Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Importance of Public Art

Recently I returned from Ottawa. Being in that city reinforced something for me that I had always believed in at some level. Cities should endeavour to make themselves engaging visual landscapes. I have long thought that we should return to the practice of erecting statues to honour important individuals and events in our communities.

In Ottawa I saw a number of public parks while I explored the city. Virtually every public space had a piece of art at its heart. My favourite example was Confederation Park. In the middle of the park is a memorial to Native soldiers and their contribution to Canada. It’s a beautiful monument. Surrounding it is verdant greenery and comfortable sitting.

Major’s Hill Park is simple, but I feel underlines the point. The park oversees the Rideau Canal as it spills into the Ottawa River, and Parliament Hill. Despite its wonderful view the park itself is quite simple. It has manicured lawns and narrow paths. Low bushes make each section a private and quiet. The focal point is a statue of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, who used to live on the grounds of the park and was critical in the founding of the city.

What really got me thinking about the importance of public art is when I walked from ByWard Market to the National Galley. Obviously I had art on the mind, but what struck me was the juxtaposition of the Gallery to the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. The Cathedral stands across from a gigantic sculpture in the shape of a spider. But what I realized was that the Cathedral itself was a piece of art. The ornate and glittering building was as much of a draw as any exhibition on the grounds of the Gallery.

I think we as Canadians need to take a greater interest and have more passion for our communities. Part of the way to get to that point is to be proud of where we come from. Part of building a sense of pride is finding beauty in your home. People who feel a connection tend to like where they leave, or even love it reflect it in the maintenance and improvement of their own homes, even when they are rentals.

Whenever discussions of public or community art are raised people object to the use of public moneys on these efforts. “This money could better be used for alleviating poverty,” or “public funds should not support the arts.” This might be right, maybe it is a middle-class conceit that I want to see our public spaces decorated with monuments celebrating our culture and history; a civic luxury.

Still – these pieces of art draw us to our public spaces and enrich our lives. I’m tired of parks with a jungle gym in the centre and big empty lawns sprinkled with trees. These parks dedicated in the name of a John Smith, with no indication of who he (or she) was and what he (or she) looked like. What if we give our local artists opportunities to have their sculptures placed in our open spaces, we could have the public consulted and competitions held. I would like to see the province or federal government create an endowment for the support of the capital costs for these projects.

I don’t know terribly too much about art, but I know how people react to it. We are drawn to it, and it engages our minds in reflection. It also creates a sense of community, and landmarks. It is something I think we should consider more seriously.

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