Edmonton's public art strategy moves past 1% solution

· The Pulse

Revised policies that the Edmonton Arts Council uses to procure public art for the city, which include changes to the funding formula and selection process, are being used for the upcoming 103A Avenue Pedway and three soccer centres.

What used to be called the Percent for Art program, created in 1991, was revised in 2021 as the Public Art to Enhance Edmonton's Public Realm

The revisions mean concrete changes for projects that will be completed in the future. "It's no longer based off of 1% per project," David Turnbull, public art director for EAC, told Taproot. "Ironically, though, the reserve fund is based off of the old Percent For Art (program)."

The policy changes mean EAC's public art reserve fund is $1.8 million per year for the 2023-2026 capital cycle. This is an estimate of 1% of the eligible costs from capital projects in Edmonton that are relevant to public art spending. Costs from capital projects that are not captured in this formula include spending in areas where art could not feasibly be installed or accessed by the public — such as LRT tracks or on the private-property portions of projects.

Turnbull said many misunderstood the former 1% figure, anyway. While one might imagine that 1% of the $31 million capital cost for the 103A Avenue Pedway means $310,000 for an artist to make a work for that pedway, that's never exactly how it worked. In the prior model, 1% of eligible costs from the capital project would cover the cost of the artwork's creation and installation, but also the EAC's costs to oversee the project — plus lifecycle management costs, care, conservation, and restoration.

Those overhead costs are part of the new model, too.

The request for qualifications for the 103A Avenue Pedway closed on March 25. The call listed an artist budget of $140,000, which is less than half of 1% of the $31 million project.

The revised rules for public art in Edmonton also call for a qualitative measurement of an artwork's reach when budgeting projects, rather than rigid calculations.

"We have to take a look, on a case by case basis, at what is going to give the most impact for the citizens and workers and for visitors to the city," Turnbull said. "Does that mean that we throw a whole bunch of money at one project versus another? No. It means that we need to sit down, and we need to look at the value that these projects bring to the citizens."

A work of public art that looks like a telephone sits left of a bench and in front of grass.

The Edmonton Arts Council changed how it administers art in 2021. Play it by Ear, pictured here, was exempt from new policies because it was commissioned for a call for projects in 2020. Works of public art for the 103A Avenue Pedway and soccer centres around the city will be part of the new system. (Supplied/Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett)

Part of ensuring impact means a shift in how artists are selected. Rather than the past system, where a roster of city staff, community members, creatives, and architectural professionals made decisions in a majority-wins format, EAC now emphasizes the role of curators and subject-matter experts.

"We've been working a lot with curators and artists, and bringing them in to not only do the selection, but to also identify artists that may not have applied in the past, that could be ideal for certain projects," Turnbull said.

The pedway is the second-most recent project commissioned under the Public Realm policy. This can be confusing as the most recently completed project is Play it by Ear in Butler Memorial Park, by Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett of Calgary. That work was a response to a call from 2020, under the former system, and cost $200,000. That number includes consultation, concept proposal, community engagement, design, fabrication, and installation, an EAC spokesperson said in an email.

The EAC usually opens artist calls nationally. International artist calls don't offer the same bang for their buck, Turnbull said. Its latest call is for locals only, to create vinyl murals for soccer centres in the city to the tune of $30,000.

"It's a design-only competition, where the artist just has to supply digital images," Turnbull said. "We'll actually go through the whole printing and installation process on their behalf … They don't have to worry about all the project management."

One of the goals of the 2021 policy changes is to increase diversity among artists selected. Turnbull said 80% of recent commissions, dating back to the 2018-2019 plan Connections & Exchanges, have gone to underrepresented artists such as Indigenous peoples, women, and people of colour. An EAC spokesperson said this figure applies to "anyone on the books" from 2022 to the present.

Not every Edmontonian likes every public art project. But Turnbull thinks the revised model for public art is better equipped to satisfy citizens than the last.

"These are all community members (on the selection team)," he said. "The curators are also citizens that live within the city, same with the people who work at the city."

The request for qualifications for the soccer murals is open until April 22. An information session takes place at the Prince of Wales Armouries at 10448 108 Avenue NW on April 5 from 2pm to 4pm.