Actor & Comedian Jim Carrey grew up in Aldershot, a community within the City of Burlington.
According to the City of Burlington’s Public Art Master Plan 2009-2018
(aka PAMP), the most important thing about public art is its purpose. “Public art is a force for
place making – for expressing and evoking connections among people and places
that are meaningful to the community and civic life.” It goes on, “Public Art has
been recognized as a significant tool for building livable cities, for urban
beautification, and for economic development. A successful Public Art Program
makes public space more attractive, interesting, and comfortable, resulting in
benefits for both residents and visitors.
Beyond these tangible results, the process of creating public art within
a framework, that includes community input, can lead to far-reaching social
benefits. This is not simply about creating something for the community; instead, it is about creating community”. (Italics
It concludes, “By reflecting a community’s values, and
its past, present, and future, public art can embody and symbolize a community’s
of identity.” (Italics mine.)
According to the public survey done for this Master Plan, Burlingtonians
overwhelmingly identify with the thematic subject of “local history”, followed closely
by “the natural environment”. Take note
of that – ‘local history’ and the ‘natural environment’. We will be coming back to those two heartfelt perfectly
natural themes of identity in a moment.
So, just so you know, the above was, and remains on the
City of Burlington website as, the stated purpose
of the City of Burlington’s
‘Public Art’ initiative.
However, most interesting about Burlington’s Public Art Master Plan was City Council’s
abdication of the responsibility for actually running the Public Art program.
Instead, Council voted, in 2009, to let an ‘external body’ handle it. And
there, to my mind, lies a bit of a problem. An ‘external body’ active in Burlington, is one thing,
but an ‘external body’ outside of the City limits is quite another.
In 2009, the City’s Public Art Reserve Fund had $186, 578 on
account, with another $190,000 ‘pending’. Today, that annual fund, topped up by
various agencies of the Government of Ontario, has allocated approximately $250,000
to that ‘external body’ in the form of one Jeremy Freiburger, Chief Cultural
Strategist of Cobalt Connects, of Hamilton,
Mr. Freiburger was hired by the City of Burlington
to implement not only Burlington’s
Public Art program but, latterly, a Cultural Action/Policy Plan too. Jeremy
certainly is an engaging and charming fellow who is struggling somewhat to
‘make it happen’ here, BUT, why didn’t City just align with the
long-established ‘Creative Burlington’ group? You know, the group that had to
close shop in 2011 because there was insufficient City funding for them to
continue to operate. With no track record in this community, Jeremy Freiburger’s
Cobalt Connects, has, within just three very short years, received over TEN
times the funding that the grassroots ‘Creative Burlington’ group was begging
for from Council to stay afloat.
…. hmmmm ….
How can a Public Art program in Burlington, one that is both
meaningful and significant for developing a ‘rooted’ Burlington identity, be
developed by, and decided by, an ‘external body’ from outside the City limits? In other words, WHY does the City of Burlington
have to go to a self-professed “entrepreneurial” Hamilton-based arts-bureaucrat
to FIND the Roots of our own cultural identity?
Something is missing in this cultural equation. That missing
component is, in fact, us, the actual living breathing communities that
comprise the City of Burlington - from
established Aldershot to the newcomers of Alton,
from rural Lowville to the developed Lakefront, from tony Tyandaga to solid
Mountainside, from sprawling historic farmlands of the north to the apartment
blocks and heritage roosts of the downtown core. Within this Public Art ‘dialogue’
we, as Burlingtonians, are sadly missing the one element that makes Burlington so culturally
unique, our very own voices.
Fishy fish find a home in Burlington Public Art bike racks.
One recent Burlington Public Art initiative, of 2010,
administered by Jeremy, was the development of these bike racks. Yes, that is
what they are. (Promise, you won’t get arrested or ticketed for locking up to
one.) Over 180 designs were submitted by 76 ‘international’ artists, until 10
designs, chosen by Jeremy and his appointed ‘independent’ jury, were placed on
a shortlist. After a public vote, six finalists were paid $1500 each for those
designs - Martyna Dakowicz, Jen Hsieh,
Zhiyang Mao, Kyle Reed, Wesley Tsang, and Xiaojing Yan. Not one is an active
Burlington-based artist, or has ‘roots’ here. Perhaps that is why these bike
racks have FAILED on two accounts: 1) as bike racks - [have you ever seen ANY
bike locked up to these objects over the past year?] and 2) as ‘local’ Public Art.
Admit it Jeremy, few here have any idea what these cut-out metal thingys bolted
to several downtown sidewalks are all about …
The Palladium Park Public Art Benches Competition of 2011
was no different. A talented artist from Kitchener-Waterloo received the
commission, not one of Burlington’s
Sure, call me parochial, but how, exactly, can the heralding
cultural spirit, local history and natural landscape begin with ‘outsiders’? It’s
like having a paid professional singer sing our favourite childhood lullaby from
a hastily composed score, rather then singing in chorus, with one heart and
soul, by rote, what we all know and love so dearly. (A tad hyperbolic, but
methinks you catch my drift.)
Surely the point of this exercise, in all its forms, is to
celebrate our own, to support and promote the struggling ‘grassroots’ art
community here, and by so doing develop and reflect a truly Burlington-based
arts culture. No? On the other hand,
perhaps the REAL Public Arts objective, as the ambitious Jeremy Freiburger and
his select ‘external body’ of jurors interpret it, is not at all about the
nurturing of, or the reflecting of, Burlington’s
‘sense of identity’, past or present. Rather, perhaps their end objective is
simply to create a generic ‘urban beautification’ of Burlington for well-heeled out-of-towners (and
investors) using titillating ideas by “recognized” artists who have no cultural
or spiritual connection to this place. Or, perhaps, the purpose is to create a
roster of “recognized” artists who, hopefully, (no guarantee), will someday
garner an international reputation that will substantially inflate their monetary
worth, and thus, increase the investment holdings of the City of Burlington
Corporation’s Public Art Inventory. Perhaps. Who knows. One thing is clear, the
Public Art program is slowly, and somewhat stealthily, tip-toeing away from the
standing Public Art Master Plan.
Anyway, for sake of argument, let’s assume for a bit that the
REAL objective, (not the one so meticulously outlined in the PAMP), is to
develop a no-name ‘pretty suburban city’ dotted with public art works by artists-from-elsewhere
whose careers will continue to develop far away from the City of Burlington. With
this revised concept in mind, we can better understand Mr. Freiburger’s jury’s choice
of three finalists for the Burlington Performing Arts Centre Public Art Competition.
The three finalists with concepts are (clockwise, from upper left): Cooke-Sasseville
from Quebec City.
Concept: ‘Stay Connected’, 15ft x 7ft, an abstract ‘technical console with
cables’. Peter Powling from “the hills of New Brunswick”. Concept: ‘Spiral Stella’,
16 ft high x 30 inches wide, sky reflecting bronze obelisk. and Aaron Stephan
from Portland, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Concept: ‘In the Round’, circular 28 foot disc covered with 15,000 pixel-people
Not one of these evidently talented artists is from Burlington, or even the Golden Horseshoe region of Southern Ontario, Canada.
Obviously each artist has devoted a great deal of thought to
develop a ‘Public Art’ concept that ‘reflects’ Burlington’s identity back to
itself (sort of) and each idea stands as an indisputable ‘Burlington Public Art’
monument that will eventually engender local community pride and a long term legacy
of some kind. Still, it seems a great pity
to me that not one of these fine artists is from here. I mean, there isn’t even
a finalist design concept from the very talented, locally-minded and
“recognized” Les Drysdale, who, though admittedly not a Burlington native, is, at least, from the
Golden Horseshoe region.
How appropriate it would have been to
have one of Les’s evocative story-telling ‘local history’ statues grace the square
at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre of, love him or loathe him, the
indisputably talented Jim Carrey. Imagine a multi-dimensional fully animated vignette
by Les - of Jim – as ‘The Mask’, the ‘Grinch’, and the ‘Joker’ characters all
rolled into one piece. It would celebrate local talent on multiple levels, successfully promote the Centre as a ‘living’ arts
showcase, inspire local and visiting performers, and nudge all of us, as a
community as a whole, to identify with the ‘Dream Big’ ‘Just Do It’ persona of
Jim. It would also, I believe, be an engaging and memorable tourist attraction ... And it could all be done for the $90,000 commission prize fee. Ah well, simply
put, this kind of ‘from here’ idea has not been “recognized” by the jury.
the pity, I say.
Let’s re-consider all this, for a moment, from a slightly different
ZimSculpt is currently showing at the Royal Botanical Gardens (until October 8th).
Two talented and soulful sculptors from the Shona tribe, Passmore Mupindiko and
Patrick Sephani, are carving up million year old rocks especially imported for
this exhibit from their home country, Zimbabwe,
Africa. Now imagine that. They have imported huge hunks
of stones from their own mountains to carve here. Voluptuous stone sculptures
crafted by their own tribemen’s hands abound throughout the Hendrie Gardens.
These bold sculptures really are powerful art objects: thematically,
technically and culturally. Cumulatively, these Shona-made sculptures reflect a
profound ‘sense of identity’, from a wholly unique place on the planet, Zimbabwe.
Sculpture by Shona artists reflect their homeland culture
& sense of identity.
Now, flip it. Imagine a roster of Burlington-based sculptors
(or artists), who are supported and “recognized” by our very own City Council (or
equivalent ‘external body’ made up of Burlington
art enthusiasts). Imagine them going to Zimbabwe
or anywhere else) to showcase their powerful works in a high-profile public art
space. Imagine them as they chip away at their own imported ‘mountain’ rock –
the Niagara Escarpment. All who see - and buy from them - would know these talented
artists reflect an equally profound ‘sense of place’. Why? Because these
respected artists reflect another far off Earth location, one with a wholly unique
natural and local identity. And yes, these soulful and talented artists ARE
from that wonderful place of Burlington,
…. Get the picture?
If we don’t believe in our own, nobody else ever will either.
|Raw Rock from our very own 'mountain': the Niagara Escarpment|
Culturally-diverse earth roots are not only important, but
essential. Without them, we just become rootless,
isolated and detached global misfits, flipping the dials, pushing the buttons, endlessly
searching ... searching … searching … for the one place we so studiously ignore
at our own communal peril – Home.
Ask Patrick, ask Passmore, those soulful Shona sculptors
representing their far off village communities of Zimbabwe. Now, ask the diverse voiceless
village communities who live harmoniously within the City boundaries of Burlington, Ontario,
Canada. Ask the
artists who live, work and play here. Heck, go ask Jim Carrey. They, and we, all
know: not only does ‘Charity begin at Home’, but home really is where our Heart
- and Art - is.