Frontlines

Money’s tight: art’s a victim

Meriké Weiler January 8 1979
Frontlines

Money’s tight: art’s a victim

Meriké Weiler January 8 1979

Money’s tight: art’s a victim

Frontlines

John Leach used to be a portrait painter. Now he’s an animated filmmaker. The reason, quite simply, is money. “If Leonardo were alive today,” says Leach, “he’d be making movies.” Film can be a money-making medium— but when was the last time anyone spent $3.75 to see a sculpture, aside from, say, King Tut’s treasures or other works by artists long dead and in no need of praise or patronage? “You’ve got to have public money as nutrition for the arts,” declares Leach. “Of course you get some duds. But one Leonardo is worth a hundred duds.”

With a dearth of princes, free-spending popes and robber barons (time-honored mainstays of culture), government has been the Canadian patron of the arts—and a very hesitant one until the past 20 years. Now even the brief renaissance of the past two decades seems to be over. In a time of tight money and tight minds, the federal government has backed away and pulled taut the purse strings, cutting funds to the Canada Council, the National Museums and the CBC and (as of April 1) completely eliminating funds for the department of public works’ controversial fine art program, whereby one per cent of the construction costs for federal buildings open to the public was spent on commissioning art. Started in 1964, the program was meant to enrich the environment—a piece of art for a post office in Paradise, Newfoundland, a small hospital in the Yukon, a high school in Inuvik, or the town hall in Churchill, Manitoba—and during its 14 years, it distributed a total of $3.67 million worth to more than 100 towns and cities across Canada. Its demise has angered and demoralized the arts community. So much for the One-Per-Cent Solution which brought art to the people and paycheques to the artists.

Thirty projects too far under way to stop are being honored by the government—for example, Murray Favro’s Ornithopter, a flying machine with a 17foot wingspan, constructed in a whirlwind six months and, in November, hung under the lobby skylight of the Transport Canada Training Institute in Cornwall, Ontario; Jerry Grey’s huge mural of Canadian faces, The Great Canadian Equalizer, just installed in Ottawa’s census building; and David Gilhooly’s seemingly edible wall recently pieced together from several dozen ceramic buns, bagels and rye breads for Calgary’s federal government building. But the government was in such a hurry to end the program that in September it withdrew part-way through a competition for two new sculpture commissions for Calgary worth $90,000. The contest stirred up excitement as the first competition open to all resident Canadian artists, not just the jury-chosen few. Over 130 applications flooded in, ranging from the international elite, such as Kosso Eloul and Michael Hayden, to relative unknowns, eager for a chance at the big time.

It was a case of too little, too late. Ironically, the entire fine art program was cancelled just when change seemed possible with a recently appointed and sensitive administrator, Peeter Sepp, a new advisory committee and a more democratic system for introducing art into a community. Calgary brought to an unhappy end a trouble-plagued program.

Much of the trouble stemmed from the fact that a lot of people, including politicians, simply didn’t understand the art and reacted angrily. In Chilliwack, B.C., for example, a sculpture commissioned in 1969 from Tom Burrows had to be dismantled because of vandalism. And a $48,000 statue by Qué-

bécois Marcel Braitstein of the ’20s Tory prime minister Arthur Meighen has been languishing in Ottawa’s Plouffe Park storage since 1966, somehow deemed unfit for public viewing.

But the most controversial piece was a simple, yellow-painted, steel sculpture named No. 1 Northern (after a hardy strain of wheat) and commissioned in the spring of 1975 for $45,000 from Lumsden, Saskatchewan, artist John Nugent. It scandalized Winnipeg—everybody seemed to hate it—and finally, after a summer of skirmishes among the public, the press, politicians and public works officials, the piece was blowtorched apart last August (Maclean's, Sept. 18).

Nugent is suing for “damages to the artist’s reputation” and his case neatly symbolizes a basic lack of communication between artist and audience. At times it may be the fault of a narrowminded public, fearful of the unknown (though all detractors can’t be dismissed as jocks and philistines). At times it may be the fault of arrogant administrators, posturing like mini-dictators of taste. Peeter Sepp, who tends to a populist attitude, says earnestly, “If you want to show something like experimental sculpture, you also have to educate, show people what they’re getting out of it, since, after all, they’re paying.”

But sometimes the fault lies with the artists themselves, turning out work that is technically problematic or visually mediocre. Michael Snow, for example, normally a brilliant and witty artist, produced what verges on haut kitsch for the terraced, red brick federal office in North York in Metropolitan Toronto. Snow’s photographs, obscurely placed on floors, ceilings, baseboards and pillar tops, play with visual perceptions of the mammoth building, and in two washrooms a large color photograph of a toilet stall is mounted above the sinks so that anyone washing his/her hands is forced to stare into a toilet bowl. The “loo” art has come loose from its fastenings several times and though there are strong suspicions that vandals (critics?) are to blame, building supervisors say it’s merely faulty installation.

On the other hand, chunky wooden figures by John Hooper—one sits patiently on a red bench as though waiting for a bus—are so popular with workers at the St. John mail-processing plant where the pieces were erected that the staff quickly added another Hooper creation to the collection when it was demoted to storage status by officious officials in another building (because people, quite naturally, were rocking the Girl in the Rocking Chair). And. in Ottawa’s pyramidal National Science Library, Nobuo Kubota’s eerie and elegant plywood waves ebb and flow endlessly under the central skylights. Jerry Grey’s porcelain-on-steel mural, 3^2 years in the making, brings Statistics Canada to life through maps, graphs, dictionary definitions and a mosaic of faces (to be turned into a money-making print since the artist ended up minus profits). Murray Favro’s inventive flying machine, which happily bridges art and science, looks as though it could magically glide from its skylight setting in Cornwall. “Sculpture actually is very cheap,” says Favro. “I don’t know of any overpriced sculpture. Administration sucks up money, not artists, who often end up in the red because they’re not good at estimates and because contracts don’t allow for inflation.”

Presently in bureaucratic limbo learning French, Peeter Sepp is fairly sanguine about the future—his own and that of the fine art program. “There’s a possibility of rebirth in a different form,” he suggests. “Money is just a tool at the best of times and now we have to rethink and plan. We need artists and inventors, the kind of people who can form new ideas and find common values. I really believe that art is the signature of a nation.” Right now, Canada’s is barely legible. Meriké Weiler