With a financial pinch on projects after the Olympics, Vancouver’s Public Art program is at a crucial crossroads.
By Beverly Cramp
Vancouver’s newest public art planner, Karen Henry, came to City Hall last November — just after the flurry of art projects fostered by the 2010 Cultural Olympiad’s multi-million dollar budget came to an end, and in the middle of the worst recession in decades. Politicians were being forced to get tight-fisted with public funding for community arts budgets, among many other things. The result — an eagerness in the community to see what will happen next.
“ At one of the last public art consultations I attended, it was clear that the majority of the people in the room want a change, they want higher standards,” says architecture critic and urbanist Trevor Boddy. “Quite frankly, we missed the boat when we didn’t effectively harness the real estate development industry’s potential to bring significant public art pieces to Vancouver.” Commercial partnerships are among the largest sources of support for public art. Under the Private Sector Development Stream, property developers seeking a re-zoning permit must contribute a small percentage of the building budget to public art on the site, or contribute the funds to the city’s public art program.
“ Some of the best stuff occurred because the developer took a personal interest in public art. Concord Pacific has been the best patron so far,” Boddy says of the company responsible for transforming the old Expo 86 lands on the north side of False Creek into a high-density residential urban neighbourhood. “And that’s because Terry Hui [president and majority owner of Concord Pacific] took a personal interest in it.”
In fact much of Vancouver’s new public art in the last 20 years does seem to be concentrated in this “city-within-a-city” as the Expo lands were touted; or, more simply, the largest development site in North America. It makes sense there would be a lot of potential for public art and other amenities in this 83-hectare area, where Concord Pacific built more than three dozen new towers housing more than 20,000 people. Pieces like artist Jerry Pethick’s Time Top, near Cambie Bridge, a 1940’s-style space ship structure installed in 2006 but looking for all the world like it has been submerged underwater for decades. Or Alan Storey’s Password (1994), which is a series of four sets of four letters that rotate to form random words. The letters are animated by three exhaust vents from one building’s underground parkade. Storey is also known for Pendulum (1987) in the HSBC building atrium downtown, another public art installation funded by a private developer.
They all form part of Vancouver’s public art collection of over 350 pieces — works that range from early installations of totem poles and bronze statues of notable public figures to light sculptures and complex digital artworks. Many of the projects from the 2009 to 2010 Olympic development period incorporated light and new media elements. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive Vectorial Elevation sent 20 beams of light over the English Bay skies for the duration of the 2010 Olympics — the beams could be programmed by participants on the Internet.
In reviewing new media artist Tania Ruiz Gutiérrez’s light sculpture Garde-Temps, located under the south end of the Cambie Street Bridge, art critic Robin Laurence said “light is the new bronze”. Garde-Temps is a glass and metal structure in the shape of a vase that doubles as a screen for moving images. The images are ever-changing, generated from the site itself by using thermography and a computer program to gather heat emanating from people passing nearby. A thermal camera sends the heat sensory information to the vase sculpture, where it’s transformed into light design on the face of the vase. Laurence found the piece ingenious.
But Boddy feels that overall, Vancouver can and must do better. “City hall needs to get other developers up to Concord Pacific’s standards,” says Boddy. “Then we would have a renaissance of public art.”
Boddy’s challenge isn’t directed specifically at Karen Henry, and he’s quick to point out that Henry has the background necessary to foster positive change, given her previous years of advocating for public art. Among many projects she worked on in the past 15 years was Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver (2010), a freestanding 57-foot-tall, illuminated sculpture referencing a graffiti symbol prominent in East Vancouver for several decades.
“Monument came through a public call to artists to initiate ideas for projects they’d like to see built during the Olympics,” say Henry. “I was the project manager for the city working with the artists who initiated the ideas. I coordinated the selection process, aided in finding the sites, contracted the artists and managed all the technical processes to get the pieces in place.”
The site finally chosen for Monument was the third place considered, but one that turned out to be very successful. Thousands of daily riders passing through East Vancouver on the Skytrain have direct views of Monument as it stands near one of the main routes. It’s also on an elevated site, making it visible for miles around.
Other public organizations have successfully commissioned public work, including Vancouver Airport’s Art Foundation, public transit’s TransLink and Canada Line, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the University of British Columbia. And the Vancouver International Sculptural Biennale, begun in 1998 by the now-defunct Buschlen Mowatt Galleries, is now operated as a non-profit organization, after working out a deal with the Vancouver Parks Board to temporarily locate large sculptures created by international artists on park land throughout the city. The Biennale installs works by international artists throughout the city, but at the end of the display period, usually 18 months, the works are for sale.
“ We’re using some of our most desirable public spaces as a showroom for sculpture,” Boddy says. “Some of the pieces are good, some are less good. The controversy is not so much the Biennale’s fault. They fill a vacuum and now people think it’s the opposite of what it is — that it’s public art.”
Karen Henry has her work cut out if she’s to do more with less. The civic art budget has been reduced by more than half, and there are a steadily decreasing number of good sites in the city to place public art. “There’s a limited amount of public space,” Henry says. “We don’t want to fill them all up in a short time. It’s a big responsibility to determine what pieces we want here in perpetuity. When we make decisions today, we have to consider this question: what does it mean for the future?”