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Calgary public art, capital project cash to be untethered

The city's policy currently requires public art funds generated from infrastructure to stay with that project.

Proposed changes would decouple the one per cent drawn from infrastructure projects from Calgary public art, allowing it to be used on different installations around the city.

The change is part of the new public art policy coming to the City’s Community Development Committee Wednesday.

Currently, one per cent of capital projects between $1 million and $50 million is set aside for public art to be erected at that project site. Any portion of cost over $50 million adds an additional 0.5 per cent. The amount per project is capped at $4 million.

The proposed change will still collect the “per cent for art” capital funding. The change eliminates the need the public art to be attached to the project that funded it. (Example: Previously, a $20 million interchange would have $200,000 in public art attached to it.)

Julie Yepishina-Geller, public art liaison with the City of Calgary, said this decoupling provides greater flexibility in funding other public art around the city. It often doesn’t make sense to have a massive public art budget for these projects.

“You get this large piece of public art that is just gigantic, and that people don’t really appreciate because it’s not in a place where they can appreciate it,” she said.

“They don’t really get it. It’s not done in a way that really speaks to Calgarians. And so that’s what we’re trying to solve here.”

The City has been criticized for decisions made on public art connected to city capital projects. The public art program was suspended back in 2017 after controversy surrounding the Bowfort Towers piece.

A renewed public art plan has put the commission of new works into the hands of Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA).

‘It’s a huge opportunity for public art’

Brandy Dahrouge, director of public art for CADA, said this change means that you likely would see less of the so-called “drive-by art.”

“I think it’s a huge opportunity for public art,” she told LiveWire Calgary.

“Art can be placed where it’s the most effective, where people gather.”

Dahrouge said this new flexibility will increase accessibility and appreciation for the public artworks in Calgary. She said it also means a bigger city-wide impact for public art.

“It can be spread to other locations where perhaps there aren’t capital investments at this moment,” she said.

“That’s just a benefit in terms of increasing the livability for everybody in the city.”

Both Dahrouge and Yepishina-Geller said this decision wouldn’t mean Calgary infrastructure projects would be devoid of a little sprucing up. There will still be opportunities – where appropriate – to add artistic flair to city capital projects. 

“We can be strategic, we can scale the investment in a way that makes sense for the infrastructure project, while also making sure that we’re investing in other parts of the city,” said Yepishina-Geller.

It provides artists an opportunity to participate in an integrated project team to look at opportunities, Dahrouge said.

“The beauty of uncoupling is we have the opportunity to do both,” she said.

Flexibility is the key, said Coun. Kourtney Penner

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner, who chairs the Community Development Committee said this opens up potential art that’s not location constrained.  It’s logical to provide that kind of flexibility with the per-cent-for-art cash.

“There may be situations where, in a capital environment, tying it to the location of the project doesn’t make a lot of good sense for the benefit of the most amount of Calgarians,” she said.

Dahrouge said it not only provides flexibility in terms of location but execution and duration, too. Now projects don’t need to be fixed to infrastructure and can include digital art, temporary exhibitions, or be interactive,” she said.

“To just have a different canvas opens up so many opportunities for artists to imagine and to imagine with communities, and with people, to figure out how they would like to see their city represented and the ideas that they want to communicate,” she said.

The one thing that seeing the displays attached to capital projects brought was accountability. You could see that a portion of the budget went to public art. 

Coun. Penner, along with Dahrouge and Yepishina-Geller said there would be a strong reporting structure. They would account for the funding and the work that was done.

“I have no hesitation or reservations about CADA being the steward of those dollars and the reporting that will come from it. That is part of the program design,” Penner said.

Also included in the admin public art policy changes is to transfer $12.1 million as the per cent for art calculation for the 2023-2026 budget cycle.

It will also formalize CADA as the third-party responsible for commissioning new public art.