Public art in its most effective (and affective) incarnations reach the very ordinary. As a permanent piece, a fleeting transitory work, or an art piece created with a community’s vision in mind, the art of public art reveals itself through the long-term impact of its presence to the general assembly of passerbyers.
For a working-class city locked in a perpetual greyscale where art and aesthetics have rarely surfaced as civic concern, Edmonton’s new public art plan takes our very worst attributes and makes them great. Developed by the indomitable Kristy Trinier over the course of a year and half of research and outreach, the new plan has been unanimously approved by city council and takes its cue from a few foundational stepping stones, including integrated funding for public art in all new construction projects.
Last September, city council approved much-needed revisions to our existing Percent for Art policy, including the removal of a $100 000 cap and the development of a public art archive and maintenance program. Municipal Percent for Art programs have spread across North America as mid-sized urban cities look to fulfill their demand for cultured urban living and sophisticated urban identities. If done right, public art creates a unique space for its citizens and draws visitors; if done wrong, the works alienate and offend those who have to live with it and mystify outsiders. Keeping that in mind, with the amount of space we have as a city, our sprawl and vastness has the potential to be both our downfall and our glory.
The language of the plan reinforces a mentality that, as a blank canvas, Edmonton has the potential to be a national and international leader in setting standards for public art programming. With specific recommendations—such as a Public ArtPark System, which opens up our river valley as sites for programmed events—as well as focusing on opening up Edmonton to the world through a biennial international commission, public artist-in-residency and a curated transitory public art exhibition, the new vision of public art in Edmonton will be at least a decade in the making as the immediate needs of updating and conserving are already a major task at hand. As a city in transition, somewhere between an unrenewable-resource-based economy to a hopefully multi-tiered economy, Edmonton’s identity to be culturally significant resonates on a level that aspires to be more than a boom-and-bust pit stop.
A policy within the revised Percent for Art looks to develop a public art archive and maintenance program, which in its essence is the keystone to developing future public art in Edmonton. As our current collection and archive are far below second rate when compared to almost every city similar in size and stature, and one survey at the dilapidating state of many of our current permanent pieces, the realm of public art becomes far more than simply placing artwork in the great outdoors: it’s about creating a system to address and meet the ever-changing identity of Edmonton, to participate in the ever expanding realm of contemporary art practices, to break open our isolation and stop settling for mediocrity and find exception within our own ordinary.
*First published in Vue Weekly, October 2 - 8, 2008