2014/07 Publicizing public art

Originally published in Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
July 18, 2014

The “remote office”/coffee shop where I have written many of my UrbSanity columns, including this one, sits around the corner from Ottawa’s public artwork of recent viral internet fame. For weeks, my inbox was full of messages from friends and family across the country and abroad asking if I’d heard about the public artwork tribute dedicated to the wrong namesake.

The immediate and obvious lesson is to be diligent in your research; And, that extends beyond the top hit on Google or Wikipedia. The second most common point of discussion was to turn this unfortunate and apparently comedic blunder into proof that public art is a de facto waste of taxpayer dollars.

I have to strongly disagree with the latter conclusion. I am quite critical of public art in Ottawa. It often seems timid and unassuming. Safe from criticism because it is safe from being noticed. As communal patrons of the arts, we should want to connect and interact with it rather than hide it or dismiss it as a waste.

So, what should we expect from public art?

Public art has great placemaking abilities. It is not just the artwork itself but the public space it occupies and activates. It can interrupt and bring life to the spaces we pass through everyday but might not otherwise notice. It serves as a landmark and gathering place, and it celebrates the city as a place that engenders and supports our imagination and creativity.

This recent wave of criticising public art that fails to engage the neighbourhood and its history is unfortunately symptomatic of a larger issue. I believe there is a genuine motivation to engage the local neighbourhood and its history but its execution falls flat when that engagement is revealed to be superficial or cursory.

Public art is most successful as a public event and collaborative process, not just as an object. The most basic level is public competitions and consultations. I’ve attended a few recent meetings through the City of Ottawa’s Public Art Program – both as an artist and a resident.

But in my experience, engagement is most immediately achieved and felt when the public is invited to participate in the creation and activation of the artwork.

As part of Bank Street Glow Fair last month, I partnered with a fabulous volunteer team of local artists and community organizers to host “Urbanism meets art,” a collaborative community mural project behind Somerset House.

We cleaned up the existing construction wall by painting out the grid of streets surrounding Somerset and Bank. We then offered paint and brushes to neighbours and passersby and invited them to paint their vision for the neighbourhood.

The project was initiated by Martin Canning’s New Ottawa campaign. As such, the mural was actually urbanism meets art meets municipal politics. Their natural meeting place is around community engagement and visions of the neighbourhood.

Rather than top-down representation, the project emerged through collaboration. First among the design team who brainstormed the idea and set it in motion. Next, by the 60 or so people who picked up a paintbrush during Glow Fair and made their mark. And finally by everyone who walks by and talks about it to a friend.

Part of what made the mural so successful was the obvious connection people felt to the site. The excitement everyone expressed about seeing someone finally doing something positive to improve the area was only amplified by the fact that they were invited to be part of the transformation.

It is a good lesson for art, urbanism and politics. Residents want to take ownership and pride in their neighbourhood. As an artist, planner, or policymaker, sometimes your role is to set the framework that invites the creativity and passion already present in neighbourhood to come forth and express itself. And then listen.

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