasses be put toward art installations and those installations were required to be near the infrastructure projects.

Bowfort Towers along the TransCanada Highway is an example of that, and it didn't sit well with a lot of Calgarians like Carol Burnstein.

"You can't see it," Burnstein said.

"I thought it was some kind of construction … What's the good of that? No one can stop and look at it. They need to be a little more aware of what they're doing."

That's part of council's plan in rejigging and reviving the program.

The new plan would still see one per cent of the money spent on infrastructure go to artwork, but on multiple smaller artworks spread throughout communities.

Some councillors like Ward 12's Dan Mclean think it is still money not well-spent.

"At this time, affordability is what is on the top of mind to almost all Calgarians, whether they're putting food in their table, gas in their tanks (or) their property taxes," McLean said.

"Maybe we should be looking at lower taxes instead of maybe buying art right now."

Public art does put food on the table for many Calgary creators, from artists to engineers.

Carvel Creative designs and manufactures large-scale public art, paid for both privately and with public funds.

Most of the work it produces goes out of town.

Creative director Adam Weir welcomes council's renewed interest in funding public art.

"We produce probably upwards of 30 pieces of artwork a year in our facility here. We employ staff locally, we keep all of our materials and vendors local, as much as possible local to Alberta and as much as possible in Calgary," Weir said.

"We are normally travelling our artworks across Canada, as far as Montreal, to Vancouver. That's where the bulk of our work is, outside of this province. So it would be nice to see our work more embraced in this province, and specifically Calgary."

After fierce backlash over projects like "Travelling Light," often referred to as the big blue ring, some councillors like Ward 2's Jennifer Wyness believe there should be a greater emphasis on asking the question 'Is this art?' before approving a project.

"We have to acknowledge that Calgarians are the biggest art critics," Wyness said.

"And so, we really have to look at if there is a value and a place for it, and is it important, but (also) discuss and debate what is the aesthetic of the art."

The city is off-loading those decisions by contracting them out to the Calgary Arts Development Authority, which plans to tender out more, smaller works by local artists.

That's an idea that sits well with many Calgarians like Bev Stewart.

"I don't mind spending my taxes on public art, if it's local artists that are doing it," Stewart said.

"I would be proud of if we get local artists and you know, we can support them."

The city already set aside $12.1 million in its last capital budget for art over the next four years.

It still has $9 million left over from before the program got frozen in 2017.

Council was set to debate the revival of the arts program Tuesday, but by publication had not reached the item on its agenda.

When the proposal went before a council committee prior to coming to full council for debate, it passed 6-2.

Councillors McLean and Sean Chu voted against it. Top Stories

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