The Genteel
April 21, 2021


Can a world-class city thrive without a world-class public arts administration? (Photograph by John Harvey).

What creates the history of a city? Is it the humble beginnings of colonial settlement? Perhaps it's the generational differences in immigrant populations, or maybe the political legacies established over the course of a city's development. Whatever can be established about the shared history of a township, the visual aspect of the urban area is an important one.

Indigo in South Africa
(Photo by Rowan Pybus).

It's certainly not news to any British Columbia artist that province-wide arts funding has been starkly curtailed over the last few years. The most recent example - a budget decrease of almost half between 2010 and 2011 - is a strong indicator of the province's new stance on public art endeavours. Vancouver's stake in public arts funding is necessary, not only to build the city's cultural identity but also to allow for the local artist population to flourish. For a major city with a burgeoning arts and theatre scene to have a steadily declining stream of funding, the predictable result will be an irreplaceable loss of culture, as artists, stage actors and facilitators move to other areas and countries which support and encourage their creative endeavors. For a city attempting to find its voice and identity, a large reduction in public arts funding and a difficult application process will lead to backpedaling in a bland and non-constructive direction.

Enter Indigo (born Shallom Johnson), a Vancouver-based international artist, curator, managing director, and all-around productive mind highly involved in the creation of world-class artistry. When Indigo was asked to lead the creative side of a project funded by Vancouver's 125th anniversary mural program, she jumped at the chance to create a large outdoor piece within her city. A collaborative piece which explores the shared histories of food in family and cultural communities of the downtown Eastside, a team of talented and sought after artists was assembled, the timeline set, and think-tank started. Fast-forward three months and the city is already behind, pushing the entire timeline back and necessitating artists to rework their already hectic schedules. Indigo remarks, "What happens between being approved to be a part of the program and actually having the mural complete has been overly complicated, frustrating, and counter-productive towards actually getting anything done." As the program requires the mural to be finished in 2011 (and Vancouver fall/winter isn't exactly prime painting weather), obvious complications arise.

The City of Vancouver now has an iron-fist grip on public visual space.

Unfortunately, the devaluation of public arts projects has become a regular occurrence ever since the Olympics caused the administration to increase their control over the visual aspects of the city. As Indigo puts it, "The City of Vancouver now has an iron-fist grip on public visual space that you can only really get around by working on privately-owned low visibility alley walls or being outside of the city center." This pigeonholes artists into only being able to work in predetermined, low traffic areas and the impact the work could have on the community suffers as a result. Even if a piece were to be commissioned and paid for by a building owner, the city maintains the right to remove that work if a passerby were to complain about it to the city for any reason. As Indigo puts it: "This makes it really challenging as an artist who would love to host international artists and have projects with people coming from out of town and from here…I've seen it work in so many other places where the city has been trusting in either one artist or a group of artists, to be able to curate a treatment of public space that is contemporary and engaging and thought-provoking, while still being community friendly."

The application process to construct an outdoor mural is even more frustrating: a $600 processing fee, which in no way guarantees approval of the project. Furthermore, the paperwork filed and administrative staff used for these art projects are the same used in construction development permits. This reduces art to more of a simple transaction than an experience and also means that personnel not involved in art - instead, real estate and development - are overseeing the projects. It would be a slight understatement to suggest there is room for improvement. So what elements of the application process differ within other communities that make them stand out from this red-tape fumble?  

Examples of projects Indigo has worked on include Toronto's Manifesto Festival, South Africa's A Word of Art, and Paris' Vitry-sur-Seine suburb. Manifesto is a community project that seeks to unite and celebrate talent and diversity within the arts and music community. In setting up a space to paint, "you get permission from whomever owns the building or find legal wall space and…just paint. There are other steps to it - if it's a larger scale project - but that's about design and concept with the building owners and residents: basic logistics." The contrast between this method and that of Vancouver should be immediately apparent yet slightly perplexing given their shared Canadian boundary. While working on a mural for Manifesto, Indigo comments, "I was telling people about what you have to go through in order to paint a mural [in Vancouver]…people looked at me like I was crazy." While the mayoral body of Toronto is changing as of late, it still maintains a looser agenda on cultural reality when it comes to the creation of public art.

Indigo's collaboration with Elicser
(Photo by Indigo).

A Word of Art is an ongoing project and international collective that seeks to empower and uplift communities in South Africa and around the continent. Their idea is to curate and produce community participatory public art projects and workshops throughout Africa, while bringing in artists, writers, and other creatives from around the world to let them experience the community and allow them to bring their unique style to the table. The permit procedure thus far has been non-existent; instead simply requiring meeting with community members to learn how they operate, in order to provide work which best suits the local society. While a permit process may be put in place shortly, the Cape Town administration is working with A Word of Art to create a fair and artist-based procedure dedicated to making things work for everyone.

The work of C215 (Christian Guémy) has become fairly synonymous with the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. After years of acting as a street stencil artist, the administrative body of the city approached him to give him the reins to the city's public arts face, allowing him to paint any wall he wants, with the permission of the owner. This project turned into a large international movement within the city, as it has become host to many artists from around the world who go directly through C215 to paint a mural. This initiative has created a bustling hive of colour and growth that makes the city one of excitement and beauty for those living within it and anyone visiting. Indigo has painted several pieces in the city through this development and has been featured on the cover of their Vitry Vit Le Street Art publication.

The idea of artists and community groups coming together to address the problem is one that strongly indicates the call for change. Given the current climate of protest, revolution and social change, has there been a better time to make this a reality? Vancouver's administrative body is soon changing over, the general populace is investigating public infrastructure, and the group of creative bodies residing here are gaining more and more international clout. There is a very real potential for public arts administration to progress and grow to the levels we see within many of the other artistic hot spots around the globe.

Community Links:

Indigo's Blog:

A Word of Art:

Manifesto Community Projects:



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