Vernon city council’s decision to pull its support and $33,000 in funding previously slated for the controversial Behind the Mask public art project and exhibition has “stunned” those closest to the work.
“There needs to be a better system for decision-making on public art,” Dauna Kennedy, executive director of the Vernon Public Art Gallery, said in a press release, in the aftermath of the change in tack.
“Few cities consult the public in the manner proposed by members of council because art is emotive and subjective. Public art is an important means of providing not only beautification to a community but also provoking thought and dialogue through critical works designed to challenge the viewer.”
The project sparked intense public debate and petitions both for and against installation. More than 4,000 signatures appeared for an online petition against the art titled “Say ‘no’ to Vernon’s scary new murals.”
A pro-mural counter-petition garnered around 2,500 signatures.
As attention on the project continued to build in June, it was put on hold by council, pending public consultation. The process was one in which the gallery was an active participant.
“The gallery consultation was designed to ensure that whoever participated in the survey had the opportunity to see all the pieces, to read each artist statement and understand the entire process,” Sarah Kennedy, board member, said.
“This resulted in a much smaller sampling but still sufficient to be representative of the Vernon public. And every type of media was used to invite the public to come to the gallery to participate.”
Gallery staff said 65 per cent of the 353 viewers were in favour of the mural project moving ahead.
Vernon city councillor Kari Gares says the input from the consultation and other messages council received from the public was a major factor in the decision.
“The rationale for council right now is just based on the vocal majority of those who are in opposition of the project. It was an outstanding amount of residents in our community,” said Gares.
The project, Kennedy said, would have offered many benefits to the economy, community and culture. Particularly, in the area of creating a dialogue around mental health.
Prior to the city reversing its decision, the project had reached its funding goals with $55,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, $33,000 from the City of Vernon, $10,000 from the Regional District of North Okanagan and $7,500 from Vernon Tourism. The supplies and artist’s fee have already been paid for.
Gallery representatives said they may now have to return grant funds to the Canada Council and compromise its ability to secure future grants.
“Canada Council grants don’t come through every day,” Andrew Powell, gallery president, said.
“This project would have given us the opportunity to apply for operational funding, which would have effectively subsidized the Gallery and saved the city money in the long run, especially as we look toward the promise of a new facility. We are unhappy with this decision, to say the least.”
After being advised that there was a potential for the city to reverse its position and pull its support, the gallery went back to the City of Vernon with a recommendation for a scaled-back exhibit that would see only eight murals in locations that fit with the theme and a shortened shelf life of three years instead of five.
This option was also turned down.
City council is encouraging the art gallery to come back once changes are made.
“They are able to bring it back should they make some adjustments along the way,” said Gares. “Those adjustments could be, the sheer scope of the project, the size of the murals, where those murals are going, all of that may be reconsidered.”
The gallery has also been approached by another community willing to provide space for the mural installations.