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Calgary’s arts community ‘cautiously optimistic’ about public art program changes

The City of Calgary is officially transitioning their Public Art Program to a third-party organization, and artists are positive, if uncertain about what that means for the community.

Calgary Public Art Alliance – a group of artists and arts professionals – released an open letter on Feb. 10 criticizing the city’s decision to move the program to an external organization. Most notably, they called out the lack of consultation with the community ahead of the move.

“Probably more than anything, we’ve been a little frustrated that there are decisions that were made about public art in this city that don’t respond to actual people working in the field,” said Caitlind r.c. Brown.

Brown is one half of the local artistic duo that also includes Wayne Garrett. Both of them signed the February letter to council.

Starting this month, the City committed to an engagement and consultation process with citizens and arts professionals. It will go until mid-June before they begin looking at proposals from external organizations bidding on the program.

All of this is dependent on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bureaucracy slows Calgary public art program

Brown and Garrett say they’re “cautiously optimistic” about the changes. There’s potential to alleviate problems that plagued the current program. In particular, they said the City’s bureaucratic nature makes it difficult to engage with the public and give context to their artwork.

“What we’re talking about, specifically, is being able to communicate a public artwork, the concept, videos of it, photos of the work and writing about the work. That hasn’t always been possible when working through the City of Calgary’s channels for communication,” Brown said.

Wayne Garrett and Caitlind r.c. Brown.

“They have such a rigorous way of internally reviewing communications that you lose the dexterity of immediately being able to, say, tweet about something.”

Garrett said there are some positives moving forward.

“The biggest thing is some of the flexibility that comes with the autonomy, and so the potential for real, clear, transparent communication,” Garrett said.

Jennifer Thompson, the acting manager of arts and culture at the City, also hopes the new program will rid of the bureaucracy for artists as they interact with the program.  

Flexibility and limitation

One of the new changes the program includes is separating the program from its infrastructure mandate. That means future projects won’t be tied – in budget or location – to new infrastructure projects. Thompson said this change will help with accessibility of the artwork, which has been criticized in previous projects.

The “one per cent for art” funding that has been a staple of the Public Art Program will now be free of infrastructure budgets. It will be pooled into a capital program and granted to the external organization.

Inversely, artists are worried the separation from the municipality will threaten the potential for projects like the Chinatown Artists Residency.

That program allows artists to embed in and explore the culture of Chinatown for three months while they develop public artwork using what they’ve learned.

“Edmonton Arts Council (their arms-length organization for Public Art) has been trying unsuccessfully for two years to implement a similar project with their community in their own Chinatown, but cannot because they are not able to get to the table with the City stakeholders,” reads part of Calgary Public Art Alliance’s February letter.

Light in a time of trouble

Shauna Thompson, head curator at the Esker Foundation and a member of the Calgary Public Art Alliance, said the alliance’s meeting with the City on May 8 was positive.

“We’ll see what they come back with,” she said.

“We really put it back on them to say, what can you offer? How do you foresee this working? They’ve been receptive to that, and I think they want to see the program succeed and they’ve committed to working with us.

“The best-case scenario is that the program can become something that is more responsive, more nimble, closer to the community, and more in service of artists and citizens outside of the cage of bureaucracy,” she said.

“That’s definitely what we’re all hoping for.”

Thompson, Brown and Garrett are all excited about the future of the Alliance and what it means for the future of the arts community. Thompson said she’s never seen the arts community rally together the way it has now.

Brown said she’s observed how people are turning to art of all disciplines during this pandemic. She said she sees people gaining a new understanding of how art can fit in our lives.

“It’s something that you turn to when you have everything and something that you turn to when you have nothing,” she said.

“I think that’s so wonderful.”