The Art of Public Art

It seems that any time someone tries to do anything new and innovative in Innisfil, it’s a bit like the “Running of the Bulls” – there’s a strong probability that you’ll get gored! Fellow blogger and former political candidate, Darren Durham, has been writing about Jig Rig, the sculpture being installed at InnPower’s new headquarters:

Innisfil Hydro Sculpture Altered, Darren Durham

I’ve written a couple of times vigorously defending the public art initiative so it’s best that you read his critical piece (link above). He makes some valid points and gets full marks for getting residents all riled up about ‘bureaucrats’. But seems to me, he totally misses the mark in (a) identifying what possibly went wrong, and (b) how we might fix ‘it’. Mr. Durham says he’s not against art and I believe him. So what exactly are people against? Who’s responsible? Where did they go wrong? How can we avoid controversy in the future?

But first, I’d like to give the previous Council a ‘thumbs up’ for supporting the public art concept consistent with the cultural goals of the Inspiring Innisfil strategy, and InnPower for initiating this first project. I would welcome more works of art in other locations like libraries, recreation centres, Town Hall, schools or parks and other places where we gather as a community. I think it deserves to be just as much a priority as all the other things we spend our money on. Timing and budgets are a matter of discussion and compromise.

As usual, a big culprit in the current situation is poor communication. The Innisfil Arts, Culture and Heritage Council (ACHC) missed an opportunity to engage the public in the review process. In retrospect, it might have been appropriate to unveil all 8 of the sculpture design entries at an open event and invite public comment. It would have given the ACHC a more prominent public profile, an opportunity to advocate for their vision of arts and culture in the community and lead to an initial discussion, directed to InnPower as the sponsor, of the related costs and funding.

I’ve heard it said that InnPower bungled the tendering process by announcing up front how much was budgeted ($125,000), with the result that all the proposals came in at or near the full amount. On the other hand you don’t want to go through this process and receive design proposals that cost twice as much as the intended budget. Could this Request for Proposals have been handled better? InnPower also made an incomprehensible gaffe by releasing a “Fact Sheet” which stated that “Innisfil Hydro is donating the Town’s first piece of public art on the Town’s Administrative Campus” in their role as “a good corporate citizen”. The same “Fact Sheet” went on to say that the cost would be recovered from customers through a rate application to the Ontario Energy Board! This position was retracted in a public letter a short time later. But the enormous damage was done. Was Council and/or the ACHC under the impression that the sculpture was a donation? Were they misled or were the residents?

I get it that $125,000 is a lot of money but in the context of a $12 million capital project, it’s not the moon either. I don’t know what a kinetic, illuminated sculpture might be worth. But I have seen artist, Ron Baird’s, work around Bradford and Barrie. He is a talented combination of engineer, craftsman and artist. His ‘butterfly’ sculpture in Bradford is endlessly fascinating and Barrie’s Spirit Catcher is a local icon. I’d like to reserve judgment until I can see Jig Rig fully assembled, in motion and illuminated. On the face of it, it seems appropriately mechanical and industrial-looking for a hydro Operations Centre.

That leaves the question of who was responsible for the contract. Was the ACHC or InnPower fully informed and aware of the option for significant revisions to the original sculpture proposal? Were any wind studies done, or data requested before Mr. Baird submitted his proposal? Or before the work was commissioned?

Finally, where were Town staff in all of this as our day-to-day managers of Town projects? How well were they coordinating and communicating this process with Council, ACHC and InnPower? Considering how regularly various previous projects and proposals have ploughed head-on into public opinion ‘speed bumps’ over the years, how much more will it take for our senior staff to exercise some foresight? It should be pretty clear by now that residents want to be informed and involved.

My score so far:

  • 2 thumbs down to ACHC for poor communication and public relations
  • 3 thumbs down to our Town staff as a key player in coordinating and communicating with Council, ACHC and InnPower.
  • 4 thumbs down to InnPower for being a good corporate Grinch, a poor communicator, appalling public relations, and questionable project management
  • One thumbs down to the sculptor – sorry, probably not your best work and disappointing in comparison to the original proposal

I don’t see much value in promoting controversy without going a step further to look for some causes and remedies. Mr. Durham’s critique might be useful if it inspired more residents to get involved in municipal affairs. But the awful voter turnout in the last election suggests that’s not happening. As far as this controversy is concerned, let’s get on with fixing what can be fixed. We’ve got bigger fish to fry!

One thought on “The Art of Public Art

  1. Let me weigh in on a this topic to add a little more perspective as a local media representative. I agree with elements in both Darren’s article and yours and the story of the changed design of the sculpture first appeared in mainstream press in the newspaper the Innisfil Journal. All three articles have missed a key “political” element of the story which is one mayoral’s platform was highly tied to the “arts” and the sculpture. No one should be naive to believe that had the news story of a “bungled” sculpture design come out prior to the election date of October 27th, the former mayor would have probably suffered an even greater loss at the municipal polls then she did. The new council should be asking senior town staff why this concern of the artist, The ARTs council and senior town staff was not raised during the key election time period. In addition the former mayor’s breach of the “code of conduct” for misuse of town logos and the subsequent “Integrity Commissioner’s Report” also did not see wide spread public scrutiny until well after the election date only coming to council on November 12th, 2014 on the same night at council an elaborate “Appreciation” event was orchestrated for the outgoing council of 2010-2014.
    Finally lets ask the other outstanding very important questions of the re-elected council members on what date did they know the Hydro Corporation was purchasing a sculpture with the public’s funds and did they approve or not? and on what date did those re-elected council members know about the design flaw and subsequent changes in design to the sculpture. Why senior town administration did not inform the council and the public is the question on everyone’s mind.

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