Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hydro skimping on budget for art?

A mass purchase of visual art for Manitoba Hydro's new downtown office tower is earning mixed reviews from the city's arts community.

For more than a year, a Hydro staffer and a private consultant have been criss-crossing the province, buying paintings for the 22-storey eco-friendly skyscraper on Portage Avenue.

They've sidestepped galleries and dealt directly with individual artists. There has been no commissioning of new work, nor has a competition been held.

Their main guidelines, established by an internal Hydro committee, are to choose conservative work and to buy exclusively from living Manitobans.

But critics of the process argue that the crown corporation has been chintzy with its allotment for public art and may be purchasing mediocre work.

"It's a joke," says Shaun Mayberry of the Exchange District gallery Mayberry Fine Art.

"You'd think that when a major provincial institution puts up a signature building, they'd set aside a serious amount for a cultural component."

The owner of the Ken Segal Gallery says he is frustrated that commercial galleries such as his have been shut out of the money.

"Hydro is missing out on a lot of artists that should be in their collection," said Segal, who recently relocated his River Avenue gallery to south Osborne Street.

"They should be buying good quality art that stands the test of time."

Arts policy makers have long argued that the "one per cent rule" should prevail -- that is, one per cent of a project's construction cost should be devoted to public art.

If Hydro were to follow these unofficial guidelines, it would spend upwards of $2.7 million toward everything from paintings to sculpture.

The corporation has remained mum on its art budget, though the amount spent so far is thought to be less than $200,000.

"One per cent is really the bare minimum these days," said Tricia Wasney, who manages the Winnipeg Arts Council's public art program.

"It would be wonderful if all private development gave thought to integrating public art into their projects."

A Hydro spokesman said on Wednesday the corporation was not in a position to discuss the issue in the light of the current electrical workers' strike.

"Management is occupied in many other areas these days," Jim Peters said.

The project's private design consultant, Ben Wasylyshen, describes his budget as "very modest."

"Too bad it's not the Trudeau era," said Wasylyshen, who has done similar work for Cambrian Credit Union and Manitoba Blue Cross.

"But those days are gone -- long, long gone."

So far, Wasylyshen says, he has purchased 80-90 pieces, which are sprinkled throughout the building. Three pieces, including abstracts by senior Winnipeg artists Bruce Head and Ewa Tarsia, are currently installed on the largely empty walls of the tower's main floor lobby.

Works by several northern aboriginal artists have been bought, he says, as well as pieces by Brandon-based Steve Gouthro and Winnipeggers David Perrett, Grace Nickel, Luther Pokrant, Bill Pura and Keith Oliver.

He says he is negotiating with the Winnipeg Art Gallery for the loan of a piece from its permanent collection, a boulder-like sculpture, also for the building lobby. A WAG official confirmed that talks are underway but refused to elaborate.

Wasylyshen defends Hydro's decision to avoid commercial galleries and to dispense with commissions or competitions.

"That would take time and administration," he said. "This was about connecting with the community active and working in Manitoba."

Mayberry says companies need leaders who collect art for its value to be recognized throughout the organization.

"The Richardsons are the shining example in Winnipeg," Mayberry said, referring to James Richardson & Sons' president and CEO Hartley Richardson.

WAC's latest public art commission, a $150,000 bus shelter sculpture on Ellice Avenue in front of the University of Winnipeg, is currently turning heads as artist David Perrett chips away at it.

"He hopes to finish before the snow flies," Wasney said.

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