Kids climb on it, babies are placed in its arms, it has been the subject of countless photographs. The 14 painted bronze figures of Yue Minjun's A-maze-ing Laughter have become beloved residents of the city – to the point where the public art work graces the cover of a Vancouver street map.
But for months, its future here has been in danger, the threat of its departure very real after Vancouver Biennale organizers failed to find a buyer for the work at the $5-million asking price.
Now, moved by those many snapshots, the Beijing-based artist has made the extraordinary decision to drop the price to $1.5-million on the condition that the work remains on public display.
"We've been trying very, very hard to figure out how to keep this sculpture in Vancouver," said Miriam Blume of the Vancouver Biennale. "So the artist has very, very kindly agreed after much pleading and after [showing him]many, many pictures of how much Vancouver loves this sculpture ... to a huge price reduction."
The work was installed in Morton Park by English Bay about two-and-a-half years ago as part of the Biennale, a privately-run, non-profit event in which sculptures are installed around the Lower Mainland for two to two-and-a-half years and then sold. (During those two years, the Biennale retains the exclusive right to sell the works, which are still owned by the artist. Once they're sold, proceeds are divided according to a contract.)
The work quickly became a tourist magnet, and locals made it a venue for performance art, concerts and even nuptials. One Christmas, neighbours woke up to giant Santa caps on the figures' heads.
But at $5-million, the work wasn't selling. "We certainly didn't get any [local]inquiries," Ms. Blume said. "I think it was a bit daunting for a local buyer."
Biennale president Barrie Mowatt spoke a few months ago about some interest from developers in Calgary (where another well-known Vancouver Biennale work, Dennis Oppenheim's Device to Root Out Evil, now resides), but a purchase didn't eventuate.
So A-maze-ing Laughter was due to be dismantled; the agreement with Mr. Yue ended Dec. 31, 2011. During a recent meeting with Mr. Mowatt in Beijing, Mr. Yue agreed to allow the sculpture to stay until the end of August, 2012.
Mr. Mowatt also asked Mr. Yue to consider a price reduction. According to Ms. Blume, the photos of people interacting with the work, "just being in love with this sculpture" sealed the deal.
Mr. Mowatt has agreed not to entertain offers that would move the work from Vancouver unless it does not sell locally by the end of August.
Next week, the Biennale will go before the Vancouver Park Board to discuss keeping the work at its current site, assuming the funds can be raised. Ms. Blume will also seek permission from the Park Board to solicit funding for the work on-site.
Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal, council's liaison to the public art committee, points out that the land where the installation sits has been designated for rotating works of art, and that for the work to become permanent, a curatorial process must be followed, meaning that officials must decide it belongs there.
"It's an amazing development. I love the piece, but with permanent art we take a serious approach, which makes it curatorial. It's not always a popularity contest."
Still, she said the city should "absolutely" look at it.
"It is a very popular piece. I know that people would love to see it stay there."
Funding is a different story. The Biennale plans to ask the city for money, but Ms. Deal called that "unlikely".
"I can't say no to it because there's a process, but that process is designed for a different scale of work. ... We have a very small public art budget."
The 2012-2014 capital budget allots $250,000 for new public art.
The Biennale's fundraising campaign will also target other levels of government, wealthy philanthropists, and even citizens who may be able to donate a few bucks.
"If I had a dollar for every photograph that's been taken," Ms. Blume said, "we'd own it."