Becoming an ‘arts generator’: Calgary’s new public arts program to receive 3-year term

The City of Calgary unveiled half of a public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange on Aug. 3, 2017.
The City of Calgary unveiled half of a public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange on Aug. 3, 2017. Aurelio Perri/News Talk 770

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally said that a third-party arts organization would get an annual operating grant of $800 million. It has been corrected to say it would get an annual operating grant of $800,000. We regret the error.

The City of Calgary is one step closer to handing off public art in the city.

On Wednesday, the city’s community and protective services committee heard an update on the work done to restructure how public art is commissioned in Calgary.

“What that restructuring is contemplating doing is pulling public art from within the bureaucracy and funding it on an ongoing basis,” committee chair and Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said.

On Nov. 19, 2019, city council decided to move the city’s public art program to “an independent arms-length organization that is housed within the infrastructure of an existing public organization with a sympathetic mandate.”

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Calgary has a century-long history with public art, with pieces around the city worth $25 million. The new direction would move the administration of that art outside city hall to better serve the city and arts community.

“A third party arts organization within the city that can be more nimble, more embedded in the community and basically funded to become an arts generator.”

Delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the process is expected to start in 2021.

Public art installations like the Bowfort Towers and Travelling Light created controversy when they were unveiled to the public.

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Carra said public art is supposed to start conversations by being controversial in nature, and the planned move will allow art to continue without it being a political pawn.

“I think what we’re trying to do here is to remove it from political interference so it can do what it needs to do as well as possible,” he said.

Carra said the new direction for public art isn’t to create a platform exclusively for local artists.

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“Our local artists actually compete and win public art commissions on an international stage,” he said. “And if we were to start imposing that kind of trade war against public art programs around the world, we would be destroying the ability of our local artists to make a living internationally.”

The organization would get an annual operating grant of $800,000, putting it roughly in the middle of operating costs for five cities across North America.

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The new program operator would get a capital grant of $5.2 million for public art.

Requests for proposals to run the city’s public art program closes on Nov. 19, with a selection as early as December. The contract term is set for a transition period of three years, with the option to be extended to 10.

The Ward 9 councillor said the initial three-year term for the organization helps ensure success.

“If you’re going to start this and you want it to go well, there has to be some certainty that funding won’t be yanked or you’re not going to switch out,” Carra said.

“It’s not going to be successful unless there’s a commitment. I absolutely think that the three-year commitment that’s being contemplated is absolutely a minimum if you want an organization in town to staff up, change what they’re doing to accommodate this huge piece of work.”

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Calgary would join cities like Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto in having arms-length public art organizations.