Opinion: Public art’s place in our society shouldn’t be so perilous

Transparent Passage by Ottawa artist Amy Thompson will be at Lees station on the new Confederation Line. Image taken from the City of Ottawa's website.

Before judging the art to be installed in the stations of Ottawa’s light-rail Confederation Line, consider this question: what is public art for?

Perhaps, as Ottawa artist Heidi Conrod suggests, it’s “to invite the public to become more aware of their environment. . . It brings art into the everyday.”

Or, says Ottawa artist Adrian Göllner, who’s one of the artists whose proposals were accepted for the LRT stations, it could be for “pulling people out of the everyday, making them look around, giving them a sense of the larger when on our daily routine we sometimes wear blinders.”

Yet some people prefer the blinders, and regard public art as a thing to complain about, to belittle or even dismiss. At times, the disparagement of public art seems a national sport.

There’s a foofaraw in Calgary over the Bowfort Towers, an art installation that, as Mayor Naheed Nenshi noted, is still incomplete. Undaunted, one councillor tweeted that “it’s time to go out to the public and ask them what they want to see,” as if there’s ever a public consensus on art. I don’t know about Calgary, but the City of Ottawa has public meetings to unveil proposed art projects, and based on those I’ve attended the citizens on hand never agree on which proposal is best.

In Markham, Ontario, there’s a flap over Charity, a large, stainless-steel cow on stilts that was installed (at no public expense) in a residential neighbourhood. Nearby residents, the Toronto Star reported, “now go to sleep with the reflection of hoofs and an udder shining into their homes.” Quelle horreur! (Though one wonders how much reflection there can be at night, when most people sleep.)

Meanwhile, other people are driving from miles around to gawk at the blinding bovine, which demonstrates, again, that there is no public consensus on art in public.

Back in Ottawa, armchair critics are decrying the $7 million in public art projects to be installed in 13 stations along the Confederation Line. The projects — as yet seen only in drawings and models — are varied in style, media, theme and, no doubt, popularity. Slagging an unbuilt art installation may be like declaring a doughnut to be delicious after reading the recipe, but the issue, for some people, is not so much the art itself as it is the spending of public money on art.

“I have yet to see public art that really grabbed me, or hear from others that they were favourably impressed,” declared an Ottawa Citizen reader, who used the quaintly anachronistic platform of writing a letter to the editor. “City councillors who advocate for such expenditures should be aware that they are neither qualified nor mandated to inflict their tastes on the rest of us.”

One could respond by noting that people in your social circle tend to confirm your view, so if you say to them, “That public art is ridiculous,” they’re likely, out of genuine agreement or polite acquiescence, to similarly shake their heads in dismay. Contempt for government folly loves company.

Of course, city councillors don’t actually choose which public art gets built, though they have input based on what they hear from their constituents, whose views on public art are never uniform. Some councillors try to maintain an ungainly balance, like a cow on stilts.

“Art is important, but it’s not No. 1,” said Ottawa councillor Riley Brockington of the LRT spending earlier this year. Only one per cent of the rail project’s budget is — in accordance with city rules — being spent on art, so it’s a stretch to suggest that anyone thinks it’s priority “No. 1.”

At least Brockington did praise the idea of art in transit stations. He told the Ottawa Sun, “I don’t support spending nothing,” but then brought out that old quacker about how “we have so many other challenges.”

This is the fundamentalist rejection of spending public money on art: there are other priorities. The argument supposes there’s a fairy tale day to come when there won’t be late buses or poverty or potholes that require urgent attention. Yet, often, the same people against spending on art support spending public money on ball fields, or hockey rinks, or cheap, promotional pens and fridge magnets for city hall. The same people support spending on parks, but do parks save lives or create jobs or resolve “urgent” issues?

What parks do, more than anything, is beautify the city, make it more liveable, give it personality and character. Which is precisely what public art does, and will do in the stations along Ottawa’s light-rail lines. Art will, as Ottawa artist Marc Adornato puts it, “introduce a creative, contemplative, provocative, or beautifying fixture or element of decor into an otherwise mundane, passive, ugly, or uninspiring piece of landscape or architecture.”

It’s not important that every person admires this or that public art installation. “I feel the greatest purpose of public art is to stimulate or challenge the minds of people who do not normally interact with art,” says Amy Thompson, another of the Ottawa artists who’ll install work along the Confederation Line.

That interaction can be whatever the individual wants it to be. “It’s free and people can see it on their own terms,” says Heidi Conrod, who concludes with a bit of pragmatic wisdom. “It can provide a perfect setting for photo opportunities in our selfie culture.”

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.