Public Art


Since moving back to the Uptown Saint John area for the first time in over nine years I’ve been exploring new neighbourhoods on various walks about town. Some time ago I walked past a public sculpture of some sort and wondered briefly at its origins. I didn’t recognize it as anything official—meaning to say, there is no mention of it in any tourist brochure—but something about the sculpture struck me and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. It is made of concrete, painted a nondescript beige colour, and features round, triangular and rectangular shapes stacked in a sort of Picasso-esque manner. It’s a mystery.

Saint John has an eclectic mix of public art, from the obvious monuments to war, heroes and founders scattered about the various parks, to the renowned and much-adored carved wooden people by recently deceased artist John Hooper. While there is a great deal of focus on the representational — the Irving beaver pond and the Moosehead moose spring immediately to mind — one of Saint John’s most infamous public sculptures, Progression, the red-orange-yellow bent-rectangles straddling atop City Hall, is probably the most abstract. Everyone in Saint John knows of it. Back in the days when it was first installed it was reviled and hated, presumably for the same reason Voice of Fire was, that red and blue striped Barnett Newman painting the National Gallery paid $1.78 million for back in the early ‘90s. It seems too simple, too easy, too abstract. Then again, when the sculpture was removed for roof repairs in the 1980s, there was a public outcry for its return. Obviously, it grows on you.

Acadian artist Claude Roussel designed Progression for a sculpture contest back in the early ‘70s. The prize was worth $50,000 — not a bad chunk of change for 1971. What would that be today? $100 thousand? Some of the more well-known prizes currently available to contemporary artists are the British Turner Prize, valued at £50,000, and the annual Sobey Art Award, a $50,000 prize awarded to a contemporary Canadian visual artist under the age of forty. As far as I can find there are no regular $100,000 visual arts prizes in Canada, though the cost of some public sculptures can rise to that and easily surpass it.

Consider this: the 6000-square foot glass mural for the new faculty of engineering and fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal, designed by then 37-year old Nicolas Baier and design team Cabinet Braun-Braër, cost $475,000; Cloud Gate, the giant bean-shaped reflective metal sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park, Chicago, USA, cost $11.5 million. That’s over 10% of the annual budget for the entire city of Saint John. Yikes! Then again, the entire park (which also includes a performing arts pavilion by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and a unique fountain comprised of two 50-foot high glass brick structures by artist Jaume Plensa), stunning and wonderful lakefront addition that it is, cost almost $600 million.

Monies awarded to public art of this scale often come from various grants, fundraising, corporate donors or special building funds, including “1% for art”. In September 2005 Saint John Common Council adopted an Arts Policy that states that the city will “catalogue and document Saint John area public art”, and will “create a public art plan that identifies appropriate public art projects that will aesthetically enhance its urban spaces”.  This policy also indicates that Saint John will allocate at least one percent (1%) of the cost of municipal capital projects towards the creation and installation of public art. This is relevant when one thinks of a new police station or YMCA or provincial court house. Supposedly it will also encourage private sector developers and other levels of government to invest in a similar manner.

In the fall of 2003 Moosehead Breweries unveiled a life sized bronze moose, located at Market Square, as a gift to Saint John and its citizens. Created by Maine artist Forest Hart, the realistic moose is intended to bring more vitality to the waterfront in homage to that perennial forest creature of such magnitude and grace, whose image is seen in highway road signs throughout the Maritimes. It is undoubtedly designed to help sell more bottles of the popular, local brew.

So the moose and the beavers sit comfortably on the representational side of the art fence. Progression sits firmly atop the abstract (some sort of pun intended). Where does that leave my poor unknown sculpture?
Located at the bottom of Waterloo Street, adjacent to the backside of the Hotel Courtney Bay, this easily-missed, beige-coloured concrete sculpture looks like a fountain, though it does not contain the necessary plumbing. It is comprised of shapes that are both quintessential and plain; circles, rectangles, triangles, stacked in a sort of totemic fashion. Thus it exists in limbo, neither fully functional nor obviously representational. 

So what is it and where did it come from? Is this long-lost public art or amateur lawn decoration? A leftover from the dozens of bicentennial projects built in and around the city in the early ‘80s? The answer appears to be a mix of all of the above. Catherine Sydney, then assistant manager of what was the Holiday Inn, indicates that the sculpture—she uses the word lightly—was built in the early 1980s by herself and staff of the Inn as part of a beautification process that also included extensive landscaping and a large painted mural. The sculpture is based on an image of a horse trough from a photograph taken of the early, bustling days of Haymarket Square. 

So with the technical details of my mystery solved, I’m still left thinking about the role of public art and programs like 1% for art. Whether one disputes the finer points of representational or non-representational art, monumental sculptures, “plop art” or ephemeral, site-specific interventions, it is generally accepted that public art is a good thing. I’ve only touched on a few local examples but there are many more. Hopefully, with the city committed to 1% for art in public buildings, and local companies already contributing, Saint John will see a big increase in public art. Harbour Passage and new waterfront development are perfect opportunities. I’m sure I’m not the only artist waiting to jump at the next big public art competition. I could use $100 grand.

© chris lloyd 2006