The lens through which Cochrane Town council is viewing a looming decision over publicly funded art is ringed in blue.
Council members have clearly seen the controversy surrounding the notorious piece of Calgary artwork known variously by detractors as the ‘Big Blue Ring,’ or the ‘Ring of Ire’, and they know there is public sensitivity to taxpayers’ dollars funding works of art.
The first step in a long and somewhat complicated process was taken last Monday, as Town council gave the go-ahead to administration for the creation of an art task force at the June 20 Committee of the Whole meeting.
“Public art installations scare me,” admitted Mayor Jeff Genung during the meeting. He said implementing the task force is the way to go, as it will engage the public in the selection process.
“When I say it scares me, I mean it’s a subjective thing. I mean the big blue circle in Calgary – everybody knows what I’m talking about,” he said, to murmurs around the table.
He said everybody drives by it and noted that some like it, but for others, it has become a point of criticism for Calgary.
He asked Director of Community Services Mitchell Hamm if they’d considered what it might mean for the Town of Cochrane to “wade into” the issue. Hamm answered the mayor with an assurance of due diligence.
“We are not going to find ourselves in a blue ring scenario,” Hamm said.
Genung said although choosing public art might be fraught with political peril, he remains optimistic.
“Nothing really meaningful comes from easy decisions, usually, so I hope that at the other end of this, we’re getting unbelievable submissions from people that have captured something that we had no idea we were capable of,” he said. “That’s the hope, right?” he asked.
Much of the remaining discussion revolved around broad expectations of what the theme of Cochrane’s public art might be and who the members of the task force should be, both of which will be questions that will be put to the new task force once it’s chosen.
Council and the public will be kept in the loop all along the path to making any final decisions.
The Town is the recipient of $750,000 in federal funding through the Canada Community Revitalization Fund (CCRF) – $525,000 of which has been allotted for art installation at the Station at Cochrane Crossing Plaza, scheduled to open later this summer.
When the 17-metre diameter, $471,000 blue ring – officially called Travelling Light – was unveiled on Country Hills Boulevard near the Calgary International Airport in 2013, it surprised some people and irked many others.
Local media dubbed it “The Big Owe” and trashed it.
“Now, I don’t like it, but sometimes art is divisive,” said then-mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was not in power when the decision to build the ring was made.
Just in time for the municipal election that year, the ring became a yardstick for taxpayer frustration, with callers to talk shows calling it “boring” and “ugly” among other names.
In February 2015, Calgary Coun. Peter Demong brought forward a proposal to suspend the policy of the City allocating one per cent of capital budgets for new projects towards artwork, as a way to show fiscal responsibility in times of economic stress. That motion was voted down, 5-9.
Cochrane council seemed reassured Monday evening as they noted that the future artwork wouldn’t be funded out of the Town budget, but was coming from a federal grant. But that might be blurry political vision, as one of the guiding principles of politics is that there is only one taxpayer. So council is right to be nervous.
They will be making the final decision on approving what artwork the task force recommends, and one member of council will be attached to the process as it proceeds.
The task force is intended to be an impartial advisory body to council and administration. Key tasks will include the review of a call for submissions for the art installation at the Plaza, reviewing submissions received for eligibility, and providing recommendations on successful proponent(s).
The total funding from the CCRF – the $750,000 – allows for commissioned artwork and displays celebrating the community’s diversity, free public Wi-Fi throughout the site, colour controllable ambient lighting in multiple locations, additional built-in seating, and secure bike lockers.
With the consensus direction from council last Monday, a revision to the procedural bylaw will now come forward to allow for council to create the task force. If formally approved at a future council meeting, the opportunity to take part in the task force will be advertised locally, with the goal of approving appointments by July.
Seeing their way clearly through the political obstacle course may be akin to a paintball game for council, as it promises to be, at the very least, colourful.