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Calgary’s Coyote Ugly Art

Father Raymond J. de Souza delivers a thoughtful essay on the purpose and patronage of public art.

3 minute read
Topics: Arts
Calgary’s Coyote Ugly Art August 24, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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Calgary – Early this month a new public art installation went up in Calgary, over by the road works on the TransCanada Highway near Canada Olympic Park. It’s called Bowfort Towers, and my first thought upon seeing it was that it was part of the jumble of metal and concrete of the construction itself.

Positioned at a key “gateway” to the city from the mountains, the installation consists of upright girders “cradling” slabs of Rundle stone, taken from the aforementioned mountain area. Supposedly it draws upon Blackfoot inspiration, employing four sets of girders honouring the Blackfoot conception of the four seasons and the four stages of life. Thankfully, it was not erected drawing upon the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures, otherwise we might have had 7 sets of girders, or perhaps forty

Blackfoot-inspired or not, criticism from the aboriginal community was quick. Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a little piqued at the bellyaching, as he doesn’t care for the implication that his administration is insufficiently progressive on matters Indian, whether of the aboriginal or immigrant variety. There had been, he huffed, proper consultation with a “traditional knowledge keeper whose expertise is in the field of Blackfoot archaeology and symbolism.”

Apparently the knowledge keeper was not traditional enough, as the Blackfoot objected that the Bowfort Towers looked liked their traditional burial scaffolds. The New York artist objected that he had grown up in South Dakota and the Sioux there made burial scaffolds with the rocks on the top, not the middle. So there.

Those without traditional knowledge to keep in the city generally thought the installation both ugly and costly. I don’t suppose it was intended to be ugly, though it is that, but it was supposed to be costly. When Calgary city council approves a public works project of sufficient size, one per cent of the budget has to go to public art. So the $50 million interchange to smooth out traffic in Calgary’s northwest generated a cool five hundred grand for art. That’s also how, a few years back, Calgary got an enormous blue ring over by the airport in the northeast; $500,000 apparently gets you really tall steel on the art market today.

The Big Blue Circle – entitled formally Travelling Light – is meant to invoke the “universal mode of transportation”, the wheel. That too is a little insensitive to aboriginal peoples, as the wheel was not as universal here as it was elsewhere in the world.

In any case, Calgary’s ongoing fiasco of public art raises another, broader question about our common life. Who should adorn it? When the city gets into the mix, the artistic impulse gets ground through a bureaucratic apparatus and the results are, well, not pretty.

Which is not to say that the State should not be in the art business. Before the bureaucratic state got rolling, monarchs commissioned all kinds of public art, for the edification of the people, the glorification of the ruling house and the exaltation of the king who commissioned it. Fountains, archways, bridges, gardens and public buildings were designed to be beautiful and functional, the better to engender good feelings in the populace about their rulers. Oddly enough, in a democratic age, when the civic officials are supposedly more accountable to the people, the people get less of what is useful or beautiful.

The Church’s contribution to public art is largely in the realm of sacred architecture and art, grand houses of worship that were open to rich and poor alike, where the poor had access to beauty that otherwise might be reserved for private palaces or galleries.

Which leads to a final question. Today every city has several denizens of vast wealth – certainly Calgary does – that could easily fund artistic installations as a genuine pro bono publico. Where are these private patrons of the arts? Purchasing enormously expensive historic artworks at auction so that they can be moved from one private setting to another is a rather unworthy purpose for wealthy art-lovers. Displaying such works in public galleries is worthy, but why not commission public art, to be erected on private land, but to adorn our common life? It is highly unlikely that the Bowfort Towers would be the result of such an initiative.

There is such an example in downtown Calgary, where the privately built Bow Building – a project originally of EnCana at the height of the oil boom – includes a public plaza on which sits Wonderland, an enormous wire-mesh head of a girl. It’s quite arresting, thought provoking and so public that you can walk around in it. The work of Spanish artist Jaume Plensa was entirely privately-funded. It’s the most notable public art in Calgary.

Public art ought not exclusively mean funded out of the public exchequer. It means for the public. And there is no reason that wealthy private citizens or firms cannot provide just that.

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Topics: Arts

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