The $4 million cap may still appear to be a lot of funding, but consider that this is 1 percent or less of the total cost of the project. It seems as though this cut to public art funding is a way for the city to cover itself for ignoring its own policy. Calgary did not originally allocate a dime to public art for the 1.4 billion West LRT project, which was allowed to run 60 million over budget for a total cost of 1.46 billion. Eventually 3.5 million was found for public art, so the 4 million cap is very convenient. The West LRT line was open at the end of 2012, and now in June 2014 the public art portion of the project is beginning. Nenshi’s 2013 comment followed by a swift policy reaction certainly helped the city avoid responsibility for this public art oversight.
Including more members of the public (up to 3 from 1) in the selection committee for public art projects is not necessarily a bad thing. People should have a say in the way their community looks. But true art is controversial. Many new styles and ideas are not accepted at first by the general public. Acceptance of a piece of public art can, admittedly, take many years. Allowing people without any professional experience in the field to make decisions that will be visible for many years is questionable, and diminishes the role of professional artists.
To put this in a different context, most people would probably not want the city to solicit input from structural engineers when looking to create a healthy diet guideline. A structural engineer may be very healthy and follow an excellent diet, but maybe not. Either way, health is not her/his field of expertise. Likewise, a city may receive excellent critique of an art piece from a citizen with a different area of expertise, but it is not guaranteed and should not be expected.
What this adds up to is the fact that Calgary is now the sort of city that will say it wants quality arts and culture, while writing policy that will have the opposite effect. Nenshi had an opportunity to guide a respectful debate about public art in Calgary, but he failed to do so. He had an opportunity to elevate the people with insightful, well-informed information about - or critique of - Travelling Light, but he didn’t. He simply reacted by dismissing it as “awful.”