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Constructing faces for public spaces...
Integrating art into public construction projects is an art in itself

by David Mayerovitch

If goods and services like military hardware, waste management, online systems and paper clips are the meat and potatoes of public-sector procurement, then public art is the sushi - and governments have developed a taste for it.

Times have changed since the 1960s, when a meat-and-potatoes Toronto City Council balked at buying The Archer, a dramatic but hardly shocking bronze piece by British sculptor Henry Moore, for installation in front of the new city hall. Mayor Phil Givens had to recruit private donors to finance what is still one of Canada's most recognizable and distinguished examples of public art.

Today, governments are ready to invest in public art as a highly visible component of major building projects. They recognize the power of art to enrich daily life and contribute flair, even fun, to the urban landscape. Art can also serve as an instrument of policy, trumpeting national identity at an embassy or generating commercial buzz at a trade centre.

The procurement of the art component for public projects is a highly specialized art in itself. To the inherent complexities of any large-scale procurement process are added slippery criteria involving personal taste. What is the best art for the job? In fact, what job is the art expected to do? How can one-of-a-kind creative visions mesh with the hard realities of construction and come in on time and within budget?

Few people in Canada are as experienced in handling these issues as consultant Karen Mills of Hamilton, owner of the firm Public Art Management. In this country and abroad, she orchestrates complex collaborations of artists, architects, project managers, landscape designers, owners, contractors and government public-art officers. "Public art," says Mills, "is really the introduction of an artist's thinking into the design of public spaces."

Increasingly, that thinking leads to site-specific art integrated with the architecture. The older practice of choosing an independently-conceived sculpture and depositing it on a site has acquired the derisive label "plop art."

It should be noted that the term "public art" is used whether the work is created for the public or the private sector. Mills consults extensively in both, but our conversation for Summit focused mainly on government-related projects.

She served as public art administrator with a $1-million budget at Canada's largest tradeshow facility: the National Trade Centre (NTC), which opened in 1997 at Exhibition Place in Toronto. The centre, owned by the City of Toronto, was funded through the Canada/Ontario Infrastructure Works program.

Mills organized an international call for qualified artists. "The Centre's audience and clients are international, and with all the talk about free trade we wanted the project to be seen as very open to all ideas." Selected artists were invited to propose concepts for key sites within the project. One of the sites was the 500-metre public promenade along the front of the building. The practical requirements were exacting.

"The building is constantly rented to various groups and you couldn't have any artwork that would obstruct the equipment moving in and out. The spectators' stands for the Molson Indy auto race have to be erected right on the promenade, so putting free-standing sculpture outside the building was out; even the trees have to be removable! The Canadian National Exhibition also takes place on the site, so people will be spitting bubble gum on the surface and you can't be washing it every other day."

The winning design - Shoreline, by American artist Jerry Clapsaddle - covers the long promenade with 135,000 tough, slip-resistant, individually-laid concrete paving stones in an expanding and contracting wave pattern meant to evoke the flow of trade at the lakeshore site. "For a fairly small amount of money," notes Mills, "maybe a $2-per-square-foot upgrade, we were able to take something that would have been a fairly stark and bleak piece of hardscape and turn it into something visually quite interesting."

Entering the building, the NTC visitor looks up at Toronto artist Micah Lexier's The Hall of Names - 1,000 first names submitted by people across the country, laser-cut from sheets of stainless steel and suspended from the arched roof of the 245-metre-long Galleria space. Mills is clearly delighted with the effect. "You read it as sculpture, you read it as names, as decoration, as an embellishment. Strangely enough, in the evening, when we have the fluorescent lights on inside each of the structural beams holding the roof up, it almost functions as an 800-foot-long chandelier. It reflects the light and makes the space very, very special."

She sees in Lexier's concept a definite commercial advantage for the NTC. "Our committee wanted something here that really was an expression of Canada. And it was important that the artwork become a branding device for the centre. Show organizers go out looking for exhibitors, and they want to promote the space they're using for their event. I've found in my own practice that art is often the thing that makes you remember one space over another; our Hall of Names is a unique kind of art project that sticks in your mind."

Sometimes procurement of public art for the public sector is channeled through private developers. "In most cities," says Mills, "and certainly in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, developers know that getting permission to develop properties is often contingent on supplying public art as part of the overall package that you negotiate with the city."

Mills was hired by developer Cadillac Fairview to consult on their Simcoe Place office tower project in downtown Toronto, with a public art budget of $1.1-million. The developer agreed to fund and construct public art for the park outside the building and turn it over to the city. Mills had regular input on the project from the city's parks department and the Toronto Historical Board.

An international competition for the principal artwork in the park was won by one of the world's most acclaimed artists, Anish Kapoor, born in Bombay and living in London, England. His sculpture, untitled mountain, was completed in 1995 after two years in design, development and fabrication; it is made of 171 layers of waterjet-cut aluminum plate.

"I'm actually very proud of Simcoe Place," says Mills, "because I got the city to require, and I got the developers to provide, a capital endowment for maintenance. The city had never required that of a developer before. But we said it's not good enough just to build this in the park - we've got to make sure that it's properly looked after."

"In this business," she adds with a laugh, "you get more aggressive as time goes by!"

In today's public art scene the artist typically functions as a designer, while most or all of the actual execution is left to specialists such as fabricators, landscapers and engineers. "It's very cost-effective when the responsibilities are clearly divided, and everyone does what they do best," says Mills. "So for example you're not asking an artist to take on an engineering task that they're not capable of doing, but at the same time we're able to pull in their ideas and put them into a buildable form."

David Mayerovitch is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Ottawa. He is a communications consultant and speechwriter with experience in the high-tech, contact-centre, pharmaceutical, financial services and real-estate development sectors. His articles have appeared in The Globe and Mail and he leads a workshop in a highly structured approach to writing at the University of Toronto. He may be reached at davidmay@sympatico.ca .


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