City, arts council reviewing lack of clarity around Percent for Art program

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring
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A municipal policy to fund and install public art alongside select infrastructure projects doesn't provide clear guidelines to the officials who determine which projects make the cut.

That may change soon, because the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC) are conducting a review of the Percent for Art policy, which allocates 1% of eligible construction projects' budgets towards new public art installations.

Jenna Turner, the EAC's communications director, told Taproot in an emailed statement that the review includes potential changes to more clearly outline how projects are deemed to be eligible, and to ensure "art is installed where it has better exposure to residents and alignment with strategic city plans and initiatives."

The EAC hopes to present its proposed changes and additions to city council this fall.

Edmonton adopted the Percent for Art program in 1991 with the goal of increasing the amount of public art in the city, but what types of projects are included in the program has changed several times since its inception.

While it's not clear what types of projects were initially eligible for the program, in 2007 the policy was revised to extend it to construction or renovation projects on bridges, streetscapes, parks, and all public buildings. A cap limiting the amount of a project's budget that could be allocated for art to $100,000 was also removed.

In 2010, the last time the policy was revised, eligibility was redefined to include any publicly accessible infrastructure that is deemed to be "highly visible" — meaning it can be observed by the public for a minimum of four hours on a typical day. For example, new LRT stations would get new public art under the program, but LRT tunnels would not.

But in practice, publicly accessible infrastructure projects have been deemed ineligible for other reasons.

No public art will be put up around the Groat Road Bridge, even though a renewal project on the bridge is nearly finished. Jason Meliefste, the city's branch manager of infrastructure delivery, told Taproot's Speaking Municipally that it was exempted from the policy because of the type of construction being done.

"This project came about as a renewal and a lifecycle maintenance project," he said. "The Percent for Art policy was derived with a focus towards some of our growth projects."

The EAC also told Speaking Municipally that another consideration is whether the area is regularly visited by pedestrians, and said the Groat Road Bridge is primarily used by drivers.

The Groat Road Bridge. Renewal of the Groat Road Bridge began in 2018, and fully reopened to traffic last November, along with a widened mixed-use path. (City of Edmonton)

In contrast, the Talus Dome was installed as part of the Percent for Art program, applied to a Quesnell Bridge renovation in 2011 that added one lane of traffic in either direction. Both the Quesnell Bridge and the Groat Road Bridge have pedestrian paths alongside the roadways.

The criteria regarding the type of construction and the amount of growth are not made explicit in the policy document, so it can be difficult to determine which construction projects could include new public art installations.

Meliefste agreed that there could be more clarity around how the policy is applied and what its objectives are.

"If we had something more definitive and clear in terms of advice and guidance from council in a policy update, that would be helpful," he said.

In 2015, the policy underwent another review, and a set of changes were recommended to city council in 2017. The second recommended change was to include a "better definition of what projects qualify and how the percent for art is calculated."

These recommendations were never implemented. Turner said they were deferred to allow the city to complete changes to its arts and culture plan, Connections and Exchanges, and the City Plan, which were finalized in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

The current policy review is still being drafted, and the details are not finalized, but Turner said that the EAC is looking into addressing the lack of clarity around project eligibility.

"As part of the policy review, we will develop a program manual for EAC and city administration, that expands on the procedures in implementing the policy," she said.