Skip to content

Public art projects don’t belong with taxpayers

Non-profit world should approach the public about art, not government

Regular readers of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer will have noticed an article recently printed regarding a City of Wetaskiwin idea to move excess capital project funds into an account to fund public art projects.

I think this is a mistake and I’ll tell you why.

Predominantly, Wetaskiwin doesn’t appear to be a wealthy city, flush with tax revenue it doesn’t know how to spend. Municipalities with tight budgets must make every tax dollar count, and when projects like road and sidewalk upgrades loom, setting aside tax revenue for public pianos certainly appears to the average taxpayer as a mistake.

Public art is a dangerous arena for elected officials and public servants to tread, and that’s because art is as subjective as music. Everyone has their own opinion of what is art, and what isn’t. A city councilor may call something “art,” while the majority of residents may think the same thing belongs in a landfill. Some of the federal government’s forays into public art come to mind, where millions of dollars were spent on a canvas painted red, and then someone hung a tag on it that said “Art.” A five year old kindergarten kid can paint a page red and call it art. Monkeys and donkeys have painted canvases in the past and critics called it art.

The hollowness of art criticism can easily be proven simply by looking at famous hoaxes carried out in the past. One of my favourites is the “Disumbrationist School of Art.” In 1924 a California man named Paul Smith was angry his wife’s art was panned and dismissed by critics, so he, with no art talent at all, created the phony identity of “Pavel Jordanowitch,” an adept of the “Disumbrationist School of Art,” and made several childish paintings of south-Pacific islanders and entered them into exhibitions with, of course, phony backstories. After said painting was exhibited in New York, a French art magazine contacted him, wanting more information about Pavel, all of which was printed in the next edition to rave reviews.

As The Museum of Hoaxes succinctly summarized, “When Smith revealed the hoax to the LA Times in 1927, he argued that it showed that the art currently in fashion was ‘poppycock’ promoted by critics who knew very little about art.”

It behooves elected officials to leave public art projects to the non-profit world; the everyday residents can then decide whether or not to support a project based on his or her opinion of what represents art.

A good example of this was the announcement last week from an Edmonton community group that a proposed downtown creative arts project, estimated at a value of about $850 million (yes, almost $1 billion) wouldn’t go ahead because the organizers couldn’t secure funding. The project was supposed to include theatres, dressing rooms and rehearsal areas for disciplines such as opera. Although many people thought the project was a great idea, the public passed on supporting it with their money. Edmonton has a lot of problems (sprawl, urban decay, murders, gridlock and bad drainage all come to mind), and if the community has $850 million to spare, it could do a lot of good elsewhere.

Lastly, the City of Wetaskiwin recently decided to terminate its membership in the Joint Economic Development Initiative, because, as elected officials stated on the record, tax dollars were sent to JEDI but the city felt it wasn’t getting enough return on investment.

Fair enough, but then the City of Wetaskiwin’s elected officials will have to prove to voters the return on investment from, for example, public pianos.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.