Volume 12 Week 5

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On the list of conspicuous expenditures by the City of Ottawa, otherwise known as wasting our tax dollars, comes the latest mind-numbing, nonsensical and downright infuriating revelation that the city paid $150,000 for a public art installation at the corner of Trim and Watters Roads, that in my most humble opinion, serves now useful or esthetic purpose at all.

It's called "Erratic Field" and roughly speaking it's a collection of 10 rusted, geometric shapes representing boulders left behind after the last ice age.

If your travels have taken you down Trim Road you may have seen them on your left as you approach Watters.

Now, I am not an arts critic, nor do I purport to be an art expert. In fact, I have nothing against the artist himself, who happens to be Shayne Dark from Harrington, Ontario near Stratford. I have been to his website and I like a number of his previously commissioned public pieces.

I should also note that I have been a long-time supporter of the arts community, and public funding of the arts at all levels as an investment of our culture and society.

But there is a time and a place for everything and not all art is created equal, especially when trying to get money out of the city for even the most worthy of community projects is like trying to squeeze juice out of a lemon that has been left out in the sun for a week.

First, the work itself. I am a huge fan of "interactive" public art such as the piano sculpture outside the Shenkman Arts Centre. They are fun and they inspire creativity. There is nothing interactive about "Erratic Field", unless you want to risk getting tetanus.

According to the official description of the sculpture, the weathered exterior is covered by a "rich purple brown patina", which is artist talk for rust.

My other reaction is that if you want to install a group of boulders to represent the aftermath of the last ice age, why not find 10 boulders. Mother Nature has always been one of the most prolific artists of all-time. We live on the edge of the Precambrian Shield for crying out loud. There are boulders galore out there. And they're incredibly cheap.

But my biggest pet peeve about the installation is the cost. To my way of thinking it is just another example of how screwed up this city's priorities are.

I also have a personal bias. The Greater Orleans Canada Day Celebration, of which I am chair, applied for a city grant last fall to help pay for this year's event.

In 2014, we received $2,100. This year we received bupkis. Why is that you ask? According to the letter we received from the city, they were worried we were going to use the money to pay off last year's deficit.

Now, if they had of asked us for an explanation, or a clarification, we would have explained to them our plans to pay down the deficit before this year's event, none of which involved using any grant money. But they never asked us for a clarification. They simply rejected it out of hand.

In other words, they don't have any money to help cover the costs of the largest all-volunteer event in the community, but they can spend $150,000 on an art installation that serves no purpose whatsoever.

To put that in perspective, $150,000 could pay for two very nice playstructures. There are a group of parents in Chapel Hill who have been trying to acquire funds to replace a play structure that was removed years ago on Forest Valley Drive.

They have approached the city and have been told that the cupboard is bare. Obviously, they looked in the wrong cupboard.

Which brings me back to "Erratic Field". You may be asking how did it ever get approved. That's easy -- complacency. It was a result of complacency on the part of taxpayers, and the blind assumption that our elected officials are watching out for these sort of things for us.

The process was all very above board and included a public open house in October 2013 where people could see the five projects that made the short list and meet the artists who designed them. I didn't go to the meeting, but I also don't remember ever hearing about it, which is why I wasn't there. So, I also don't know how many people did attend the meeting.

My assumption is that there weren't that many people there, and those who did show up were relatively pleased with what they saw. Since no one objected, it was allowed to proceed without any interjection or influence on the part of tcity officials.

And, hey, who can blame them, especially when you look at the artist's rendition of the sculpture in its "natural" environment. I've presented both the artist's rendition and the actual installation as it appears today.

The artist's rendition makes it look like it's in the middle of a lush park. It's on the side of the road beside a bus stop that doesn't even have a bench. The trees that have been planted in the background will take 20 years to mature.

If you're upset about this latest questionable use of your tax dollars, when other projects like neighbourhood playstructures go un-funded, I don't blame you and neither should anybody else.

And if any elected official were to express dismay over your outrage, I would question their judgement. Again, it's about priorities. It's about keeping a close eye on the public purse and ensuring that every expense makes sense, or at least provides a useful service to their constituents.

The public art installation at Trim and Watters does not pass that litmus test. If nothing else it shows that some things will never change no matter who is in charge, or words wasted to assure the opposite.

(If you wish to comment on this or any other View Point column please write to Fred Sherwin at fsherwin@magma.ca)

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