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Is art necessary?

July 31, 2013

Is art necessary? The short answer is no, but it is desirable, even beneficial. I live in a small university town in rural Canada where there is a wide divide between town and gown. I spent a long time, some thirteen years, trying to bridge this gap by serving on the town council where I championed arts and culture. All of this came to a rather ignominious halt last year when I was turfed out of my seat in a run for my fifth term by an electorate who where unhappy with my arts bias or at least that was my take on the situation. It could be that they we just tired of my smiling face and wanted a change.

The fight was over the question of buying art for our new town hall. We have a bylaw that says that up to one percent of the total cost of new construction should be spent on art. This was a bylaw that I helped push through council years before the new building was on the table. The motion was passed easily because there was no new construction and it sounded good at the time, however, there is a big difference between theory and practice. When the new building did come along I pushed very hard to have it include public art within the budget. A messy public debate ensued which wasn’t helped by being bushwhacked by fellow councilors who were playing a populist role to appeal to what they correctly identified as their base. My base, on the other hand, offered their support, but, as it turned out, were too busy to vote in the following election. Unhappy people are the ones who are most likely to vote in municipal elections while my non-voting friends assured me that I was a shoe-in.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2

Sour grapes? Maybe, nobody likes rejection and it is natural to try and justify your defeat. It wasn’t like I went down in flames as I lost by about sixty votes and, in retrospect, it was a good thing as I could rethink my life and do things like focusing on my writing. Still, I was unhappy with the debate as it was art that suffered and not myself. It took, believe it or not, over seven motions over a period of over a year to get the art budget for the building approved. Every time I thought that it was in the bag, I had to counter a motion to cancel the project. The arguments, which played out in the local press, centered on the usual stuff: art was a luxury that we could ill-afford; art was elitist; the money could be better spent on filling pot-holes and that, if we did buy art, it should be by local amateurs or artists who lived within the town limits and children. It should be noted that we are a town that is noted for its arts community. Many professional artist live in and around our town, we have a famous university art gallery, an artists-run gallery and a good commercial gallery.

I did prevail and, to its credit, a majority of council supported a public art budget for our new building. A public jury was formed and there was a call for proposals. It was open to all artists in the country and stated that the projects had to say something about the town. The jury members, with the exception of myself, were not arts professionals, but local people who had an interest in the arts. I served as chair of the committee and provided professional advice, but did not vote. In the end they came up with a half dozen projects, all by artists who had a connection with the town and we ended up spending less than the one percent budget.

The art was produced and installed. Most people who look at the works seem to like them. The building would work as well without the art and it would not be missed if it had never happened. In our neck of the woods it is possible to live a full life without the benefit of art, public or otherwise. It is not a lesser life only it is an artless one. Our university art gallery is the oldest in the country and one of the largest. It is open free of charge to the public, they have an active outreach programme and many outstanding exhibitions, yet a majority of the non-university population of the town have never stepped foot in the gallery. Our artist run gallery runs quality programmes for the youth in the community yet most local people don’t even know where it is and it is right downtown.

Was it worth the efforts of these two galleries and my own to promote art in our town? Yes, of course it was, but I have come to the conclusion in my case that it is time that I took a rest and concentrate on my own work. Not a word has issued forth from town hall on the subject of art and culture since my defeat and that is OK. Life will go on just fine. I am reaching the end of my life, I will be seventy-five next week, it is high time that I have a close look at my life in the arts and try to figure out if it was all worth it. It’s not all that bad, I have good friends, my mind still sort of works and art is still a good thing as it has been over the last two or three thousand plus years. I am reasonably sure that when I am dead and forgotten that there will be stuff around, art, that will endure and will enrich at least some peoples’ lives. Tempus abire tibi est.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 26 July, 2013.

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3 comments

  1. I like the Latin quotation. Or, as the great American philosopher Dan Hicks put it, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” Virgil, I am sure that you will remain a vivid presence in town for many years to come, and on several fronts. I am also hopeful that the arts, and public art in particular, will continue to play an integral role in the Town of Sackville.


    • Thanks, Barkeley, I am not dead just yet, but I believe that the arts will go on in Sackville in spite of town government and council.


  2. Virgil …you’re not going away anytime soon. Forget the quotation. It isn’t time. I know these things!

    Also for the record I liked the committee and enjoyed working with you. Thanks for your perseverance.



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