Public Art Patronage in Vancouver:
Arts Funding, the Olympic Legacy and Myfanwy MacLeod’s The Birds.
Public art has been commissioned by civic and private patrons for millenia, for a complex array of motives. Myfanwy MacLeod’s The Birds falls within this tradition, being a public art sculpture commissioned by the City of Vancouver for the Cultural Olympiad of 2010. I will argue that such contemporary public art patronage by Canadian governments can be identified with this multiplicity of motives, where work is commissioned not merely for the work’s sake but also to exalt the patron and reify their status in the community. Contemporary artwork, however, differs from its predecessors in the greater freedom of the artist to dictate theme, and thus potentially to embed a critique of the status quo in the work itself.
In the particular context of the XXI Olympic Winter Games, held in February 2010 in British Columbia during a period of severe cutbacks to governmental arts funding, I argue that public art commissions were used to create a certain perception of the city, province, and country in the eyes of its citizens and before the world: that of a cultured society which gives a prominent place to the arts. The high visibility of public installations made a statement about commitment to the arts, one that is undermined by the contemporary withdrawal of financial support to the local artistic community.
As such, the commission of The Birds falls in with public art from Roman architecture to the religious artwork of the Renaissance, as a tool to create and reinforce the public image desired by the ruling class. The permanent presence of the sculpture achieves its goal, a constant reminder of civic investment in the arts. The thematic content of the sculpture, however, does not serve to reinforce the theme of beneficial government. Rather, it raises questions about human interactions with the environment, and in so doing can begin to foster a critique of hegemonic systems, including those that led to its construction.
The history of art patronage is entwined with the history of art from the first written records; in early Western accounts, it is the patron who is seen as responsible for the work rather than the artist (Binski and Black). Public monuments were “often used to reinforce the political power of their patrons” (Stocker). Silberberg-Peirce writes that in Italy:
Until the rise of art collecting in the Renaissance, patronage broadly determined the history of architecture and the visual arts. Individual patrons, groups and institutions sought to display their worldly power or religious belief by commissioning works of art, the subjects and, sometimes, style of which they themselves dictated.
Garber writes of the complex relationship of mutual dependence between artists and patrons that exists throughout history, where each resents the other for possessing what they themselves cannot, whether funds and resources or artistic ability (3).
Art was not only funded as a display of temporal power. Commissions were also one means for a patron to find “the salvation of his or her soul through the performance of good works” (Binski and Black). In history, as now, art patronage was thus seen as a charitable donation given not just to the artist but also for the benefit of society at large.
Let us turn from historical perspective to the current situation in Canada. Garber indicates that contemporary artists, while rarely supported by and contracted to a single benefactor, are generally dependent on publicly-funded grants in order to create and show their work (15). In Canada, there has never been significant commissioning of art by the private sector; rather philanthropists have focussed their efforts on institutions, leaving governmental agencies (namely the Canada Council and its provincial counterparts) as the major source of arts funding (Maitland; Dowler 32). Dowler argues that:
Canadian culture is predicated on state structures organized to support the development and maintenance of culture. The erosion of the cultural funding and policy apparatus – which is symptomatic of the potential devolution of state participation in all areas of Canadian life – would precipitate a fundamental and profoundly alien reorganization of the relations between the Canadian state and its citizens. (46)
Ominous though Dowler’s words are, it is just such a reorganization that British Columbia has seen in the most recent provincial budgets. $20 million in gaming grants was cut in 2009, followed in 2010 by cutbacks of nearly 50% in funding to the B.C. Arts Council (“B.C. arts groups”; “B.C. adds $7M”). At the same time that the overall arts budget was cut from $14 million to $8 million, $10 million was allocated by the provincial government to celebrate the cultural legacy of the Olympics in three yearly “Spirit Festivals” (Mickleburgh). Funding reductions are to be expected in difficult economic climates, yet studies exist demonstrating that B.C.’s arts cutbacks are far more drastic than those in the other Canadian provinces, and likewise that arts programming was more heavily affected than other social programs in B.C.1 Dowler discusses other instances of partiality in government austerity:
Under the guise of fiscal restraint, governments…are apparently willing to micro-manage the awarding of grants in order to determine how monies allocated for cultural activities are spent. The legacy of government sponsorship of the arts has therefore taken an ominous twist and raised once again the spectre of political control of culture. (34)
The B.C. government’s funding priorities are in this case quite clear: the Olympics are an important cultural legacy, but the artists who foster and develop the cultural products featured during the Games are not.
Garber documents a shift in the understanding of the location of art’s value from process to artifact, which leads to a failure to recognize the link between investment in resources and the production of good art (xiii). The Cultural Olympiad and Vancouver’s newly achieved status as a Cultural Capital for 2011 both draw attention to the vibrant cultural achievements of local artists at the same time that local institutions and projects are being devastatingly underfunded (“Mayor welcomes”).
At the centre of this contradictory moment of infrastructural retrenchment and high-profile commissions is the City of Vancouver’s Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Plan. The program’s stated goals were to:
- Commission works of art ranging from large legacy works to temporary, celebratory and community projects
- Shape a collection of works of art that reflect the spirit of Vancouver and the pursuit of excellence that characterize the Olympic movement
- Aspire to the highest level of creativity and excellence in public art-making
Engage the best artists, whether local, national or international (“2010 Olympic”)
Fig. 1 The Birds, 2010.
MacLeod, Myfanwy. Public art sculpture. Photograph by Meaghen Buckley, 16 Nov. 2010.
The Birds was commissioned as part of the Legacy Sites program, which consisted of nine sculptural installations and light-based works (“2010 Olympic”). Myfanwy MacLeod, a local contemporary artist, was the first to be awarded an Olympic public art commission, but hers was the last work to be revealed (Lederman). It is located in the Olympic Village in Southeast False Creek, which was closed to the public for the entirety of the Games. The work consists of two 5.5m polystyrene foam and bronze sparrows, one male and one female (Heavy Industries). The birds stand at opposite edges of a central plaza along the False Creek Seawall (Fig. 1). The Birds “tries to infuse the ordinary and commonplace sparrow with a touch of the ridiculous and the sublime…[it] inverts the normal relationship existing between these typically small birds and the human population.” (MacLeod). The artist plays with the idea of what is natural (for birds or for people), and what dramatic effects introduced species can have on the environment (MacLeod).
Fig. 2 The Birds with human prey, 2010.
MacLeod, Myfanwy. Public art sculpture. Photograph by Meaghen Buckley. 16 Nov. 2010.
The sculptures, while giant and evocative of the eponymous Hitchcock horror film, are also cute and approachable. Visitors are allowed to touch the birds, and do. While at the site I have seen small children clamber over the feet and pat the round bellies, and people of a great diversity pose for photos. On my most recent visit to the site, I saw a dapper man in a suit run up to the female sparrow and lie fully extended on its claws so that his companion could photograph him. He kindly consented to my photographing him as well (Fig. 2). It was an amazing demonstration of the way the sculptures can provoke empathy, by allowing humans to assume the role of the sparrows’ prey. A 2005 profile claimed that MacLeod’s “satire employs humour to make serious points” (Campbell 73). The birds are humorous, but also poignant; looking at them, we reconsider not only their place in the city, but also our own.
Cartiere and Willis, looking from the perspective of artists rather than patrons, describe the ideal of the public art project:
Public art advocates claim that public art contributes to the ongoing desire to identify who we are, beautifies, contributes to social change, shocks, excites, challenges social conventions, has meaning, educates, inspires, celebrates and remembers, draws us together, envisions new paradigms and crosses disciplines, and is a catalyst for change. (2)
For Basa, public art is “the outward symbol of civic enlightenment” (3); it is “a sign that innovative thinking is encouraged, that diversity is tolerated, and that the city’s vital signs are strong” (4). These are beautiful ideas, and yet we have seen that The Birds was commissioned in a context that denies the need for the supportive structure underlying art production even as it seeks to reap the rewards. Mills cautions us that “the policy involved in commissioning a particular art project should be regarded as a major factor in how that art operates” (162).
The repercussions of Vancouver’s hosting of the Olympic Games are vast, and they will continue to develop and affect local communities for years. The Birds was created in that context and must be seen in that context. But The Birds is also a true legacy, a part of the local environment, and like the sparrows it is modelled from, as an invasive element it carries the potential for change. MacLeod writes in her artist statement, “The Birds reminds us of our past, but it aspires to challenge the future. It is my hope that the work stimulates understanding that will lead to a greater sense of shared responsibility and caring.”
If art patronage today echoes its history, art differs in the far greater freedom of the contemporary artist to explore themes that are potentially transformative. Therein lies the possibility to use public art not to control public perception but rather to unleash it, whatever the motives that may have led to the work’s creation.
“2010 Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program.” City of Vancouver. 10 Nov. 2010. <http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/cultural/publicart/2010/index.htm>
Basa, Lynn. The Artist’s Guide to Public Art. New York: Allworth Press, 2008.
“B.C Adds $7M to Arts Council Budget.” CBC News Online. 1 Sep. 2010. <http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2010/09/01/bc-culture-money.html>
“B.C. arts groups blindsided by $20 million cut.” CBC News Online. 31 Aug. 2009. <http://www.cbc.ca/arts/artdesign/story/2009/08/31/bc-arts-funding-cuts-gaming-grants.html>
Binski, Paul and Christopher F. Black. “Patronage.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e1998>.
Campbell, Deborah. “Once upon a time: greetings from Myfanwy MacLeod.” Canadian Art 22.1 2005: 70-74.
Cartiere, Cameron and Shelly Willis, eds. The Practice of Public Art. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Dowler, Kevin. “In the Bedrooms of the Nation.” Money Value Art: State Funding, Free Markets, Big Pictures. Eds., Sally McKay and Andrew J. Paterson. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2001. 29-49.
Garber, Marjorie. Patronizing the Arts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Heavy Industries. “the birds.” October 9, 2010. <http://heavyworld.com/theskinny/?p=1354>
Lederman, Marsha. “Giant sparrows attack Vancouver.” The Globe and Mail. 15 May 2010, CBCA Reference and Current Events, ProQuest. Web. 12 Nov. 2010.
MacLeod, Myfanwy. “The Birds.” Vancouver Public Art Registry, 2009. Nov 8, 2010. <http://vancouver.ca/PUBLICART_NET/ArtworkDetails.aspx? ArtworkID=514&Neighbourhood=&Ownership=&Program=>
Maitland, Leslie et al. “Canada.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T013565pg11>.
“Mayor welcomes Cultural Capital of Canada honour.” City of Vancouver News Release. 12 Nov. 2010.
Mickleburgh, Rod. “‘Spirit festivals’ touted as way to make up for arts funding cuts.” The Globe and Mail (Index-only) 15 Jul 2010, CBCA Reference and Current Events, ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.
Mills, Josephine. “Reconsidering the Risks of Public Art Funding.” Money Value Art: State Funding, Free Markets, Big Pictures. Eds., Sally McKay and Andrew J. Paterson. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2001. 159-169.
Silberberg-Peirce, Susan et al. “Italy.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T042658pg12>.
Stocker, Mark. “Monument, public.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T059390>.
1I found a wealth of writing on this subject online, but no data with sufficient authority to be cited in this paper. The website <http://www.stopbcartscuts.ca/index.html> displays a data table of provincial/territorial government arts expenditure per capita which ranks B.C. at the bottom with $4.50 (up to $6.50 with recently restored funding), far below the national average of $26. I could not find the origin of these data, and the most recent published Statistics Canada data on the subject is from 2007/2008. Likewise a local artist, Jer Thorp, used his blog to present charts breaking down the 2009 B.C. budget with a sophisticated use of statistics; the results are suggestive, but this too lacks the authority to be formally cited. <http://blog.blprnt.com/blog/blprnt/bc-budget-visualizations>