Inspiring Public Art

Reid Shier
Presentation House Gallery

Making public art is a deceptively complex endeavour. What can appear, on the surface, as simple as placing an object outside is, in practice, labyrinthian, precarious and fraught with factors beyond any one person’s control. Outside the security of a gallery or private home, even modest artworks require permanent access to space that is precious and usually extravagantly expensive. With unmonitored 24-hour access, safety and accessibility of viewers and the vagaries of weather, vandalism and age have to be planned decades into the future. An artwork’s themes and content need to be calculated with respect for opinions and sensitivities – both cultural and social – of myriad, potentially antagonistic, audiences. All these prerequisites conspire to define the art in advance of its own creation unlike any other form of cultural endeavor. To commission and inaugurate a work of public art while still holding a commitment to and respect for an artist’s singular imagination can be herculean. Good public art is, therefore, rare.

Thankfully there are large and tangible rewards, and the difficulties in making public art are (ideally) offset by the importance it can have and the vitality it can bring to a city or community. The profound locus that Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has provided for the survivors and family of the Vietnam War, or the grandiose, touristic spectacle of South Dakota’s outlandish Mount Rushmore, even the simple wonder of Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider Maman outside Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa, have all found their place as indelible parts of our physical and social landscape. In Vancouver, a city without a serious historic commitment to public art, we’ve been lucky to see the realization of a number of excellent recent projects, including Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver and Stan Douglas’ epic mural commemorating the Gastown Riot in 1971. As distinct as these artworks are, they are equally diverse in the roles they play for their “audience”. Like Maman, some are simply, elementally imaginative. Other’s, like Lum’s and Douglas’, bring local histories into astonishing new view. Public art has diverse meanings. It can be commemorative, provocative or celebratory, but good public art respects that we, the ‘public’, hold complex, invested thoughts about our communal space. Good art challenges us with more than prettification and ornamentation.

In this context, the commitment that Westbank has shown for producing ambitious, imaginative and sometimes confrontational projects in the City of Vancouver is singular. Westbank began incorporating public art into its developments in 1996, and over the next fifteen years has rapidly evolved as the leading private commissioner of artwork within the Vancouver’s urban environment. Beginning with the Palisades development on Alberni Street, Ian Gillespie and his team have marshalled projects with a growing list of internationally recognized contemporary artists. As of 2011, the company has mounted six major building projects across Metro Vancouver, while spearheading the development of a sculpture court and ongoing funding for rotating projects curated by the Vancouver Art Gallery on Georgia Street. They’ve also begun work on a major project in Toronto in the Shangri-La development slated for completion in 2012 with artist Zhang Huan, one of the preeminent Chinese artists to emerge out of that country’s explosive contemporary art scene. As Zhang Huan’s commission is evidence of, Westbank’s public art projects are developing with an evident increase in ambition and scale, and vitally, an increasing role of artists as active collaborators.

Like many development companies, Westbank was initially spurred into its public art commitments through the imperatives of civic bylaws governing the construction of new buildings. Many cities, acknowledging the difficulties in incorporating art into their urban plans, began to institute planning policies in the 1970’s and 80’s that gave directives and incentives to the construction of new buildings for the creation and installation of public art. Vancouver is a leader in this type of program, and the City mandates that structures over 100,000 square feet require a contribution of $1.81 per buildable foot toward public art, so that in a building of this scale, $180,000 must be committed through the developer’s own process, or into an “art bank” that the City administrates. It’s a proactive policy that, at its best, funds works that could otherwise never be afforded. In Vancouver a number of civic icons including Jerry Pethick’s Time Top on False Creek, and the aforementioned Monument for East Vancouver, an historic east side graffito that Ken Lum reimagined as a totemic illuminated sign, have resulted from it. Such works are shepherded by a City Council-appointed Public Art Committee tasked with the responsibility of reviewing art sites, budgets, artist selection procedures, and community consultation. Then, through a peer jury system, individuals with established visual art experience are entrusted with making a final decision. It’s a democratic process that results in an equally democratic array of projects, so for every fruitful and lasting work like Pethick’s and Lum’s, Vancouver has also been littered with an array of civic ornaments whose existence appears no more justifiable than to be as inffensive as possible. Planning policies that guarantee public art do not necessarily guarantee good public art.

It would be a mistake, however, to lay blame for mediocre art at the feet of our city’s bureaucrats. Good public art requires a good artist, and also one with the capacity to work outside the comfortably confined spaces of the art gallery and its devoted, sympathetic audiences. Consider, for example, the rarity of an artist like Britain’s Anish Kapoor, one of the world’s most acknowledged sculptors and an artist whose breadth and maturity has grown alongside a discrete list of major public commissions. The galvanizing wonder of Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (affectionately called the “Bean”) in Chicago, or the striking monumentality of Orbit, the fantastical tower currently under construction in London, has been accomplished through a clearly ambitious engagement with finite opportunities to make art outside the museum. Kapoor, and artists like him, reap the hard won rewards of the public context because of imaginative objects that invite the active participation of the most disinterested and disengaged viewer through the generous provision of the right tools.

The development of Westbank’s public art program follows a markedly sympathetic path to that of artist, and their successive projects are evidence of an ambitious engagement with the potentials of public art, from urban and architectural decoration to fully-fledged contextual and architectural negotiation, with formal interdependence and thematic resolve. Beginning with Vancouver artist Gwen Boyle, Westbank’s projects have steadily advanced in both complexity and scale over the past fifteen years. Over this time the company has pushed the accepted boundaries over the involvement of artists, both in a building’s actual design, such as their projects with Diana Thater and Liam Gillick, and in a larger civic conversation, evidenced by Stan Douglas’ intricately constructed photographic mural, which negotiates how and by whom our city’s histories are told.