COLUMN: Invest our art dollars in the people

NANAIMO – Picking any piece of art for public consumption is risky business.

Everyone’s a critic.

As someone who writes for a living, I know this from experience.

I’m reminded every time typos appear in my copy – people never assume it’s a slip of the keyboard. Rather, they simply think I’m a moron.

Harsh, but as a politician once said: my skin is so thick I don’t need sunscreen. (I do need sunscreen. I’m pasty, but hopefully you get the metaphor.)

So I’m surprised, if somewhat skeptical, about the City of Nanaimo’s ambition to brand the city as an arts and culture destination.

The city is asking for feedback in the form of a survey on art and facilities in Nanaimo. You can find it on the city’s website at

Art is a very personal thing. Picking any piece of art for public consumption is risky business.

Nanaimo’s series of public art pieces change every year and some of them are spectacular.

In my opinion.

In the opinion of others, they’re all sorts of things, positive and negative.

Some would argue that the giant picture frame looking into the harbour from Swy-a-lana Lagoon is not art, yet it’s one of the most photographed pieces in the city. People clamber inside the frame, striking poses, funny faces.

It’s installation meets performance art. Brilliant, I say.

A few years ago, a performance art  piece at the campus location of the Nanaimo Art Gallery included a blank, white wall which the artist proceeded to drive a couple hundred golf balls at, creating a palette of dents, holes and scuff marks. What some saw as destruction or vandalism, others saw as a new medium of visual art.

I remain open-minded about what constitutes art, provided you’re not harming an animal or a person.

Art is designed to challenge social mores, shake up beliefs and make people question the world around them.

A nude statue in the centre of a roundabout stirred up Penticton about seven years ago, after vandals had a go at its most controversial bits.

It was a sad, forlorn character, carrying suitcases and looking like he carried the weight of the world. It made a statement for sure, one different to all who brought their own experiences to its interpretation. The Baggage Handler, nicknamed Frank, was later removed, bronzed and installed at a nearby vineyard.

How would people in Nanaimo react to a nude statue downtown? Or, for that matter, how would cruise ship passengers remember it?

A true artistic city would embrace all types of art, discuss them and move forward confidently, knowing that whatever was chosen would not appeal to all people but had value just the same.

This was the argument I formulated in my head. Then I took the survey.

It dealt mostly with how people viewed the city’s facilities, from the Port Theatre to Beban Park. It also asked about a multiplex.

We have some incredible facilities in Nanaimo, beginning with the Port Theatre. We have smaller venues, like Nanaimo Centre Stage, and we have private ones, too, like the old Caprice Theatre and the bars and restaurants downtown. Also, the conference centre.

Rather than spending more money on buildings, I’d like to see an investment in people. Provide funding for a local play, sponsor an art piece or supply a musician with a grant to hone his or her craft.

The city does this through arts and culture grants, which helped develop some leading arts organizations in Nanaimo. If we’re spending money on culture – and some people don’t think we should  – this is the avenue I support, rather than the current ‘build it and they will come’ attitude.

When it comes to creating a culturally rich city, my money’s on the people to make it happen.