Why Does Public Art Cost So Much?

In Calgary, there’s a fascinating conversation raging about Public Art, prompted by the unveiling of new sculptures on the Trans Canada Highway. Commissioned by Calgary Public Art, The Bowfort Towers were conceived by Supermass Studio and artists Del Geist and Patricia Leighton. As we are practicing artists and an ACAD grad who collaborate to make public art (both independently and through organizations like Calgary Public Art), we’re taking a moment to address the two main questions that seem to come up again and again in conversations about Public Art: “Why did it cost so much?” and “Why didn’t a local artist get this commission?” These are legitimate questions worth asking, and it’s kind of flattering that so many people want to support local talent (do it! Support all the local arts!!)

Please note, we are not speaking directly to content or concept behind the work, or conversations around cultural appropriation in this Open Letter – rather, we want to use this piece as a case study to speak more generally to City-commissioned Public Art in Calgary.

Above: Travelling Light by Ignes Idee in Calgary, images from the artists’ website 

The first question is easy to address: public art costs so much because it’s treated as infrastructure. Even the “blue ring,” often considered Calgary’s most infamous artwork, was subject to the intense scrutiny of being used to replace a standard streetlight fixture and serve as a public sculpture. It was REQUIRED to serve the function of both, and it HAD to be embedded in a bridge (which I’m sure is the main reason for the seemingly high price). By comparison, Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor in Chicago (perhaps one of the most successful public artworks in the world) has an annual CLEANING budget of $35-50,000 USD for buffing and maintenance alone.


Above: Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo by Caitlind Brown.

These new artworks on the Trans Canada (and remember that the rock sculptures are only ½ of the artwork designed for this space) are actually pretty reasonably priced by comparison to the international standard of Public Art costs. They’re also reasonable by comparison to the overall Capital Project ($71 million for a highway exchange) and ANY KIND OF INFRASTRUCTURE. By comparison, 1-kilometer of highway costs $3-6 million dollarsA traffic signal light costs $250-500,000 to build and install! People never talk about the aesthetic value of traffic lights… although I like traffic lights.

In part, people get upset over 500K because it’s a relatable number (ie. relative to your mortgage or 10 F-150 trucks). Millions of dollars are not relatable. Our point is that civic infrastructure is expensive, and public art, while included in this, is comparatively cheap. It is not pulling money away from homelessness, health care, education, etc. any more than any other city spending. Money not spent on Public Art isn’t going to go to the refugee crisis or foreign aid programs. Public art is unfairly treated as a funding scapegoat by conservative journalists who are forwarding their personal opinions. Why? Because it is an easy rallying point and therefore makes for controversial / successful / opinionated / “highly read” press.

What’s more, there’s a misconception that Calgary is pouring gold doubloons into the pockets of some wealthy New York City artist. Trust me, the artists are pocketing very little of this ca$h. Most of the money is going to fabricators, project management, engineering, installation, contractors, specialist fees, heavy equipment, raw materials, rigorous testing, and any number of invisible substructures intended for our safety. There is a net infusion back into local economies. In fact, the bulk of most public art money is spent in our city, on the workers who help build and install these projects. It’s pretty big bang for buck!


Above: Roger That by Vancouver-Artist Bill Pechet, installed at the Tuscany LRT station in Calgary. Image from Design Cause: http://designcause.ca/video/tuscany-lrt-public-art-project/

The second question is a little bit more complicated: Calgary-based public art commissions are always open to local artists, and sometimes they are ONLY open to local talent. But because of international trade agreements, the City of Calgary is required to make commissions over $75,000 accessible to international artists. The panel that selects the artist is made up of a diverse group of people, including professional artists, non-arts community members, and stakeholders in the neighbourhood where the artwork is being installed. Local artists do apply for commissions, but many of the larger-budget submissions are also open to international people. This is true of public art commissions in cities around the world (we’ve personally applied for, and been awarded, commissions nationally and internationally. Although we’ve been rejected our fair share…). In researching this article, we were interested to read that in 2015, 78% of the artists hired by Calgary Public Art were local.

There is an argument to be made for favouring local talent (CanCon!) but we need to acknowledge that we’re living in a globalized arts community, and it’s important that there be space for international voices and expertise in Calgary. Reciprocally, Calgarian voices should be allowed to occupy space in other cities: it’s a cultural exchange. We hold no resentment towards international artists who win commissions in Calgary. But despite Calgary Public Art’s attempts at reaching out to local artists (both through Calls for Submissions and educational programs like Public Art 101), in relation to the large number of practicing artists in our city, there are very few local artists interested in, or able to, make the leap from small-scale works to large-scale public art commissions without many steps in between. Perhaps they’re turned off by the bureaucracy. Perhaps they value their freedom. Perhaps the big budget projects are unattainable or unappealing. Perhaps they don’t want to be slayed by malinformed press (cough, Rick Bell, cough). Perhaps their chosen medium doesn’t translate into public art. But in many cases, the leap to large public art commissions is just so big it’s intimidating. There are steps missing in between.

Danny and Katie

Above: To The Surprise of Juan Mota, an independent public mural by Calgary-based artists Katie Green and daniel j. kirk in Cocos, Mexico. Image from Katie Green’s website: http://katiegreenartist.com/to-the-surprise-of-juan-mota

Above: Zs by the C, a public napping project presented by Calgary-based artists Eric Moschopedic & Mia Rushton in Zurich, New York, Ottawa, Toronto, and Calgary. Images from the artists’ website: http://www.ericandmia.ca/#/zs-by-the-c/

san facon

Above: Fire Hydrant Water Fountains by Calgary-based artists San Facon (originally from the UK), designed for Calgary, won the Americans for the Arts Public Art Award in 2014. Image from the artists’ website: https://www.sansfacon.org/hydrant-fountains

Working as a public artist requires confidence to multi-task between concept (the heart of a work) and all the complex levels of communication, material experimentation, environmental considerations, publics, and politics required to translate a design into a thing that can exist in public space. You need to understand the relationship between infrastructure, politics, public space, liability, fear, and magic. Negotiating materials that can survive the freeze/thaw cycles alone is enough to send most artists we know running. It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. We’re going through it right now, and it’s an endless series of compromises, some of which cut to the heart of the artwork, threatening to damage the concept. We have developed a whole new level of appreciation for ANYONE who makes ANYTHING cool in public space.

Above: River of Light by Creatosphere as seen in the Bow River in 2010. Images from the artists’ website: http://www.creatmosphere.com/projects.html

It’s worth mentioning that not all public artworks are monolithic objects. There have been some wonderful ephemeral artworks in Calgary (River of Light by Creatosphere was a brilliant work) and part of the Public Art program is dedicated to commissioning temporary works. Our Watershed+ Program is a very cool, very progressive initiative connecting local, national, and international artists with watershed experts to create new artworks inspired by the river. This program was instigated by (currently local) artist duo San Facon. Other cities should be so lucky!


Above: Graffiti house at WRECK CITY, painted by Phere and others.

There are also many, many, many independent, non-City-of-Calgary initiatives that place art in public spaces with great success. From the rich network of Calgary-based Artist Run Centres, to art + music festivals, to graffiti / street art, to interventions in public space, and beyond, there are many people dedicated to creating inclusive, accessible public art that doesn’t require an entrance fee to experience. They just aren’t treated to the same level of public scrutiny as Calgary Public Art – the privilege and responsibility of being our official civic Public Art program. (By the way, if you’re an artist reading this thread, festivals and temporary spaces are where you should be looking for your “stepping stones” to making public art. That is, if you’re still interested…)

Additionally, not all Public Art through the City comes with gigantic budgets. It depends on the capital project the Percent for the Arts is coming from, and how Public Art officials have been able to divide funds. Many projects are well below $10K. For example, the Utility Box Public Art Program pays somewhere between $400-$1000/box (as of 2011), depending on variable factors. If anything these artists should get more in exchange for their “graffiti abatement” services!

While we aren’t going to speak to the concept of the new artworks on the Trans Canada, we do believe it’s important to be critical of our cities and public spaces. There are legitimate concerns and critiques about the work. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and it’s everyone’s right to love or hate any element of public space – even Councilor Chu. Let the conversations continue! Just be aware that there’s some fairly well established research indicating the value of art in public space, especially for the reputation of a City. Honestly, anything that discourages the misconceptions that Calgary is a cultural wasteland populated by rightwing hicks and soulless oil men should be applauded!! Take this article from the Toronto Star as case in point.

beverly pepper

Above: Hawk Hill Sentinels by Beverly Pepper in Ralph Klein Park, Calgary. Images from Calgary Public Art’s website: http://www.calgary.ca/CSPS/Recreation/Pages/Public-Art/Hawk-Hill-Calgary-Sentinels-Public-Artwork.aspx

Above: Documentary about Eric Moschopedis & Mia Rushton’s public art project teaching Police and Women how to skateboard.

Like anything else, Calgary Public Art is not perfect. But we’d love to see the day when the Calgary public can move on to more interesting questions about Public Art. How can public art capture not just public space, but public psyche? How can art include its habitat, not just environmentally but socially? How can public art articulate thoughts incompatible with other means of communication? How can art interact with its publics, catalyzing shifts in the way we understand our cities? How can public art expand to include less permanent, more flexible mediums, interdisciplinary approaches, and variable scales? How can public art be RADICAL?

Someday, friends, someday…

In the meantime, here are a few resources for local artists looking to find public art commissions, here and elsewhere:


Please note: the images included in this blog were used for editorial purposes in direct reference to Public Art. The artworks remain protected by the copyright of each individual artist.


10 thoughts on “Why Does Public Art Cost So Much?

  1. Difficult-to-read grey type on a black background for a conversation about why public art is controversial?

    That’s probably ironic.

  2. Thank you for addressing the issues of cost and of awarding work to local artists (or not). I think that’s one of the big things that the public latches onto, and it makes it worse if they don’t appreciate the art. I would guess that to the general public, art which is “challenging” is tough to accept, especially with a half-million dollar price tag that doesn’t go to a local artist.

    For the average person, I would venture a guess that even something as well-known as Picasso’s cubism is stretching the bounds of what they can accept as “art”. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about art today is that the concept of the work is celebrated, and not so much the execution or skill and dexterity that went into the finished product (a great example of this would be one of Tom Friedman’s untitled works, which consisted of a Styrofoam cup of evaporated-coffee stains pinned to a piece of wood along with a dead ladybug – none of which he had manufactured himself – a piece which sold for almost $30,000 US).

    To sum up, I think the public generally wants art to be accessible, not challenging. They want to see the artist’s skill with a brush or chisel (or whatever tools are used). When the piece is more provocative, and it comes with a price tag of $500,00 of their hard-earned tax dollars, it’s tough to swallow.

  3. i’d really like to be able to read this, being a Calgarian artist, but it’s not kind to older eyes that grey font on black. Can’t be bothered, sadly.

  4. But how much did the art cost? I see only one or two actual listings. Why is it so difficult to find out how much public art costs? The title is misleading, because that is what it alludes to, but doesn’t answer the question: how much did the art cost? The article beats around the bush without providing figures.

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