OPINION: Calgary’s inner-city public art an impressive success story

Seeds of public art planted in Calgary's downtown in the 1980s and 1990s, writes Richard White

Chalk Drawings by Jason Botkin covers a large portion of Calgary's Attainable Homes buildings. CITY OF CALGARY

For a long time, Calgary’s City Center has been seen as a place devoid of charm and character. A sea of bland, tall buildings was a common description. 

That’s not actually the case.

For the past 25+ years, the downtown core has gradually become an outdoor art gallery with sculptures on many corners. That’s thanks to the City’s bonus density program that allowed developers to build bigger buildings in return for amenities like public art. 

Perhaps the best-known piece of public art from the bonus density program is Wonderland, which sits the entrance to the Bow building. It’s by Jaume Plensa one of the world’s best-known public artists.  Some of you may know this piece as “The Big White Head.”

Some major pieces have been gifted to the city – including the popular Famous Five Monument on Olympic Plaza and Family of Man, the 21-foot tall sculptures on the old Calgary Board of Education block. 

Today, there are 50+ sculptures and murals in the downtown core, including arguably the City’s most loved public artwork – Doug Driediger’s Giving Wings to the Dream on 7 Avenue SE at Centre Street.

This iconic Calgary mural location across from the Centre Street LRT is home to Doug Driediger’s Giving Wings to the Dream. PAUL VILLENA / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Not just in Calgary’s core

But it isn’t only Calgary’s downtown that’s an outdoor art gallery. Over the past three years, BUMP (Beltline Urban Mural Project) has installed 40+ huge murals on the sides of buildings scattered around the neighbourhood. Created by Calgary, Canadian and International artists, the subject matter ranges from fantasy to decorative.  You can hardly walk more than a few blocks without encountering a mural.

Not to be outdone, Downtown West has also initiated a mural program in partnership with the city that today has several huge murals on the sides of buildings.  One of the most inspiring murals is Chalk Drawing by Jason Botkin.

The image is of a young girl sitting while drawing on the side of the Attainable Homes building. (Attainable Homes is an organization that helps low income families buy a home. FYI: The child depicted in the mural is the daughter of one of the homeowner’s homes.)

“The murals in Downtown West have not only brightened our neighbourhood, but sparked some great conversations,” said Farnaz Sadeghpour, Downtown West Community Association president.

“The murals are community builders for us. I’m biased, but I think they often improve the buildings and create unique ways for people to identify locations when finding their way around.”

Key institutions also embracing public art

As well, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has made public art a key component of its transformation of East Village into a funky place to “live, work and play.”  In addition to several murals along the Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk that change every few years, major permanent public art works include:

  • The SameWayBetter/Reader by Calgary artist Ron Moppett is a 34-meter long mural made up of 950,000 mosaic tiles.
  • Bloom by Canadian artist Michel de Broin consists of various types of streetlights that together form look a giant flower.
  • Promenade by British artist Julian Opie is a four-sided tower with 20 LED panels that display an animation of people walking.
  • Trio by American artist Christian Moeller is a three-piece sculpture at the front and back entrance to the new Central Library that looks like a drinking bird.
  • Device to Root Out Evil by American artist Dennis Oppenheim is an upside down church currently on a five-year loan.

Not to be outdone, Kensington Village has numerous murals on the sides of its buildings. Also, the alley on the east side of 10 Street NW is a colourful street art/graffiti gallery.  Sunnyside has a growing laneway art program on garage doors.  And don’t forget Chinatown’s public art that includes the Sien Lok Park sculptures.

Wander over to Stampede Park to discover several significant public artworks (murals and sculptures). By the Banks of the Bow sculpture features 15 horses and two cowboys – reputed to be one of the largest bronze sculptures in North America.

Back to downtown – where it all started

While the last 10 years has seen a flurry of new public art in the City Centre, the development of the outdoor art gallery in our City Centre began back in the 80s and 90s.

It started with the Uptown 17th Mural program along 17 Avenue SW. Then, the 4th Street Sculpture program in Mission and Calgary Downtown Association’s Benches as Art project and the sandstone sculptures in the planters along Barclay Mall (3Street SW).

Two new sculptures were recently installed at the entrance to the brand new Park Central (northwest corner of 4 Street and 12 Avenue SW) residential tower.

Both are Calgary artists – Alex Caldwell and Blake Senini. Downtown has a massive new mural celebrating Baron George Stephen the first President of Canadian Pacific Railway in the alley on the back of Stephen Avenue’s Hudson Block at Centre Street.

Last Word

You could easily spend a day wandering the streets and alleys of Calgary’s City Centre and not see all of the 100+ artworks on display.  

But you would have a lot of fun trying!

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