The Bowfort Towers — which many detractors said looked too much like Blackfoot burial scaffolds — sparked controversy, contributing to Calgary City Council’s suspension of its embattled public art program in the fall of 2017.
Despite this week’s decision to keep the city’s public art program shelved, city councillors and representatives from Calgary’s arts community are focused on streamlining the application process for local and Indigenous artists to compete for future public art projects.
Artists used to have to apply to compete for public art projects the same way a construction company would have to apply for a city infrastructure project.
But, the tests for a sculpture versus a bridge are entirely different.
Karly Mortimer, the director of artist and program development at Indefinite Arts Centre, says she is happy to hear that the city is looking to simplify the process.
“It’s overwhelming in terms of the language being used, overwhelming in terms of the requirements for the artists, like insurance that they have to have, and overwhelming in terms of how much investment they have to make in time before they apply.”
A review led by the city’s public art lead, Jennifer Thompson, also reported back to council on the contentious issue of inviting non-Calgary artists to compete for public art projects.
The Bowfort Towers, designed by a New York artist, sparked an outcry in 2017 after the installation was compared to Blackfoot burial scaffolds.
Thompson says the city has heard from Calgary’s art community about how challenging the procurement process is and says the program will need to work closely with Indigenous and other local artists if they want to see more applications.
But no one at council suggested non-Calgarians should be banned.
Tristan Surtees of the art practice Sans façon — which has completed art projects in Calgary and abroad — says Calgary artists are part of an international arts community.
“For artists to work here we also need to work elsewhere. It’s important to bring in new ideas, new thinking and have that exchange and dialogue.”
Surtees added that involving international artists does not exclude local artists, but fosters growth in the community.
“It’s crucially important to support our cultural community as they come out of art schools or as they grow through their careers. Part of that support is bringing them into contact with artists from all over the world.”
Surtees also made a business case for public art.
“The money is spent in the city, the majority of the construction work happens in this city, so the investment is cultural but also financial.”
So far, city administration seems to agree with Thompson, citing the mentorship opportunities for local artists and the work created for local fabricators.
“If we look at why this [public art] policy was created back in 2004, council has said and made a commitment to being an international and world-class city. And that means you can't shut your doors on the rest of the world or to the rest of our country.”
- By Brian Wells