By Robert Washburn
The controversial structures sitting in Kinsmen Park launched some strong criticism last week during a Port Hope council meeting. While it raises some serious debate about the role of public art in public spaces, it also reveals some deeper flaws about the municipal council.
The brick and steel structure is supposed to be a tribute to Port Hope’s historic brick buildings and its industrial heritage. But for many, especially a vocal group at the meeting, it is a visual disaster, which is also causing a problem with the park’s footpaths and bridge. Tim Johnson, a businessman who is located across from the structure, is offering to pay it have it removed.
The trouble with this kind of public installation, which could be deemed public art, is the ability to discuss it. Art is a matter of taste. And, no one can argue definitively that a piece of art is either good or bad. It is highly personal. For all those who hate the installation, there are those who like it. In fact, some even donated money to help build it.
But, public art seems to be controversial by nature. One of the most famous examples was The Gates, a site-specific work by Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon covering 37 kms of pathways in Central Park in New York City. The exhibit ran from Feb. 12 to Feb. 27, 2005, costing $21 million. Each steel gate had a panel of saffron-coloured fabric hanging down it.
The exhibition was met with mixed reactions. Some people liked it because they felt it brightened up the otherwise bleak winter landscape. Others, hated it. The artists were accused of defacing the landscape. Many felt it was not art and a huge waste of money.
Still, one does not need to look so far for examples. Introibo ad altare dei, a bronze sculpture of businessman, was not as openly controversial; yet, it did cause a public reaction in Cobourg. The piece, which is life size, was a regular target for vandals in the 1990s. Finally, it was taken down and sat in the public works yard for several years until the Cobourg Rotary Club donated $1,000 for its re-installation on King Street West in 2003, along with a security camera to ensure its safety. While critics were less vocal, their actions spoke volumes.
To convince people in Port Hope one way or the other about the park installation is truly futile. Parks and recreation director Karen Sharpe could find her hands full at the Feb. 3 committee meeting at the Canton Municipal offices.
John Doherty and Rod Stewart raised the more significant aspect of this debate during the council meeting. Both suggested a lack of public input was at the heart of the dilemma.
Certainly, there was no lack of bureaucracy. The Parks, Recreation and Culture committee and the Ganaraska River East Parks Steering Committee were behind a major study where the installation is first proposed. There on page 17 is a drawing, which is not exactly the same, but instead is called a brick and steel sitting unit. The report calls for an event space and gazebo, but also refers to a sculpture elsewhere in the report. Somehow the drawing evolved into the current structure.
But that is not all. Then there is the Committee on Public Art, formed in 2009, with a mandate to “provide advice and guidance regarding the display of art in public places in the community”. However, it is important not to forget the Cultural Advisory Committee, who is also in charge of promoting and supporting arts and culture.
Chief Administrative Officer Eugene Todd said public consultations took place before 2009. It is a lame defense in the face of current public outrage. It speaks to a troublesome practice at Port Hope town hall of poor communications and even worse public input. Certainly, there are enough committees and volunteers that some body could have gone back to the public at several stages along the way to seek opinions.
While getting a consensus on the art to be displayed in these parks might be a untenable task, at least it wouldn’t be marred by lousy politics at town hall.