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todd hirsch

A ruckus over taxpayer funding of public art has recently broken out in Calgary's city hall. For years, the city has had a policy requiring 1 per cent of the cost of building projects to be dedicated to public art, including tax-funded municipal projects.

But at least one city councillor has suggested that the public art funding policy be relaxed. The city is bracing for another one of its famous economic downturns. Oil prices hover near a meagre $50 (U.S.) a barrel and announcements of layoffs are in the news. Calgary's unemployment rate is expected to rise from an enviable 4.5 per cent to something close to the national average. The councillor has called public art a "nice-to-have" but something that should be cut in difficult economic times.

This approach to public financing of art is not only short-sighted, it reveals little understanding of the point of having public art in the first place.

Public art is not like a scoop of vanilla ice cream that can be dropped down onto a piece of pie à la mode. Public art – if it is done properly – is a part of the entire design and intent of the project. It can't be an afterthought and simply tossed in front of a building when oil prices improve. If a politician thinks it can, he or she clearly doesn't grasp the intent of a public art policy.

As well, referring to public art as "nice-to-have" implies that it is unessential. Governments should do nothing that is unessential. So following this logic, governments should not fund public art in good economic times or in bad ones.

Tax dollars are always scarce. Calgary has just enjoyed four years of exceptionally strong economic growth. Its population has swelled to 1.4 million, property values have soared, and workers are the highest paid in the country. Never in the past four boom years has city hall not had to justify every penny it spends. Public finance requires constant scrutiny and civic engagement.

But if you argue that public art is unessential in bad times, you must also argue that it is unessential in good times, too. No voter should permit any spending to take place that is not purposeful and well executed. A good economy is no excuse for needless and wasteful government spending. So those who advocate cutting public financing of art during the downturns must come clean and admit that they believe public art is a waste of tax dollars. Full stop.

Reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate level of funding of public art. Zero funding of art is one position, but here's why that position is wrong.

The aesthetics of our cities and communities has never been more important than they are in the 21st century. We live in a globally connected world. The best and brightest citizens of the planet – those that Calgary needs to attract – can live and work and play in any city they wish. If Calgary's civic leaders want a utilitarian-looking city with no visual interest, they will end up with a city that can't attract or retain those citizens.

Public art isn't the optional scoop of vanilla ice cream on the apple pie. Ice cream is a nice option – but a great apple pie will stand on its own without it.

Rather, public art is the sweetness baked into the pie. It's the sugar in the recipe. True, it is possible to make a pie without sugar. You still need flour and shortening to form a crust (think roads and buses and infrastructure). You need apples or some other kind of filling (think residential communities and subdivisions). You have to bake it (municipal bylaws). You will indeed have a pie, but without sugar baked into it, no one would possibly want to eat it.

Public art is the essence – the sweetness! – of what makes a community a great place to live. It's not a question of spending priorities. And while some believe Calgary can't afford public art, the truth is that the city can't afford to not have it –especially during an economic downturn.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.