I stopped in to see John the singing grocer, as he’s affectionately known, in Cook Street Village today. The first words that crossed his lips, “So, what do you think of the public art proposed for the Johnson Street bridge?” I asked him his thoughts. He said that good welcoming landscaping could take the place of art. We should create a place for people to be and to mill about.
Here’s the context for his question: Last Thursday Council, sitting as Governance and Priorities Committee received an update on the Johnson Street Bridge project. The good news is that at this early stage in the game, the project appears to be on time and on budget. The staff report laid out a revised budget ($300,000 more added to the contingency budget because of savings found through design optimization) and timeline.
After thanking staff for their work, we spent the next hour deliberating about whether to spend $250,000 (already approved as part of the project budget) on public art to accompany the bridge. A motion was put forward to spend the money. Then an amendment was made to reduce the amount to $100,000. Then the majority of Council moved to postpone consideration of the decision until the new year in order to have more information about the site and landscape plans for the approaches to the bridge. I was in the minority who thought we should make a decision that day and move on.
On the evening news, I said that I’m all for public art, but how about we wait until the end of the project and see if we do come in under budget. If yes, then maybe we could consider adding an element of art to public space near the bridge. To me that’s a practical approach. I also feel, as the Times Colonist reported, that the bridge itself is a piece of art. And, my final thought is that we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping, lighting, the creation of public plaza spaces for people to gather. Art is great and it plays a hugely importantly role in shaping public spaces. But it is also people that make public spaces come alive. And, as one CFAX caller said, “The art is our harbour; it is a moving picture.”
My take away from the media attention around this issue and the public response is that there’s a tension between two of Council’s key responsibilities. We are called to be stewards of the City’s public spaces and stewards of the public purse. Standard practice in North America seems to be that one per cent of large public infrastructure projects is spent on art to accompany the project. I understand this. But in the case of the Johnson Street Bridge, which has already risen from an original $77 million budget to $92.8 million, I favour a wait and see approach. It would be heartbreaking to commit $250,000 to public art at this point and then, because of rising steel costs, unanticipated archaeological delays, etc, see the bridge come in over budget. It may seem that $250,000 is ‘nothing’ in the face of a $92.8 million project. But it’s not nothing to me. It’s money entrusted to us by people through their property taxes. And I want to spend that money with care.