Calgary's Public Art Woes: Is Private Sector Investment the Cure?

In recent years, the City of Calgary’s public art policy has received intense scrutiny. This was especially the case during the installation of the Bowfort Towers sculpture. There are two central themes that continue to resurface around discussions of Calgary’s public art pieces: the cultural impact of the art installed, and its costs. Following the public art program controversy, in 2017, City Council voted to suspend and review it.

Still, it is important to recognize that Calgary has had successful public art projects. For example, ‘Wonderland’ (popularly referred to as the Bow Tower Head) has become a landmark in its own right. However, there are two things that separate Bowfort Towers from Wonderland: Wonderland is physically accessible to the public and was completely privately funded.

According to Americans For the Arts, a leading organization whose goal is the advancement of the arts,  public art

“is a distinguishing part of our public history and our evolving culture. It reflects and reveals our society, adds meaning to our cities and uniqueness to our communities. Public art humanizes the built environment and invigorates public spaces.”

Public art is important because it speaks to the culture and story of a place. The point of this post is not to question whether public art is a worthwhile investment, but rather, to question whether public art is a worthwhile investment for private industry.

Calgary’s Public Art Policy: Comparing Bowfort Towers and Wonderland

The City of Calgary funds public art projects by mandating that if over $1 million is spent on a City capital project (such as an interchange), one percent of the budget must be spent on public art.  According to the Policy, “if a capital project is planned for $3 million, $30,000 of that project will go to public art”. For projects of over $50 Million, the one percent policy applies on the first $50 million, with a 0.5 percent take on the rest, for a maximum budget of $4 Million.

Theoretically, this policy would ensure the creation of meaningful public art in heavy infrastructure spending areas – however, it has led to the installment of public art pieces on busy roads and highways. Part of the reason for this, is that some of the City’s largest expenditures are on transportation projects. For example, the Bowfort Towers installation is located on a stretch of Highway 1, where it is passed by motorists travelling at least 60km/hr. There is no road stop that makes the piece accessible by foot traffic either. The price tag of Bowfort Towers raised eyebrows, as well – ringing in at roughly $500,000.

Photo credit:  @GiantBlueRing

Photo credit: @GiantBlueRing

In contrast, Wonderland (commonly known as the Bow Tower Head), is one of the most successful pieces of public art in Calgary. Unlike Bowfort Towers, two private companies, Encana and Cenovus, funded Wonderland completely. Located in front of the Bow Tower and at the centre of downtown, the installation is a block away from the nearest C-Train platform, and is accessible to motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. The piece has become a landmark in its own right: it is common to see people admiring and taking pictures of the sculpture throughout the day.

Should Private Industry Invest in Public Art?

When comparing the relative successes of Wonderland to Bowfort Towers, one must consider whether private investment is the answer to Calgary’s public art problem. There is evidence to suggest that the relationship is mutually beneficial: that is, that private industry may actually benefit by investing in public art. For example, Millennium Park, in Chicago, which is known for its public art installations and open air galleries, is estimated to have had a $1.4 Billion dollar economic impact, spurring investment in nearby real estate. On a much smaller scale, this article cites a study which suggests that the addition of murals can actually drive up the property value of a building.

Another contemporary example of successful public art leading to positive economic benefits are the Wynwood Walls, in Miami. As reported in The Globe and Mail last year, a private developer purchased property and remodelled it to include public art installations. Neighbouring businesses followed suit; soon, spaces that sold for $40 per square foot sold for over $400. This could be taken as evidence that public art can increase a location’s desirability, driving up real estate demand and market value.

Together, these examples demonstrate that meaningful and accessible public art can actually drive up property value and attract admirers. From a private investment perspective, it is can be worthwhile to fund art installations simply to derive economic benefit.

As the City of Calgary prepares to review its public art policy, those drafting the policy ought to consider how to encourage private industry to invest in accessible public art.

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