Sage MacGillivray is a project manager who has worked on numerous public and private art commissions in Western Canada. She currently works with David Robinson and contributed to the Windward Calm installation.
The controversy surrounding Spinning Chandelier, by B.C. artist Rodney Graham, is enough to make one’s head spin. Installed in November under Vancouver’s Granville Street Bridge at a cost of $4.8-million, the opulent sculpture hangs and spins above a space that typically offers refuge for homeless people – in a city facing a housing crisis driven by massive income disparity.
Criticism of the project has been fierce and has fallen upon the artist, property developer Westbank Corp., which funded the artwork, and our public art policy itself. These conversations raise urgent issues and will hopefully spark positive change for the future of art in our community. But these denigrations can demoralize and divide. Sometimes, change is better galvanized by example. Fortunately, we need not look far for an uplifting success story in the here and now.
Windward Calm is a suspended kinetic sculpture in the Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre at Vancouver General Hospital. Like Mr. Graham’s piece, Windward Calm required intensive engineering and custom-designed mechanics to achieve its kinetic motion. The sculptures are also similar in scale. But from conception to funding to production to impact, these artworks differ in the respect they show their community.
The inspiration for Windward Calm came to sculptor David Robinson as he recovered from open-heart surgery at the Diamond Centre cardiac rehabilitation unit. Surrounded by waiting patients, he recognized his own vulnerability in the people around him – a collective audience in turmoil, looking out over the vast empty space of the seven-storey atrium. The right artwork can help a viewer process and integrate their difficult feelings and experiences, and studies have shown that art can hasten the healing process. Surveying the void beyond the glass, Mr. Robinson saw the potential for just such an artwork.
Every day, thousands of people pass through Windward Calm’s atrium, but the sculpture was not funded through a public art program. Funding for the piece was donated by philanthropists Gordon and Leslie Diamond, which allowed the VGH+UBC Hospital Foundation to commission the artwork. As such, it’s akin to the many privately donated artworks in the foundation’s collection. To maximize the impact of the funding, Mr. Robinson donated his own hours to the project.
As a project manager for public art projects, I’ve seen policy applied in various ways. Another one of Mr. Robinson’s projects – Reflections on the River, for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – was groundbreaking in its dedication to thorough community consultation on both siting and art selection. The project was recognized at this year’s Creative City Summit as one of Canada’s best public art projects of 2018.
I believe that the “Percent for Public Art” model, which requires developers to commission artworks or provide cash-in-lieu to the city’s public art fund, has good bones. But developers are allowed to game the system. For Spinning Chandelier, Westbank bundled three additional development contributions to cover cost overruns on Mr. Graham’s piece – potentially depriving the community of three other artworks. And by allowing the developer to secure “on site” status for an off-site installation on public property, the city is setting the stage for more public art to be curated by developers whose selections are self-serving – and, like the chandelier, might be alienating to the community. The philanthropic model is not immune to self-interest but, without the city-developer quid pro quo, it’s far less vulnerable to corruption. Such contributions, in addition to a well-applied public art program, can enrich our cultural landscape immeasurably.
The imagery of Spinning Chandelier, its funding and its placement all highlight the disparity that defines so much of Vancouver today. In contrast, those who funded and produced Windward Calm aim to give back.
It is this impact that sets these two artworks so far apart. Mr. Robinson frequently receives letters of gratitude from patients who have been comforted and inspired by his artwork. They often write of the peace and empowerment they feel and the sense that they are no longer alone. Defenders of Spinning Chandelier argue that the ironic nature of Mr. Graham’s piece gives it social value. But irony elevates ideas above people, whereas Windward Calm comes from a place of deep respect for those who encounter it.
These debates around art and policy are critical to community well-being. Mr. Graham has reflected on the controversy surrounding his work: "I’ve thought about these things more, too, and it’s probably not something … that I would initiate right now,” he said. As the conversation continues, let’s give some thought to what kind of artwork can speak to our community – meaningfully, respectfully – and what kinds of programs can best support the creation of that art. And just as we critique the projects that have fallen short, let’s celebrate the vision, integrity and achievements of the ones that succeed.
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