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‘I’m not here to defend art’: Third-party plans progress for Calgary public art

It started as an update on Calgary’s work towards a third-party public art body.

It turned into yet another debate about the merits of Calgary public art itself.

Councillors received an update during Wednesday’s Community and Protective Services committee meeting on the transition to an arms-length group to handle the city’s public art programming.

Jennifer Thompson, the City of Calgary’s manager of arts and culture said they were hoping to complete their efforts to do so by June. The pandemic put the squeeze on that.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we’ve had to adjust our timelines pretty significantly,” she told committee members.

Thompson said they’re mindful of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Calgary’s arts and culture sector.

“This time on has been created, again, trying to balance the impact of the art sector and potential bidders while working quickly to get individuals back to work and grow our local creative economy,” she said.

One of the challenges Thompson said is getting feedback from as many stakeholders as possible. There’s been some concern in the arts community that the external model isn’t the ideal path forward.

Thompson said they hope to be able to come back to council with an update and the final external public art proposal selected.

The update, though without specific recommendation, was received as information by a vote of 5-3.

‘What’s the value proposition?’

The direction to go down the road of an external operator of the city’s public art program was determined in November 2019.  Thompson provided an update on that work.

During the update, the question of available and future funding came up from Coun. Jeromy Farkas.

Coun. Farkas asked about the current accounts of Calgary’s public art program and how it would be funded in the future.

Thompson said the current one percent (of infrastructure spend) policy would be maintained.

(It’s one per cent for the portion up to $50 million and 0.5 per cent for the portion over $50 million. It’s capped at a total of $4 million for each capital project.)

Coun. Farkas questioned how much higher Calgarians’ utility rates are because of funding the public art program. Then he went into protecting emergency services.

“At a time when council’s cut fire and police budgets, can you speak please to the value proposition? How do you defend the spending time, money and effort on this?” Coun. Farkas asked.

He later said it was impossible to defend expending resources on this to constituents.

Thompson responded.

Jennifer Thompson, acting manager for arts and culture at the City of Calgary.

Calgary wants to be beautiful

Coun. Evan Woolley closed debate with an anecdote about he and Coun. Joe Magliocca having a conversation when they were first elected and conversations were surrounding the Giant Blue Ring along Deerfoot Trail and 96 Avenue.

Oil prices were high. Times were good, Coun. Woolley noted.

Woolley said at the time they were building the Rocky Ridge recreation facility, “which is just one of the cornerstone beautiful pieces of architecture in the north.”

“And I remember saying to Joe… ‘so should we reduce the architecture and the costs in building this beautiful building and just put up a box?,’” Woolley said.

“The answer, of course, and obviously was no we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t, because building a beautiful city is important to Calgarians.”

Earlier in the presentation, Thompson noted that creative industries in Calgary provided jobs for 24,000 people with $1.6 billion in labour income. It also contributed $2.1 billion directly to Calgary’s GDP.

That information is contained in a Conference Board of Canada report from 2019.

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