Public art is a crucial aspect of any city, and Calgary is making it a priority
Public art gives Calgary a new vibrant look
Calgary’s council committee suspended Calgary’s embattled public art program in 2017 due to the outcry following the unveiling of the controversial Bowfort Towers installation on the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Bowfort Towers installation was not the only art piece panned by the public. The Travelling Light, also known as “The Giant Blue Ring” on 96 Avenue N.E., was also amongst the pieces heavily criticized at the time, sparking conversations about how taxpayer money was being spent.
However, public art is still a crucial aspect of any city, said the City of Calgary’s public art liaison, Julie Yepishina-Geller.
“Public art is important because it is accessible to everybody, and for a lot of people, public art is their first introduction or entry to art of any kind,” said Yepishina-Geller.
“You can access it just when you’re going about your neighborhood or walking around the city, you don’t have to go to a gallery, you don’t have to pay to enter a museum to be able to see it and to experience it.”
According to the City of Calgary, the city has “more than 1,300 pieces of art” installed throughout Calgary. These pieces of art can be outdoor sculptures in parks and plazas, installations integrated into infrastructures, monuments, memorial, environmental art, temporary projects, street art and functional objects.
Calgary’s public art collection also includes an assortment of portable art that includes photographs, paintings, sculpture, glass, installations, ceramics and textiles. The portable collection is rotated throughout public spaces.
According to Yepishina-Geller, public art gives people a chance to stop and notice their surroundings.
“When you see a piece of art, it kind of interrupts the way that you experience the city, it makes you stop, it can make you think, it can make you see things in a different way, and it really contributes to that sense of place and it makes the city a more vibrant place to be,” she said.
Photos: Zach Poole
Art for the Beltline
The Beltline Urban Murals Project’s (BUMP) creative manager, who’s known in the artists’ community as Contra, said public art is going to be one of the leading methods of revitalizing Calgary. BUMP is a community-led, artist-focused street art festival that has expanded its focus to become a city-wide street art movement that “re-imagines public spaces through the visual arts and expanding the capacity of the local arts community.”
According to Contra, public art offers a lot of benefits to Calgary as the city is becoming more of a public art city that has a capacity to grow economically and culturally.
People can exchange ideas and dialogue through public art and foster civic pride through it, Contra said.
Local, national and international artists who participate in the festival are usually selected through a diverse jury for the BUMP Festival’s annual exhibition of new murals on buildings, art on the city’s transportation infrastructure, and graffiti artwork in Calgary
Amongst those artist’s is German graffiti artist Mirko Reisser who is known as DAIM in the artist community. He painted the tallest mural in the world in Calgary in 2022.
“We were extremely excited to have been selected to participate in the 2020 festival and began the concept development for BUMP’s final approval, although due to the Canadian border closure during the pandemic, we ultimately painted the mural in 2022,” said Reisser in an email interview from his home in Germany.
The number of artists working with BUMP varies every year depending on the amount of art work being done. In 2022, BUMP commissioned 19 murals on walls and upwards of 100 road workpieces, which are usually seen whilst driving in tunnels or under bridges.
This meant opportunities for 19 muralists, who also had assistants and other people working with them, along with 20 road work artists.
“The number of visual artists who are touching BUMP in a year is more like 50,” said Contra. “But in terms of pure muralists, who get their own mural, and that is their project, it’s closer to about 20 muralists a year, funding dependent.”
According to Contra, funding also plays a major role in deciding the amount of artists who will participate in BUMP.
“We get way more money, we can program way more murals,” she said.
Financing and transition of public art
In 2017, city council voted to suspend Calgary’s controversial public art program due to the public outcry about the Bowfort Towers. The suspension continued for three years until 2021 when Calgary Arts Development was chosen by the City of Calgary to take over the commissioning of new public art projects.
In a public press release, the City of Calgary announced that it’s been working with Calgary Arts Development to transfer knowledge, methods and the operations of key public art projects and initiatives.
“We’re doing this while staying true to Calgarians’ vision for public art, which we gathered from extensive research and engagement with more than 11,000 residents between 2018 and 2020,” said the release. According to Yepishina-Geller, the city is going to continue to be the funder/grantor to public art projects like BUMP, but the commissioning work will be done through the Calgary Arts Development (CAD) program.
“The city will own and maintain the pieces that are commissioned and the artwork that’s commissioned through the CAD program,” said Yepishina-Geller.
The full program transition of all new public art development will finish by 2024. The City of Calgary said it’s “dedicated to delivering a positive, meaningful, varied, nimble and enriching public art program that builds on Calgary’s reputation on the world stage as a prosperous, vibrant and livable city.”
Yepishina-Geller said the transition is taking place because it’s difficult to run a public art program within a government organization as governments are not set in the way that an arts organization is set up.
“In arts organizations, you want to be nimble and able to work with artists who are at different stages of their careers, and you want to be able to provide really equitable opportunities for artists from diverse backgrounds to participate in the program,” said Yepishina-Geller.
“And unfortunately, just in essence of how large organizations like the city are set up, we have a lot of procurement challenges where we basically create a situation where it’s really hard for people to work with us unless they’re set up, like a big company, because that’s typically who the city works with.”
According to Yepishina-Geller, the City of Calgary will continue to fund public art by setting aside the same one percent of eligible capital project budgets it has in the past.
Calgary Arts Development and the City of Calgary will adhere to the Public Art Policy that guides the way in which taxpayer dollars are used to commission new artworks, acquire existing artworks, deliver public art activities and events, provide access to the public art collection and maintain and conserve the collection.
Even though the funding budget for 2023 hasn’t been finalized yet, Contra said 2023 is looking up to be a significant year for artists as BUMP has received the most applications from artists they’ve ever had.
“It’s gonna be pretty massive. BUMP is expanding pretty rapidly, and I have a feeling this year is going to be a very important year for us,” said Contra.
A world record broken for the second time, this time in Calgary
In 2022, Calgary became home to the world’s tallest mural, DAIM – Straight up.
“DAIM – Straight up,” was painted by German graffiti artist Mirko Reisser, who goes professionally by DAIM, and was commissioned by Calgary’s Beltline Urban Murals Project (BUMP) festival.
Born in Lüneburg, Germany, DAIM’s origins lie in graffiti art as he started hitting the streets in 1989 and according to him, he is now a world renowned and highly regarded by admirers, clients, collectors, and his peers for his incredible technique and precision.
“My work is mostly derived from the construction and deconstruction of typography,” said DAIM in an email interview from his home in Germany. “It captures the moment between visual deconstruction and what remains, constructing letters to form compositions while simultaneously leaving the viewer to perceive its content as a 3D work of art, and of course, there’s a very personal element, as I depict my writer’s name – DAIM.”
According to DAIM, public art – especially when done “without permission” – can be motivational for artists and have an energy that can develop as an excellent way for an artist to expand their career and begin receiving commissioned work.
DAIM said the mural that results can inspire public viewers daily, especially if they’re not usually exposed to art on their day-to-day journey.
“I define art as freedom, and public art is the most democratic and accessible way to make art,” said DAIM.
“DAIM – Straight up” isn’t DAIM’s first recognized international art as he painted the tallest graffiti in the world in 1995 and it was recognized in the Guinness Book of Records.
DAIM said it was exciting for him to challenge himself twenty-seven years later working at this height and scale, which is three times taller than his 1995 accomplishment.
“The Calgary mural is 310 feet tall, and it explores the deconstruction of my [art] name, DAIM,” he said.
DAIM was selected to participate in the 2020 festival and began the concept development for BUMP’s final approval, however, due to the Canadian border closure during the pandemic, the mural was painted in 2022.
How DAIM was chosen
BUMP’s creative manager, who’s known in the artists’ community as Contra, said DAIM was an artist on their radar for a few years before 2022.
Contra said DAIM is a legend in the global graffiti community, known for spearheading a specific 3D style of graffiti that artists around the world have come to use in their own public art.
“With DAIM we saw an artist who has 30 plus years of experience and has developed a tremendous level of respect globally for his work, bringing a high impact artist such as him benefits our city in multiple ways,” said Contra.
According to Contra, BUMP knew that bringing DAIM to Calgary for such a large project would impact the artist community here, encouraging them to see their city as one with the potential to become one of the great art cities.
Bringing DAIM to Calgary also meant giving local artists an opportunity to expand on their art experience, said Contra.
“When we bring in international artists to the BUMP festival, we are trying to curate international artists who are experienced and can come to our city with a perspective on public art which would benefit our own arts ecosystem,” she said.
“Bringing a high-profile artist who is international also means we have the opportunity to program local artists to work with him —we had three artists from Calgary assist DAIM on this mural which is a massive career milestone for them as well.
“They were able to learn from DAIM directly about his practice, techniques, and the artist community in Europe. Facilitating experiences like that is really what BUMP is about.”
Challenges of public art
As exciting as public art can be, said DAIM, it still has its challenges. Weather, surroundings, physical access, surface materials, often the size and the overall framework, can all pose different technical challenges.
“Working outdoors is a different experience every time, although new site-specific criterias make it all exciting and a good learning experience,” he said.
DAIM’s next projects
2024 will mark the 35th anniversary of DAIM’S studio practice. He will be celebrated with a 35-year retrospective at the respected Woods Art Institute in Hamburg, Germany where he currently resides.
“I am working on many projects simultaneously. I recently co-curated an exhibition titled EINE STADT WIRD BUNT (A City becomes colorful) that highlights graffiti history in Hamburg, Germany from 1980-1999,” said DAIM.
The project is currently displayed at the History Museum in Hamburg, and new murals, book releases and canvas works are also in the making.
DAIM said every new mural, every new city, various cultures and the new people he meets and works with inspire him in new unique ways both personally and artistically.
According to DAIM, all these inspirations affect him positively, and it helps in his development and growth as an individual and an artist.
“Public art is a direct visual dialogue with audiences,” said DAIM.
“It’s an unplanned visual journey that triggers feelings and reactions. Usually positive, but of course it can also be a negative one or indifferent, no matter what the response is, it’s an honest response that the viewer is enabled to experience in unconventional and unexpected locations.”
Finding opportunities to get involved with art in Calgary
by ZACH POOLE
From the outside looking in, Calgary’s public art space is attractive, vibrant, and alive, but it also has a shroud of mystery. Sometimes murals and sculptures can seem to be installed overnight to those who aren’t paying attention. However, in reality, even being selected to create some of these pieces is often an extensive search for the right artist who can create the right piece at the right time.
Jarett Sitter is a Calgary-based artist who has participated in the creation of public art in a number of different capacities. Sitter has worked on several murals and other public art projects with the city. In 2021 he worked with the City of Calgary on the “Centre City Banner” program, where he created a series of banners to be displayed on light poles and bridges near the downtown core.
Sitter said that he hopes for more knowledge in Calgary about what goes into public art.
“I think generally people just don’t realize that creating these pieces can be a very long process,” said Sitter. “Usually it seems that people hear that a piece of art costs x amount of dollars, but what they don’t hear about is all the planning, fabrication, the engineers. It’s a big process.”
Sitter’s experience working on multiple projects with the city has given him ample insight into just how big of a process it is to make these pieces of artwork.
“Usually, when a public art project is available, there will be an open call that you can generally find online or on social media,” he said.
“In my experience, the application process often involves writing a letter of interest and providing examples, and they usually want you to have a bit of an idea of what you’re going to do with the project.”
Arthur Andryszewicz is also a Calgary-based artist. He currently works in a variety of art forms, including digital art, music, and painting. Andryszewicz said his art is primarily a side project and form of expression for him, however, he has aspirations of getting into the local public art world, but he says it can be a challenging field to break into.
Andryszewicz said he has come across several opportunities to create public art but just hasn’t found the right project yet.
“There was a pretty interesting ad that I saw recently. I believe it was looking for an artist to paint a sculpture in a way that would portray resilience through the pandemic.” said Andryszewicz
“I was really interested in the project, and in having the opportunity to work with the city, but I came across the ad a bit late, and I ended up struggling a little to come up with a concept that I was happy with so I didn’t end up applying.”
Not seeing the ad in time isn’t an uncommon thing, according to Andryszewicz.
“There have been a couple of times that I’ve come across calls for artists pretty close to the deadline, so I haven’t been able to put something together,” he said.
Andryszewicz said he primarily sees ads on Instagram and thinks that many potential artists may not be seeing them at all.
“Calgary has so many talented people who could create some amazing art, but not all of them are active on Instagram or social media, so what I would like to see happen is for the city to tap into a wider variety of outlets and channels when it comes to making their calls for artists,” said Andryszewicz
Andryszewski plans to continue searching for the right project where he can make his public art debut in Calgary.
On top of his work creating art, Sitter has also had the unique opportunity to aid in the process of selecting artists for public art projects.
“In the past I’ve been contacted by the project owners to ask if I wanted to sit on a selection jury,” said Sitter.
“I’m not sure if you can apply for the position or if it’s strictly through past relationships, but it’s a really interesting opportunity to see what goes into creating public art behind the scenes, especially as an artist myself.”
Current opportunities to create public art with the City of Calgary can be found on the arts and culture section of the City of Calgary’s website.
Map of Calgary’s Public Art Locations
On the map below, we have plotted the location of some of Calgary’s public art installations. A few of them have been featured throughout this page. We encourage readers to go visit some of these and explore the beautiful city we call home.