City pulls plug on Bowfort interchange public art

Plans for public art at the Bowfort interchange in Calgary were paid for, but more than a year after the piece was partially unveiled, CBC News has learned it will never be completed.

This week, the city pulled the plug on the landscape piece, known as drumlins, originally planned for the opposite side of the highway.

The original pitch was made by artists Del Geist and Patricia Leighton along with landscape architect Taewook Cha of Supermass Studio.

Plans for the complete package were approved in 2015. 

Bowfort Towers, one of the artistic elements, was unveiled at the intersection of Bowfort Road N.W. and the Trans-Canada Highway in the summer of 2017.

The drumlins were planned for the north side of the highway. According to details from the city's website, which have since been removed, these "earthworks" elements would create a fusion of past and present by echoing the spirit of the land.

From the highway, drivers would have seen rounded mounds with markings like those left behind by the movement of glacial ice sheets. Both elements once completed were meant as a comprehensive gateway to the city, leading the viewer eastward into Calgary, and westward to the Rocky Mountains.

Budget concerns and economic considerations

Initially, Jennifer Thompson, the lead for public art with the City of Calgary, said the budget for the project fell within $500,000. But that changed during the process of building Bowfort Towers.

According to Thompson, there was only about $80,000 left in the budget to finish landscaping that they say would cost $200,000.

On Friday, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the complications with the artwork included unforseen costs with utility lines, future sanitary lines and a nearby berm.

He said it was decided money could be better served by using for something else that would be "more accessible to the public." 

In the end, for the towers and any design work Geist, Leighton and Cha completed for the drumlins, the city spent $411,000.

Decision not made lightly

"We certainly don't take the Bowfort Towers decision lightly," Thompson said. "This decision wasn't made in a room isolated or, you know, under the cover of night or anything like that."

She went on to say the city's senior administrative leaders were involved.

Thompson couldn't say whether or not the city has ever pulled the plug on a public art project in the past. She said that in the program's 15-year history there could have been times when projects were tweaked or changed, based on a number of factors, to align to budgets.

Left photo: courtesy Patricia Leighton, right photo: CBC

While the artists, city councillors and public art board were notified this week, Thompson said the final decision to pull the remaining plans for the interchange happened about a week ago. The city had to bring in its legal team to suss out if, according to contracts, the city was within its rights to end the project without completing the plans.

Leighton, the artist behind the piece, said she was surprised and saddened when the city called her to say the piece wouldn't be finished after three years of work.

She said earth meant to form the drumlins had already been moved to the site.

'This can be discussed'

In an interview with CBC, Leighton said the city hadn't given her any indication there were concerns.

"I just assumed it was sitting in with the public art program and once it started up again...."

Leighton said she hopes the city will reconsider and allow her to build part of the artwork with the remaining budget.

"I do feel it can actually enhance the entrance and exit from Calgary," she said. "I would like to think that this can be discussed."

Artist wants to complete work

The work was designed to stand out as vehicles went by at high speeds. But, Leighton said, there is still a design that could work on a nearby site, and have the same desired effect with fewer mounds and less money.

"The design was meant as a holistic approach," she said, "almost like a yin and yang, the artworks to one another and the landscape."

On Friday, Nenshi said he hadn't heard the artist's perspective before, and hinted there could be hope for the work, just not at Bowfort Interchange. 

"There might be an opportunity to use a similar model, because it was nice art, in a place that's more accessible," said Nenshi. "On a scale that makes more sense for people." 

Thompson said the remaining money will be put back into a pool of cash that's part of the city's public art review.

News comes as a surprise to councillor

This news came as a surprise to Coun. Shane Keating, who said his office hadn't been notified about the decision.

The Ward 12 councillor put forward a notice of motion in September 2017 asking that the city review its public art process — again.

The motion asked that administrators find better ways to consult and engage with the public on the public art program, how to prioritize public art dollars during a downturn, and how to make the program more local.

Project had already kicked off

In June, council asked, as part of that review, that the city look at pooling public art cash so that works don't need to be geographically tethered to their respective infrastructure projects.

While the review happens, council decided to freeze funding for any new projects. At the time, they said, ongoing projects would still move forward. The Bowfort interchange project had already kicked off before the freeze took effect.

"I would have thought that he would have the budget for both components ironed out and set and ready to go before you would actually award the contract," Keating said.

The city is still figuring how that money pool would work, reporting back to council in March.

Courtesy Patricia Leighton and Taewook Cha

The towering tale of Bowfort

The first phase of the project spurred a lot of public and political backlash.

At the city's original messaging and unveiling in 2017, when the art was shown to the media without the artist there to take questions, Sarah Iley, manager of culture for the city, said the four towers related to the Blackfoot cultural symbolism for the four elements, four stages of life and four seasons.

The Indigenous community pointed out that the art — four slabs of Rundle rock suspended in the air amid steel beams — looked like a traditional Blackfoot air burial. One Indigenous artist called the piece "theft of culture."

Later, in a joint statement released by the City of Calgary and Treaty 7 chiefs, it was stated the artwork was "never meant to be an Indigenous artwork" and that it wasn't inspired by Indigenous themes.

Then, there were those who simply didn't like the work and claimed it cost too much and was an eyesore. The city, at that time, pushed back, reminding citizens that the art project wasn't complete.