Red Deer city council quadrupled the size of municipal projects that would trigger the one-per-cent budget spending on public art — raising the threshold from $250,000 to $1 million.
But most councillors refused to takeover decision-making authority on public art installations from the public art commission.
This last suggestion was floated by Coun. Vesna Higham, who mentioned two controversial Calgary public artworks that were largely derided by taxpayers as a waste of money. One of them was a large metal hoop, costing $400,000.
Higham said she didn’t feel right allowing non-elected officials on a commission to have the authority to spend taxpayer money. People elect city council for that purpose, added Higham, who wanted an art committee to make recommendations to council, who would have final authority.
But other councillors refused to wade into the thorny area of second-guessing what a group made up of art experts, as well as general citizens, decides.
Coun. Tanya Handley said art is subjective. Contradicting a committee’s opinion would not only be awkward but would indicate little respect for the group members’ time or expertise, she added.
Three years ago, council decided to upgrade a former art committee to the present art commission specifically to give it the authority to adjudicate art without having to get council’s approval.
Two un-elected citizens are appointed to serve on the Municipal Planning Commission, entrusted with making major development decisions — so why not trust un-elected citizens with the selection of public art, a councillor noted.
Coun. Lawrence Lee said having an art selection commission has worked well, with few people taking issue with installations such as the bronze statues of young hockey players and a referee in front of Servus Arena. “We have to trust in the process.”
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes did not favour raising the threshold for when one per cent of a municipal construction project’s budget would need to be put aside for public art. It used to be when projects hit $250,000. Administration had recommended this be raised to $500,000.
But most councillors eventually voted to raise the threshold to $1 million after hearing that only once in the last decade had a project worth less than $1 million triggered a public art component.
While the regional economic slump was one rationalization given for this change, Lee also reasoned that a certain amount of money would be needed to pay the artist for a quality artwork that was substantive and meaningful.
Wyntjes believes that public art adds so much to a community’s public spaces that it’s one of the most important legacies for any city council.