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Alberta Five questions with Edmonton Arts Council director Sanjay Shahani

Sanjay Shahani, executive director for the Edmonton Arts Council, says public art is ‘an important way for us to define who we are as a city, including all the diversity we have.’

Another furor over a $500,000 piece of public art in Calgary has prompted Mayor Naheed Nenshi to declare that the city needs a better process for choosing public art projects. But to critics who question why such large amounts of money are spent on such installations, Edmonton Arts Council executive director Sanjay Shahani tells Jana G. Pruden such art helps personalize a city.

What, in your view, is the point of public art?

We've had public art for at least 1,000 years or more. I think that as we start to understand more about ourselves and where we are going as a community or as a nation or as a province, public art catalyzes our relationship with each other and with the place that we are in. Public art in urban environments such as Edmonton today is really, I believe, an important way for us to define who we are as a city, including all the diversity we have, not just in terms of our cultural and social diversity, but the physical landscape. The idea of art actually defining built heritage or built culture is something that adds not only immediate value, but infuses the space with a sense of place. It also allows us to imagine the place where the art exists in new ways. Most importantly, it allows us to connect and belong.

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That all sounds great. So why do people get so angry sometimes?

As with all art, if the art is successful, it will provoke a response. We respond, and part of that spectrum of response is anger. But there's joy, there's a sense of understanding, there's a sense of togetherness, there's a sense of celebration. There's a sense of being able to project where we want to be, who we want to be as a society. All of those things are part of the spectrum that art elicits or evokes in individuals. Anger is one of them, but it's not the only one.

How do you respond to a question like, 'How could we spend this amount of money on this piece of art, when it could be used to fill potholes or for some other practical purpose?'

My response to that is that not everything done in the public interest is necessarily functional. There's a plethora of positive benefits from … artistic activities. It's not just about road and bridges; the introduction and insertion of art in public places allow us to stop and think about things in a different way. In Edmonton, we have some examples of that. Much before I got here, there was a controversial thing about the Talus Dome. It's been five years, and Edmontonians are quite attached to it. It's become something that marks the highway; it … is not just about the bridge any more. The art that was inspired by a natural formation has made it something that is part of Edmonton. It's part of the psyche now.

How is public art chosen in Edmonton?

[The Edmonton Arts Council] is an independent, not-for-profit organization and we have a relationship with the City of Edmonton which is very strong. We work with the city closely to identify things such as the budget and the site and the context and so on. We have a selection committee which is comprised of city administration, people on the construction and project team, well-known artists from the community, and most importantly, community members, because it's important to have the voice of the citizens in this committee. It's run like any other peer review process, with criteria that look at artistic quality and feasibility, appropriateness of materials and the site, and the community impact. There's a system of scoring, and after that is done, the winning commission is announced. It's a fairly rigorous process.

What is your favourite piece of public art?

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I've got a few. I was very lucky that I was able to attend the launch of Alex Janvier's Iron Foot Place, which was in September. It was wonderful to actually see this massive mosaic which represents Edmonton. I also like the Talus Dome, I have to say. There's something about it that grabs you, it's quite a beautiful piece. And then there's the Willow at Borden Park, which is also beautiful because it's very interactive. You often see kids inside the Willow and outside the Willow, it's really become kind of a defining element in Borden Park.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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