Public art matters: Calgary's artistic landscape is evolving

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Over the past few decades, a growing awareness of the positive impacts of interactive public art, both at the community and individual level, along with efforts to de-colonialize spaces (move over bronze statues of glorified colonial leaders), have pushed art forms outside of historically exclusive sites like galleries and changed the ideologies behind what constitutes public art and where it should unfold. Calgary and its communities are a shining example of this change in motion.

“Art is the cornerstone to every civilization,” says Laurel Campbell, marketing manager for Bordeaux Developments, the co-developer behind the multiple-award winning community of Harmony. “Expressing, appreciating and experiencing the arts opens minds, brings people together. It marks a place, sparks a conversation and showcases the value of art in society.”

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Harmony’s public art initiative is expansive and has been incorporated into the community’s master plan.

“Our large-scale artwork is meant to inspire appreciation for the creative process, ignite conversation amongst residents and provide focal points for the community,” she says.

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Currently, the 1,750-acre (700-hectare) community has two major pieces on display. The first is Cultivate — a collection of three weathered steel plows (arching skyward to 16, 19 and 23 feet respectively) telling the history of the land, while sowing the seeds of anticipation of what is to come in the new community — by artist Dan Corson. The second is [Re]newal Profound Cycles, by Gordon Skilling — three panels each representing a portion of the story of life from the past (Earth), present (child’s hand reaching for grass from an adult) and future (splash of water). The community is in the early stages of planning for a third installation in its latest phase.

Similarly, in the inner-city community of Currie, developed Canada Lands Co., a series of seasonal installations have created a stir over the past few years. In Light the Night, Siksika Nation artist Adrian Stimson and Edmonton-based light design and installation artist Dylan Toymaker created a sequential installation of 32 panels using Blackfoot pictographs on lanterns to line a winding path in the wooded area of Alexandria Park. The pictographs tell the story of how the Thunder Pipe came to the Blackfoot people. Other installations have included Colour in Currie and Salute to Trasimene.

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“We’ve been really surprised as to how much the residents and Calgarians have embraced these small public art initiatives. We’re highly motivated to keep building on these experiences,” says Mary Thymaras, director of real estate for Canada Lands Co.

There’s no doubt that public art shapes city spaces and communities and makes everyday life more enjoyable and more beautiful. It inherently has the ability to connect people, build pride in community, deter crime and add layers of dynamic interest.

It can also encompass a range of mediums like pop-up exhibitions, performances and community-led programming.

“It’s not just painting or sculpture. There are a lot of different ways that artists can work in communities. It’s really about providing the diversity in art forms,” says Julie Yepeshina-Geller, public art lead at the city of Calgary.

Calgary’s public art program began in 2004 and was instrumental in delivering public works of art that were tied to capital infrastructure, for example within a park or embedded in a roadway interchange. Essentially the city’s program saw one per cent of any major infrastructure project’s budge put towards public art, but the caveat was that the art had to be tied to or embedded into the infrastructure project. The program was halted by city council in 2017, pending changes to systemic issues.

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“There were a lot of amazing projects that happened through this program, but the problems were twofold: the really amazing stuff never made headlines and there were a few projects that did not go well that hit the media,” says Yepeshina-Geller, citing the 2015 installation Bowfort Towers near Canada Olympic Park and the iconic “Giant Blue Ring” or Travelling Light sculpture on 96th Avenue N.E. “What these projects did do was start a conversation and bring to light the inherent flaws in how the program was being delivered.”

Because the art pieces had to be coupled with the infrastructure project, the original city of Calgary’s public art program was highly restrictive.

“What ended up happening was art was in public places where the public couldn’t interact with it or really appreciate it. The direction that we are heading now is that we want art to be in communities. We want people to interact with it and appreciate it,” says Yepeshina-Geller.

The city’s new public art plan is now being rolled out by a third party — Calgary Arts Development — and as of March 2023, funds dedicated from capital expenditures towards the implementation of public art (still one per cent) can now be used to fund art endeavours anywhere in the city, as they no longer are tied to a particular infrastructure project. This will have tremendous impact on both established and new communities throughout the city.

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 “Now that the funding is uncoupled, we have a pool of money to work with and anything is possible,” says Yepeshina-Geller.

And that is already starting to change the overall patina of the city. With almost 40 projects currently in development, including a spate of grass-roots community-initiated public arts projects in neighbourhoods that do not have pieces installed, and initiatives like Open Spaces, a small gallery on the Centre Street C-Train station designed to foster artist development and highlight art by Calgary artists with disabilities, and the City Centre Banner Program, which engages local artists to create artwork for banners displayed on light poles and bridges leading into the core, acting as gateways to Calgary’s downtown and cultural district, the texture of the city is evolving into something greater. 

“Public art in public spaces tells the story of who we are. Artists and creatives are the storytellers of our time. We need those storytellers to help us connect to each other. It’s such an important facet to how we share our stories and find meaning in things,” says Patti Pon, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development.

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