Collectively these pieces of art contribute to the life of the community and have met with little controversy or criticism. There are, however, two notorious pieces which continue to provoke bewilderment if not the ire of Calgarians. The Big Blue Ring and the more recently installed Bowfort Towers have been the most controversial of the installations and it is probably not a coincidence that these two pieces were installed near new highway construction. The scale and complexity of pieces in such large spaces is going to be far more problematic than pieces located in more walkable areas of the city where the interaction with the art can be more casual, intimate and less time-sensitive. The larger scale art along the highways needs to be bold (or blatant) rather than nuanced, at least in visual complexity. Factor in the significant budgets for both installations -- which has amounted to $470,000 and $500,000, respectively, -- and you have projects that are going to provoke criticism.
Drivers, the notorious lot that they are, are difficult to satisfy. If they are asked how their drive is, there is rare mention of a pleasant or mind-clearing drive. You know, the wide open roads of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Cabot Trail did not emerge during their tedious, tree-lined trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back. If they happen to have the opportunity to drive the Icefields Parkway, they will complain about getting stuck behind some acrophobic driver from Saskatchewan who was terrified of the heights during the drive, overlooking the chance that said tourist might be soaking in the sights. A driver wants nothing more than to get from point A to point B with the minimum hassle and fuss and the lowest risk possible of getting caught by photo radar. They will happily screech to a halt at the first fluorescent or neon beacon offering burgers, donuts, soda and or coffee no matter how little of the drive is left, but they want to be alone and have the road to themselves.
It is disappointing that the expense of the art gets the ridicule that it does but the investment in the highway infrastructure is regarded as a requirement, even though research shows again and again, even in Calgary, that such spending on cars and highway infrastructure is futile.
Part of the problem with these public art projects is that regardless of where the funding is coming from, they are projects that are ultimately regarded as private space by those who use them. These highway projects raise the expectation, wrongly, that they will ease congestion for people travelling in these parts of the city and fail to do so. In the face of that failure, drivers' sense of entitlement regarding the roads they drive on escalates. The City of Calgary's policy regarding public art ought to maintained rather than suspended and reviewed. The issue with the Big Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers is the disconnect that is evident when trying to put public art into a space that people want to regard as private. The aesthetics and budget for the art aside, the main provocation may be the assertion that this highway infrastructure is not a simple slab of concrete and asphalt than appeared pricelessly from the heavens but the reminder that it is ultimately a public space. Installing art in these areas, despite the controversy, has been a noble effort to assert that these spaces are, indeed, public.
If the suspension of Calgary's current public art policy prompts a retreat from adding the public enhancements that have helped beautify and revitalize the city as it has over the decade or so since the policy was introduced, it would be a significant failure of will and sound thinking at City Hall.