Revised Percent for Art program would separate public art funding from capital projects

· The Pulse
By Andy Trussler
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A proposed revision of the city's Percent for Art program could detach funding for future public art installations from infrastructure projects if approved by city council, in addition to establishing a public art reserve and changing the program's name to the Public Art to Enhance Edmonton's Public Realm policy. Council's executive committee reviewed the changes on Aug. 9 and recommended they be approved at council on Aug. 16.

"We can look at the city as if it is a giant art gallery and every section of the city is a room within the gallery that can be programmed," said David Turnbull, the director of public art and conservation for the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC).

The Percent for Art policy was established in 1991 to allocate 1% of eligible construction projects' budgets towards new public art installations, like Trio (2015), Vaulted Willow (2014), and Essential Tree (2015). The policy was revised in 2007, in addition to undergoing a council review every five years.

Turnbull was directly involved in developing the proposed changes to the policy and is hoping that they will "maximize city-wide impact, ensuring art is installed where it has better exposure to residents" while engaging citizens and artistic leaders with civic planning.

The policy has been criticized for a lack of clarity around project selection in the past, and despite the program being in place, projects like the Groat Road Bridge rehabilitation, which was completed in 2020, do not have art installations.

A photo of Still Life (2014) by Studio F Minus.

Still Life (2014) by Studio F Minus is one of more than 250 public art pieces installed through the city's Percent for Art program. (City of Edmonton)

A vital change

The changes to the policy will help fill the gaps in the city's public art distribution, Turnbull explained.

"Do a scan of the entire city," he said. "Where can (public art) have the most impact for communities that may not be part of where the current collection is spread throughout the city?"

Peter Spearey, the city's lead urban designer, agreed this change is vital for public art going forward. The Percent for Art program in its current iteration has made it difficult to plan projects in advance and consequently "prevented the early involvement of artists in the design process," he said.

There wouldn't be any changes to the 2019-2022 arts funding if the update is approved. Spearey explained that current art budgets would be transferred from the 2021-2022 city budget to the fund.

The policy update also includes a provision to call for more diverse artists. Turnbull told Taproot that the goal is to feature more work from Indigenous and female-identifying artists.

Criticism and acclaim

The Talus Dome, arguably the city's most controversial addition under the Percent for Art program, is located beside Whitemud Drive, one of Edmonton's busiest roads. This placement has garnered both criticism and acclaim since its 2010 installation.

Turnbull told Taproot the location was an intentional choice by Ball-Nogues Studio, to ensure the installation is seen by both Edmontonians and visitors to the city. Coun. Scott McKeen called art locations that are "so weird it's wonderful" one of the benefits of the original program.

If city council approves the recommended updates, the next steps will include refining the procedure to display public art, establishing a public art reserve, and developing terms of reference for an interdepartmental Public Art Advisory Group (PAAG), which will compile a manual detailing the roles and responsibilities within public art implementation.

"​​Public art means different things to different people," Turnbull said. "I think that we have an opportunity to really capture as much of that as possible."