Today we were happy to again have Brian Newson (Manager of Vancouver’s Public Art Program) join our walk and share his first-hand experience of the city’s public art. This session was in Coal Harbour, a neighbourhood we had yet to explore. The day began at the busy entrance to Stanley Park, where we stopped to interact with a relatively new work, “Aerodynamic Forms in Space” by Rodney Graham, which was commissioned as part of the city’s Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, and will be a permanent fixture for many years to come as part of the Legacy Series. At a passing glance the work looks seems abstract, a strange assemblage of pieces and colours, but upon closer investigation one realizes the pieces are reminiscent of an old wooden toy glider plane, that has been enlarged nearly 20 times and completely rearranged. The work has a playful, child-like quality that is intended to reference both the nature of this family friendly park as well as the many planes that fly over it.
One of the interesting things about this artwork – and all of the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art – is that there’s a phone number to call in order to learn more about the artwork. This number leads the caller to a pre-recorded interpretation of the work, often by the artist, who shares about the experience of making the artwork, and gives the viewer a much deeper interpretive insight than the few sentences on the information signs. This seems like an amazing way to engage the public in these artworks; not only does it eliminate the need for large signage (which, as we would later see that day, often gets vandalized), but more importantly, it provides people with an easy and informative way to better understand and connect to the public artwork with which they’re interacting.
The recording about “Aerodynamic Forms in Space” by Graham himself, gave me new a new sense of respect for the work. He expressed trepidation in creating a piece of public art for such an iconic location, explaining that Stanley Park was (and is) so beautiful and present on its own that it would be extremely difficult for any unnatural element to enhance the space. Thus, Graham attempted to connect with the playful nature of the park, something he felt spoke about the space itself. This honesty really won me over. Even though toy glider planes are not my own experience of playing in Stanley Park (or as a child), the artist invites the observer to understand his work as a metaphor for the imagination and life the space inspires. Creating this level of understanding is essential for public art because it enables viewers who may not necessarily love a piece to at least respect it.
Moving back along Georgia Street we passed another piece of public art, “Solo” by Natalie McHaffie[i]. McHaffie created the work in 1986, and it was evident that it had been largely neglected since; many of its wooden pieces were deteriorating, and others were missing entirely. Seeing this work right after Rodney Graham’s freshly commissioned piece made me really begin to think about the importance of not only commissioning costs but the long term maintenance budget for any public art project. It seems disrespectful to both the artist and the public who fund, to allow their investments of time and money rot away.
“Solo” is apparently the victim of “funding misplacement,” by the organization that originally commissioned the work, but has since ceased operations. Because this work was not commissioned by the city, city bylaws do not permit the city to spend any of its Public Art Fund restoring the work. This attitude seems bizarre to me, as this work is on city property, orphaned and yet no one seems to be able to do anything to prevent its deterioration. Obviously, there must be some complicated legalities that prevent this work from being saved, as even Brian admitted his frustration. Brian did assure us that the public art program realizes that there is a developing problem, and that they’ve learned from these experiences. In order to prevent more works from being orphaned, the city makes sure to have better contracts with public art organizers to ensure that artworks will be properly preserved. Learning about this scenario made me aware that successful public art is not only the physical work itself but how the work is organized and maintained; in this way, public art is no different from work in a gallery, which needs a curator and gallery to help it successfully pass through time.
But we didn’t spend the whole day talking about two works! Instead, we moved around the seawall looking at the various fountain designs adorning Coal Harbour’s glossy condominiums, a few pieces from the Biennale that members of our group had researched[ii], and some of the City’s public art projects.[iii]
This session was interesting because I realized the growing sense of ownership I have for the city and its public art. Looking at “Aerodynamic Forms in Space” and “Solo” made me aware of my feelings regarding the roles and responsibilities I think the various stakeholders in public art should have. I’m beginning to look at public art differently. The works are not just dropped into our public spaces but pieces of art that need to be cared for and engaged with.
sam - the notepad kid
[ii] “Ceramic Forms” by Yee Soo-Kyung, “The Meeting” by Wang Shugang, “The King and Queen” by Sorel Etrog, and “Pillows” by Lui Jianhua.
[iii] “Search” by Seward Johnson Jr., “Weave” by Douglas Senft, “Make West” by Bill Pechet, “Light Shed” by Liz Magor, and “Sliding Edge” by Jacqui Metz and Nancy Chew & Muse Atelier