Make way for public art in Montréal!

Text signed by Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director, Héritage Montréal; Michel Leblanc, President and CEO, Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal; Alexandre Taillefer, Managing Partner, XPND Capital, and published in The Gazette and Le Devoir.

January 31, 2013

Make way for public art in Montréal!

We are seeing a general consciousness raising about the importance of public art in our city, something that is long overdue.

In spite of decades of private and public investment by citizens, institutions, businesses, the Ville de Montréal and governments, as a city we have been rather miserly when it comes to appreciating and developing public art and acquiring new works that reflect our stature as a city of culture.

What is even more paradoxical is that our two-centuries-old heritage of public art is testimony to Montréal’s long history of efforts in this area. Just think back to the first International Sculpture Symposium in North America on the mountain in 1964, the works of Pellan and Moore proudly integrated to downtown real estate projects and the profusion of public art associated with Expo 67 and the construction of the metro. We have become a city of creators, eager for cultural expression in the public space. And yet, we have very few works that, like Chicago’s Cloud Gate, help the city define its identity and make its mark by engaging with citizens and visitors.

The current interest in public art opens up three areas of pursuit. The first is maintaining existing works by urgently putting in place a fund and recurrent financing to support managers and owners – private and public – whose resources are unfortunately lacking.

The second is thinking about how to promote some of our iconic works, such as Calder’s piece from Expo 67, the CIBC’s Moore, the Roussil near Silo no. 5 and Charles Daudelin’s Agora.

The third, and most foundational in the long term, is taking advantage of growing private sector interest in investing in public art. As early as 2008, the Ville de Montréal was encouraging large companies to reserve up to 10% of private project budgets for acquiring noteworthy works of art. Tough economic times slowed these efforts down, but it’s time we revived them.

Enrich and promote Montréal
Downtown and in neighbourhoods around the city, public art helps make us more “Montréal,” in part by generating debate, like that surrounding showcasing Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Joute, now set in a space skillfully created for it. Developing public art will require signposts to guide decisions. To this end, we propose the following five principles and encourage authorities, businesses, artists and other drivers of urban development to adopt them.

First, identity: public art participates in the public space and contributes to the cultural and creative dimension of the urban fabric by providing new meaning. Artworks, their location and their relationship with the existing or evolving urban environment must contribute to the urban nature of their living environment.

Second, accessibility: public art is, by definition, public. It must be visually and physically accessible to bring citizens face to face with the work. So it is essential to provide and improve access by installing, drawing attention to and maintaining works through the quality of their settings and by encouraging the public to enjoy them.

Third, urbanity: public art participates in the collective space through the meaning it offers. The relevance and quality of public art interventions in the public, institutional and private sphere as well as their reflection of the urban context are fundamental to making a true contribution to urbanity.

Fourth, durability: public art must be a sustainable urban project. We need to move beyond mere words and have real financial resources to enrich, maintain and showcase our heritage, respecting the integrity of the works. There can be no public, private or community investment in public art without a maintenance program complete with appropriate budget and expertise.

Fifth, community: public art participates in community life. For generations, it has been the result of community mobilization through citizen subscriptions, generous acts of patronage and government programs that, just like the artists, deserve community recognition.

The strategy for developing Montréal into a veritable international cultural city requires significant, ongoing investment in public art. We need to remember this collective commitment and encourage public authorities, institutions, businesses and patrons to apply these principles to fulfill our commitment.

We have to treat our rich heritage of public works of art with dignity and celebrate them, and, to this end, think and consult about how to take much-needed and inspiring action. Beyond being merely a witness with evocative power, this heritage challenges us to give concrete expression to ¯ along with artists and the spirit of the place that is Montréal ¯ our ambitions as a vibrant cultural city.

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