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Calgary public art program headed to arms-length operator

Calgary will be pushing forward with a plan to move the city’s public art program to an arms-length organization outside the auspices of the city administration.

The Calgary public art program has been under review since fall 2017 after a handful of controversial projects that left citizens concerned about project oversight. A concern for some was the commitment of one per cent of an infrastructure project’s budget (up to $50 million) being set aside for public art.

Making this move raised questions from councillors in terms of financial commitment the city would still make, and governance and oversight of work carried out by the body.

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“That’s a question that’s been on the table now for a number of years when it comes to the public art program,” said Jennifer Thompson, acting manager of arts and culture for the City of Calgary.

“I actually think that… having the ability to now move the program arms-length within an organization that currently exists, that has a functioning board structure, that have accountability lines within the organization, will allow us the ability to have more accountability within that organization.”

Thompson said under the previous system there was always a question of authority; “who at the end of the day was ultimately responsible for the decisions that were made.”

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She said the city could set the mandate and even put the two members of council into the new structure to ensure council oversight.

In terms of cost savings to the city, Thompson said the tax supported amount for the Calgary public art program was currently $750,000. A total of $3.2 million has been budgeted in the city’s 2019 to 2022 budget plan for Calgary public art.  Part of the upcoming process to farm out the program would include reducing the amount of draw on the city’s operating budget.

Calgary public art: Local contributions

This abstract sculpture by Katie Ohe commemorates the first settlers in the area now known as Bankview. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Thompson was also quizzed on whether this would open things up for more local artists to participate. In 2017, 71 per cent of artists in the Calgary public art program were local. In 2016, that number was 73 per cent.

“Tell me more about why you think this approach would give local Calgarians more influence,” asked Coun. Jeromy Farkas.

Rebecca Carbin, one of the outside art consultants brought in to help steer the review, said the program could be set up to embed the public input in the entire process.

“It liberates the program, somewhat, from some of the procurement processes at city hall that tend to be very closed and can engage people in selection processes in a different way, or project development in a different way,” Carbin said.

“There will also be an opportunity to have different programs that respond to different communities in different ways and have them unfold across the city at different scales.”

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Coun. Farkas concerned about an added layer of bureaucracy

Farkas was concerned that putting the new organization at arms-length could take it further away Calgarians. It could add another layer in between the projects and civic decision makers.

“I actually think this is the opposite of that. I actually think this is getting it closer to the community,” said Thompson.

“Right now, there are a lot of layers that the artist community have to jump through when it comes to applying for a call. We’ve heard that over and over again.”

Thompson said the new program would be implanted into Calgary’s existing art community, opening more doors for local artists and Calgarians’ input.

Submissions to operate the Calgary public art program will now be sought and a report is expected back in the summer of 2020 on a potential operator and program structure.