Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Public Art

A few months ago, while looking for a place to park on Granville Island, a voice came over the radio to say that a mural was planned for the silos at Ocean Concrete, "and won't that look nice!"

Because the silos were to my immediate right, I looked through the factory gates and saw what many of us see when we look at these structures: how magnificent they are.

Why would anyone want to mess with that?

Once home I went online to see what else I might learn about this mural. Sure enough, I discovered that it is part of Barrie Mowatt's not-for-profit Vancouver Biennale, a speculative project with questionable beginnings that places largely decorative, out-sized sculpture in public space for a two year period -- while at the same time trying to sell it.

This would not be a bad idea if the project was shepherded by those who know something of the city, its art and its histories, as is the case with other public art programs. However, as this is an enterprise driven not by the larger conversation but by a self-interested party, the transformation of public space into an art dealer's display case is unsettling.

Making matters worse is a recent report that has the mural project running a deficit -- and now we, as readers of a paper that purports to inform us about our city, are subject to comments like these:

“I think both for the boys and for us the size of those silos is bigger than they really imagined. Yes, they did all their calculations, but this is 23,500 square feet,” says Barrie Mowatt, Biennale founder and president. “Lots of surprises,” he adds.
(How would you like to be an artist and have the person who invited you to his biennale publicly accuse you of lacking in imagination?)
Another "surprise" is the theft of $20,000 dollars worth of spray paint (Was a police report filed? Did the reporter check with the VPD?), plus another $20,000 needed to protect the mural from wear and tear.
“So your $50,000 budget just went to hell,” Mr. Mowatt says. He adds that the budgets for the other major projects for this Biennale have been maintained. “So this becomes an anomaly.”
(Not the Biennale's mural budget -- "your" budget.)
On the topic of crowdsourcing to cover the deficit:
“We’re naive in terms of crowdsourcing,” says Mr. Mowatt, who says the point of the campaign was not simply financial, but also to involve the public in this public art endeavour. “Our sense was how do you tell the story when you don’t have the images?” Showing the grey concrete silos, they figured, would not be as exciting for potential donors as being able to watch them transform into spectacular animated giants.
(The image below is of the grey concrete grain silos on Burrard Inlet, as photographed by John Vanderpant in the 1930s.)

Later, the author of the article writes:

When I ask what happens if the Biennale does not raise the money for the silo project, which is to be completed Sept. 6, Mr. Mowatt at first refuses to entertain the possibility. “I mean, we’re a rich city. We’re a very wealthy city. There are lots of people in this city who could write cheques – not [just] for this but to fund the whole Biennale.”
(Really? And are these the same people who will be writing cheques for the new Vancouver Art Gallery?)
In closing, here is an April 29, 2011 comment from another player in Mowatt's Biennale fandango, a member of the same municipal party that allowed then-councillor Jim Green to bully into being a project that turns public space into market place:
"We're enormously lucky that Barrie and the Biennale group have decided to do this in Vancouver, because at relatively low cost to the city, we get a regularly changing display of really impressive public art, the kind of thing we wouldn't normally be able to afford on a permanent basis," says Heather Deal, the Vancouver city councillor who is council's liaison on the Public Art Committee.

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