The value of public art

Anyone who has ever seen Cirque du Soleil will agree that it is an awe-inspiring experience. For me, it was an even more incredible experience seeing it for free in a revamped airport hangar in Quebec City this summer.

I arrived an hour early and stood in a line that stretched further than I could see, along a dock beside the St. Lawrence River. The sun set over the crowd as we waited, bubbling with anticipation.

In the lineup a woman told me how much she enjoyed living in Quebec City. She explained how she had lived in Ontario and in Montreal for years, but Quebec City, which is officially classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, is the place she wants to live. Later, standing mere feet beneath swinging acrobats in the cool, black night I felt as if I could quite easily live in Quebec City as well.

What is the true value of art and architecture? There are different perspectives on that question. A commonly held assumption in our society is that function is often more important than beauty. But is it?Think about your favorite city. Why is it your favorite? For me it is all about the impression I get from public spaces and the feeling those spaces create. Walking through the famous cities of the world, it is the architecture and art that makes an impression: the curve of the buildings, sculptures, street musicians and parks filled with trees and gardens.

The first thing a city does when it is looking to revitalize the downtown is make it more attractive. Beautiful places attract investment. Take Vancouver, with its modern, shapely skyscrapers and gorgeous parks. Wherever you go in downtown Vancouver the mountains seem to loom in the distance and the gorgeous blue ocean is within walking distance.

But public art is also controversial. Like anything else that involves people’s tax dollars, critics question its value and complain about the cost, especially if it is something they do not  like. Cities are expressions of ourselves and we want them to reflect that.

According to David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, most major cities in Canada have a program that ensures one percent of tax dollars goes to public art. This program demonstrates the importance of public art from a political perspective.

In April of this year British Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, argued that in periods of global economic austerity such as the one we are currently experiencing policy-makers have to look at the economic value of public art and culture. Her Shadow Culture Secretary, Harriet Harman, added that “arts and culture is about much more than the economy: they’re about a sense of identity, of community, and the potential of each and every individual”.

Every person who has ever played with trembling hands at a piano recital or covered themselves in paint at a summer camp understands the value and thrill of creating and participating in art. It is an intrinsic and often underlooked part of our lives.

For me, art is something I am learning to value more, the longer I live and the more I experience. It is something we can all contribute to in a variety of ways, from supporting local artists to learning to become one. Everything can art if it is seen from that perspective, from a well-crafted sentence in an essay to the way we move about the world. It is just about becoming aware of the art that exists all around us and within us.