By Jamila Pomeroy
Public art humanizes urban landscapes, transforming otherwise sterile spaces into places for conversation and community. Cities gain economic value from public art, but its importance is so much more than financial. Public art is fun and invigorating; it reflects and reveals our society and cultural makeup; and it’s an opportunity to champion and employ local artists.
Metallic straight lines and glass are softened with colors and shapes that breathe human emotion into your morning walk to work, your grocery run, or that frantic jog when you’re running late to pick up the kids. Even more, public art helps to create warmth, cultural sovereignty, and artful connection—and the free nature of it keeps this fully accessible to anyone. But what happens when the system that dictates our public art loses sight of the community at large?
The City of Vancouver has a Public Art Committee whose goals include enriching “the community by means of public art”, providing “leadership in public art planning”, and seeking its inclusion in “all public realm development in Vancouver, whether in the civic, private, or other public sector.” This is done with government, taxpayer, and (a lot of) developer money. Private-sector rezonings greater than 100,000 square-feet are required to contribute $1.98 per buildable square-foot to public art that supports the committee’s initiatives.
The problem is that this seems to consistently result in neutral art that strays from having any sort of opinion about anything, and fails to accurately reflect Vancouver’s cultural mosaic. There’s a distinct lack of values-based art in this city—the kind that leads to self-reflection, awareness, connection, and humanity.
Instead of encouraging us to work together to showcase our collective identity through art, we have a system that seems to value homogenized, corporate-leaning works. The decision of what public art gets approved and commissioned within the city comes down to the nine developers, artists, and designers who make up the Public Art Committee. This results in a lack of crucial public input.
For example, while the City of Vancouver does have a land acknowledgement on its website, its public art policy mentions very little about Indigenous consultation or approval in tandem with public art placements (despite the city occupying stolen, unceded Indigenous land). Following suit, while there are BIPOC members on the committee, there is presently no BIPOC-led decision-making for public art in historically cultural neighbourhoods—which has undoubtedly led to the lack of diversity and cultural sovereignty (and the abundant corporate homogenization) of our public art.
Even the committee’s logo feels colonial: it features two seemingly white men (one with an axe) proudly posed with a totem pole and dogwood crest, with the slogan: “By sea, land, and air we prosper.” And the process of actually submitting a public art proposal is quite sterile, formulated more like a juried court trial than the pursuit of community connection. Rather than being community-led, it’s heavily governed.
Art, like anything creative, remains empirically subjective. This makes what constitutes as good and impactful a matter of opinion and lived experience. Still, in the case of public art, it could be argued that the goal of the medium should be based on shared communal experiences, connection to space, and cultural sovereignty.
Exemplary projects do exist. A Constellation of Remediation by T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss and Anne Riley includes the planting of Indigenous remediation gardens on vacant and untended lots on the unceded homelands of the xwməθkwəyə̓m (Musqueam), Sḵwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. And Anthony Joseph’s mural Hope Through Ashes: A Requiem for Hogan’s Alley highlights Vancouver’s Black history and culture. These pieces effortlessly reflect the people and communal stories within their locations.
We need more public art like this. It’s time we roll up our sleeves and learn how to paint our city as it truly is.
Jamila Pomeroy is a producer, screenwriter, and journalist.