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The Bowfort Towers as seen on the west end of Calgary. A council committee has voted to continue the suspension of Calgary’s embattled public art program while work is completed to repair “trust” with Calgarians and members of the arts community.

The city’s public art program was suspended in the fall of 2017 amid the outcry following the unveiling of the controversial Bowfort Towers installation on the Trans-Canada Highway. The $500,000 piece faced a slew of criticism, including that the city and the American artist behind the project had belatedly consulted with Indigenous groups, with some First Nations leaders suggesting it amounted to cultural theft.

Wednesday’s meeting saw the new leader of the city’s public art program proposing to rebuild “trust and credibility” with a strategy aimed at improving the transparency and accessibility of the public art program, while prioritizing more investments in local talent.

Committee members also voted unanimously to maintain the freeze on new projects until 2020 to give city staff more time to figure out the details of the proposed changes.

Committee chair Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart said Wednesday that city staff are “moving in the right direction” but more work needs to be done before new projects go ahead.

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“I think that some were anxious for us to lift the cap and start spending money on the public art, but we didn’t do that today — we’re not there yet,” Colley-Urquhart said.

“I think the jury is still out to a certain extent that we’re actually going to walk the talk, but we need probably the rest of this year to kind of work things out with this public art policy before we start approving any major projects at all.” #yyccc committee talking about city’s public art program. City staff say Travelling Light and Bowfort Towers both elicited similar criticisms:
– inaccessible to the public because of their location
– lack of communication and engagement with public
– cost of the projects #yyc pic.twitter.com/6azmdSnI5D — Meghan Potkins (@mpotkins) March 13, 2019 The city said it will also proceed with plans to “pool” money set aside for public art.

Previously, the city funded new artwork based on one per cent of the proposed budget for associated infrastructure projects (for example, Travelling Light, otherwise known as the Big Blue Ring, was commissioned as a result of the extension of 96th Avenue N.E. near the Airport Trail-Deerfoot Trail interchange).

Jennifer Thompson, lead for the city’s public art program, said pooled funds will now be spent with input from the community with the “accessibility” of the project’s location in mind.

Another key change will be in how the city communicates and engages on public art projects. Calgarians won’t be caught off guard in the future by big projects such as Travelling Light or Bowfort Towers, Thompson said.

“We’ll be communicating and engaging the community as we go forward and giving the community and giving Calgarians a heads up on what’s coming, what they can expect, and get them excited about it,” said Thompson, “so that they’re involved in the process.” Daniel J Kirk is a #yyc artist. He says there’s an upside to the city’s controversial art pieces. A lot of Calgarians didn’t know about the public art program until the Giant Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers highlighted the importance of our relationship with Indigenous communities. pic.twitter.com/FjaaG1ei9M — Meghan Potkins (@mpotkins) March 13, 2019 Wednesday’s meeting also saw council members wrestling with difficult questions related to the integrity of the program, including how much say the public and city officials should have in public art and how far the city should go to promote local creatives over national and international competitors.

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