City council has punched itself in the face.
It has taken a public art policy that was already controversial and made it radioactive by erecting the single most expensive piece of public art in Edmonton’s history on top of an industrial garage on a grimy section of a commuter road.
This is the equivalent of you splurging on the most expensive painting, photograph or sculpture you’ve ever purchased, then putting it above your back alley garage door.
Yet council approved a $1-million sculpture that’s now been built on the new city transit garage on Fort Road.
This decision was wrong-headed in several ways.
First, council spent a ton of money on public art. This is always a touchy thing to do but especially so in a time when many folks are unemployed, under-employed or fearing unemployment, and when city council has also raised taxes dramatically over a 15-year span.
Next, this piece of art hasn’t been built in a downtown square or in a major park, where the masses of people can walk up to it, take an Instagram shot, and generally have the time and space to comprehend whatever magnificence or transcendence the sculpture (or series of five sculptures in this case) might evoke.
Instead it has gone up on a busy and pedestrian-unfriendly road. Only commuters get a brief glimpse of it. It’s as out-of-place as the Talus Dome sculpture next to the Quesnell Bridge.
Finally, as with all pieces of art, the $1-million sculpture by Berlin artist Thorsten Goldberg will evoke strong feelings, some of adoration, others of loathing, but due to its strange setting the negative feelings will be greatly intensified. The sculpture is somewhat abstract and it’s not clear to all viewers whether they’re even looking at art or at some odd-shaped part of the building’s ventilation system.
As Coun. Aaron Paquette has told reporters of the sculpture: “You’ve got quite beautiful art that actually gets lost in the mix because everything is this monochromatic grey (of the building).”
Goldberg’s pieces, called 53°30’N, are five linked metal sculpture abstractions of the topography of five uninhabited, mountainous locations at Edmonton’s exact latitude around the planet from Alberta, Alaska, China, Russia and Ireland.
It’s a cool concept. I personally find the pieces to be striking. But in an online poll with more than 1,300 respondents, 19 per cent said they loved the sculpture, 36 per cent hated it, 28 per cent had no strong opinion, and 17 per cent said it was erected in the wrong place. In that final group is University of Alberta urban and regional planning professor Robert Summers.
Summers, a supporter of the policy that sees one per cent of the capital budget on all city projects devoted to art spending, says he’s now against the stipulation that the art must be attached to the new project itself, be it a downtown tower or a bridge or a bus garage.
Art should not be forced to fit where it doesn’t belong, Summers said, but should be concentrated in public places, such as downtown. “The most expensive piece of public art in our city should be in the downtown core, for the same reasons that we put the arena in the downtown core, big companies build buildings in the downtown core and we put our conference events in the downtown core.”
Adds Coun. Mike Nickel on the new sculpture: “Why are you putting it into the middle of nowhere? … The inflexible rule that the art must go with this one particular building, it’s just become absurd.”
The good news is that the Edmonton Arts Council is now working with city administration to update this policy and allow for more flexibility in where art is placed, said executive director Sanjay Shahani.
But not everyone agrees with concentrating the city’s top art in downtown.
Coun. Ben Henderson says it’s dangerous to argue that certain kinds of buildings and areas don’t deserve art. “I think it’s important not to come up with second-class citizens kind of buildings.”
Why not focus on downtown?
“Why would you not want to put art around your entire city,” he said. “What makes downtown special in that sense?”
I can’t agree with Henderson. The purpose of a bus garage is to house buses as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Such utilitarian buildings need no equity beautification programs to raise them up.
The purpose of our major public parks is to rejuvenate and delight us. The purpose of a downtown is to power forward and showcase the city. That’s where our major pieces of art belong.