My quiet summer afternoons were interrupted by the series of angry letters in the local papers complaining about the decision to install a mobile sculpture as part of the new Innisfil Hydro building. I was hoping to see more than one published letter in support of art and this sculpture. When public meetings were held to discuss the design of the expanded Lakeshore library, now under construction, one of my suggestions was to make room in front of the building for a dramatic sculpture. New venue, same idea, so I guess I will have to take up the cause.
My first experiment was to consult the Oracle of Google. I typed in “public art waste of money” – about 40 million results. Then I typed, “public art benefit to community” – about 168 million results. Hmmm, 4 to 1 for the latter.
It seems that art is most often seen as a waste of money. That’s the impression from local letter writers: Are Hydro Art Supporters Living in a Bubble?, Hands Off Our Wallets, and Stop Wasting Money on Feel Good Projects. Lets have a look at what the letter writers have to say:
“People are being bombarded with unprecedented costs in every area — for gas, furnace oil, propane and now even increased hydro rates, thanks to the Liberal fiasco… this is a corporation providing a necessary commodity and its subscribers who can’t opt out are now being assessed an additional fee, which has nothing to do with the product or infrastructure itself and for which they did not consent.”
“Unfortunately, art is not a priority in my home, although I wish I could afford the pieces to adorn my walls. So, if I can’t afford my own pieces of art, why am I (and every Innisfil Hydro customer) paying for art that someone else chose to put in front of the new hydro building?”
“As an Innisfil hydro customer, I feel I pay enough for my hydro without tacking on another “tax” … I am wondering how much the second, third, fourth or ninth piece of art will cost the residents of Innisfil? And, will that “tax” be added to our hydro bills, our municipal tax bills or both? … I believe if this “tax” is allowed to go forward, this will just be the beginning of “open your wallets a little wider, we saw something else we just have to have.”
“Government should remember its role is to provide services. Period. It is not to tell us what to think, what to eat, what to believe or how to feel. Society and family can evolve on these issues, without do-gooder civil servants throwing away my money on trying to make themselves popular.Innisfil has almost no commercial tax base, yet it has visions of grandeur that are unaffordable and unnecessary.”
The negative response has politicians and bureaucrats running for cover. Originally, Hydro’s position was that “its cost is incorporated into the price of the land and the building, and will reflect the Inspiring Innisfil 2020 vision. “As with all our capital investments, the cost will be recovered through a rate component”. Now, the President of Innisfil Hydro says, “profits or ‘retained earnings’ which are put back into the utility “and the community” for capital costs such as the new headquarters will absorb the cost.”
I sympathize entirely with people’s anxiety over their financial position. After all, I’m making do with a modest pension. But I can’t accept their arguments:
Unnecessary; Feel good project; Government’s role is to provide services. Period.
Yeah, I guess we should never feel good. Especially about each other and our town. Frivolous. We should just move through life with a grey functional town without imagination, creativity, ornament or colour. In fact, why waste money on an architect. Maybe a grey concrete block box would have made a dandy hydro headquarters.
Can’t pay for my own art, why pay for someone elses?”
So the only legitimate art is private art for the well heeled? Art has no place in the public realm? Even for about $11 and change per household.
No one asked me; I didn’t consent
Design by committee is never a good idea. The Town of Innisfil did agree however on the strategy outlined in Inspiring Innisifl 2020, where promotion of arts and culture was a major focus. New art is inevitably controversial. Consider three pieces in Toronto – the Archer, the air force memorial on University Avenue and the statue of Churchill. All of them attracted negative comment and all of them are now iconically Toronto.
I pay enough for my hydro without tacking on another “tax”
Well, Innisfil Hydro is a private corporation, so it’s not a tax. (The Harris Conservatives decided that publicly-owned non-profit hydro wasn’t working well.) It is legally required to make a profit – from you. Profits are returned to the owners, nominally us, through the Town of Innisfil. Innisfil Hydro decided to allocate some of the current profit toward the purchase of the sculpture instead of tacking the cost on to its capital cost requirements. For most of us, this is an accounting technicality. Bottom line, we’re paying for, or have paid for, the sculpture directly or indirectly.
Government can’t tell us what to think, what to eat, what to believe or how to feel
This is the voice of government-hating, right-wing paranoia. We’re supposed to believe that all government is evil, wasteful or corrupt. In a democracy we are the government and our representatives make decisions by consensus. Government doesn’t “tell us” anything – most of us agree, most of the time. And, if not, we change the law or the government.
We aren’t alone in this controversy. A similar uproar emerged in Toronto over the larger expenditures associated with the installations at Sugar Beach. Heather Malik responded with, “In Defence of the Fancy Rocks of Sugar Beach”:
“Waterfront Toronto dreamt big… Even sad cities make an effort. They plant gardens on their old freeways, open bars in no-hope zones, plunk a zinnia in an old pot… [Toronto Councillor] Minnan-Wong would fight you on that. Give us private affluence and public squalor or give us death.”
I think we should reject the nay-sayers. We should confront this poverty of imagination and ambition. Let’s never give up aspiring, innovating and celebrating. At the same time I think the letter writers are expressing a genuine concern but are missing the real issue by a ‘country mile’. I’ll have more on that coming up.