Calgary Arts Development crowned future operator of controversial public art program

·3 min read
Calgary has chosen an organization to manage its public art program, after controversies over pieces like Travelling Light, left, and Bowfort Towers, right.  (CBC - image credit)
Calgary has chosen an organization to manage its public art program, after controversies over pieces like Travelling Light, left, and Bowfort Towers, right. (CBC - image credit)

The City of Calgary announced Monday that it has appointed Calgary Arts Development as the future operator for the city's controversial public art program, and lifted a suspension on its funding that had been in place since 2017.

The program was frozen after several contentious public art projects — such as the $500,000 art installation known as Bowfort Towers and the $470,000 giant blue ring sculpture dubbed Travelling Light — and arguments over the best use of tax dollars.

In 2019, the city decided to farm out operation of the program to a new organization that would operate at arm's length from the city, in a system similar to Edmonton's public art program.

It said the move could save money, reduce the number of city workers involved and possibly see more local artists win public art contracts.

Calgary Arts Development was chosen after a two-year process that the city said included comprehensive citizen engagement, requests for proposals (RFPs) and insight from its selection panel.

"I think that public art should be small things that just appear in your community, instead of these massive things that sometimes are not legible as art," Nenshi said Monday.

One of Calgary's controversial public art pieces, Wishing Well, has been in storage since burning a hole in an onlooker's jacket. But it may be put back on display this year.
One of Calgary's controversial public art pieces, Wishing Well, has been in storage since burning a hole in an onlooker's jacket. But it may be put back on display this year. (Genesis Centre for Community Wellness/Facebook)

"I think that Calgary Arts Development will continue to do good work, with just making sure that public art meets its need, which is to delight people in the community."

The program will now gradually be transitioned to the non-profit, which already allocates and invests municipal funding for the arts, on a three-year timeline and with help from the city.

"Calgarians are very passionate about the arts and continuing to make Calgary an inviting and vibrant place to live and visit," said Jennifer Thompson, the manager of arts and culture at the City of Calgary, in a press release.

"Having a third-party operator for Calgary's public art program will reduce barriers for Calgary's local artist community to participate in the program, increase transparency for citizens, and increase investment in the local creative economy."

New arrangement simple, accessible, diverse, city says

The city said it heard from almost 3,000 Calgarians about the future of the program.

Its seven-person selection panel, which included two arts professionals, also reviewed RFP submissions to recommend the organization they felt was best suited for the work.

Calgary Arts Development, the city's press release said, was selected due to its "proven in-depth knowledge and understanding in delivering art to Calgarians."

Under the new arrangement, the city will still maintain a corporate public art budget that dedicates one per cent of capital project funds to pieces of public art. And the public art collection will continue to be owned by the city.

But the procurement process will be simpler, more accessible, and will promote more diversity among the artists commissioned under the program, the city says.

"We are very excited to have been selected as the proponent to undertake the public art program," said Patti Pon, the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development.

"The public art program aligns perfectly with what we stand for; our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; our direct relationship with Calgary's arts sector; and our vision for a creative, connected Calgary through the arts."