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A Call for More Public Art | Ramy Nassar

A Call for More Public Art

This editorial originally appeared in The Record on May 2, 2011. You can see the original article (and responses) here. A follow-up article was also written in the Record on May 27, 2011 here.

I recently overheard a passionate conversation at a local coffee shop about the lack of public art in and around Waterloo Region. As these two people went on about why there should be more public art, and all the benefits our community is missing out on, I began to reflect on it.

Both Kitchener and Waterloo have formal public art initiatives, with 27 and 16 pieces in the respective programs. With a little more research I was pleased to discover that we have a larger and more diverse public art program than many other Canadian communities our size. So what’s the problem?

The challenge we face is that our public art is not well enough recognized nor celebrated. During a weekend in Chicago I saw the impact that well-thought-out public art can have on a city and a community. One of the cornerstones of Chicago’s public art program is a piece called Cloud Gate, better known as The Bean, a sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park. The piece was privately funded and the total budget surpassed $23 million. Standing over 10 metres tall and made of 168 reflective steel plates in the shape of a giant bean, it encourages viewers to explore and interact with its funhouse-like mirrors.

What I found exciting about Cloud Gate was just how many people it drew in. There was a crowd of at least 200 people at any time surrounding and exploring this majestic work of art. I took the opportunity to speak to a few individuals and was surprised to find that only about half of the people were tourists. Many Chicago residents regularly visited the park to see The Bean with friends and family.

Waterloo Region won’t be home to any $20 million sculptures anytime soon, however there is no reason we can’t have public art that challenges people and brings individuals and families into shared spaces to experience such art. What’s needed is more education and awareness of the public art currently on exhibit in the region.

Bringing artists and curators into public spaces — not just at the initial unveiling of a piece — to talk about the piece and how it fits in with the space would allow individuals to understand and hopefully appreciate it. The magic of art to me is that whether I personally like a certain work or not, if I learn about why or how it was created, it gives me a sense of appreciation. Placards placed nearby or availability of small brochures or flyers explaining the work would help individuals gain that same feeling.

The current exhibit at the Clay and Glass in Uptown Waterloo is a great example of art that is well-explained. Each piece of the exhibit is accompanied by a single paragraph description explaining the artist’s vision and inspiration. These short paragraphs make the art more accessible and help challenge the viewer to experience the piece as the artist intended.

Public art has the potential to bring communities together, challenge the viewer and stimulate local business. By celebrating the art we have now we open the doors to continued investment, both public and private, in public art. This commitment will build the foundation for a sustainable and vibrant art community.