2018 APAN Summit Recap

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Community is at the heart of great public art – that was the central message of the 2018 APAN Summit held in downtown Edmonton this fall.

APAN, or the Alberta Public Art Network, is a loose affiliation of public art administrators, managers and artists from around the province. Its purpose is to create an awareness of Alberta public art projects and opportunities; assess and access capacity in administering public art projects; improve public art collections management and administrative practices; mentor and support Alberta-based public artists and administrators, and last but not least – help the public learn about and understand artwork in the public domain in Alberta. Each year the membership gathers in a different city or town to discuss the challenges, share triumphs, and hear from experts from across Canada. The summit affords an opportunity to explore a new community while networking with colleagues.

This year was Edmonton’s turn to host. The event ran from September 11-13 beginning with an informal reception and keynote presentation at Yellowhead Brewery then continuing at the Matrix Hotel.

Kicking off the summit, Justin Langlois presented a keynote that detailed his diverse experience embedded with various communities in Ontario, Saskatchewan and BC. His social practice is heavily invested in community collaborations that work to improve, enhance and explore the ways in which public art can revitalize place. His observations left attendees in a perfect mindset to begin exploring ways of addressing the challenges around the often-sensitive subject of public art.

The next morning, following a hearty breakfast, Edmonton Arts Council Executive Director Sanjay Shahani welcomed the delegates and introduced Councillor Sarah Hamilton who brought greetings from Edmonton’s City Council. She remarked that “investment in public art is worthwhile” for its ability to “help build cities.” Even contentious artworks have value because their ability to evoke strong reactions means they fill a necessary place in the community.

Her remarks led into a deeper discussion with David Turnbull (Public Art & Conservation Director, EAC) and Jennifer Thompson (Public Art Lead, Calgary Arts Development) about the state of public art in both cities.

EAC Public Art Conservator Andrea Bowes and Conservation Assistant Jenika Sobolewska walked the delegates through several in-depth projects recently undertaken by the EAC to conserve and extend the life of important public artworks within the city. A panel moderated by Public Art Officer Grace Law navigated the challenges of gentrification in the context of Edmonton’s Chinatown. Panelists Yong Fei Guan (artist), Paul Giang (planner, City of Edmonton), and film maker / artist Shawn Tse discussed how socially engaged artists can offset the negative effects of gentrification as revitalization becomes more of a reality for Chinatown.

Engagement formed the heart of a wide-ranging conversation about working with Indigenous artists. Jerry Whitehead, Tanya Harnett, and Lauren Crazybull each offered their perspective on negotiation and dialogue. They talked about how there isn’t one formula for engaging Indigenous artists as histories are not interchangeable and inform different people’s work in different ways. Transparency and ongoing relationships are key building trust and supportive partnerships.

Following a damp tour of ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ led by Public Art Officer Chelsea Boida, the delegates regrouped for dinner at Normand’s on Jasper Avenue where cast members of CBC’s The Irrelevant Show entertained with improv comedy sketches about the day to day life of public art administrators.

Thursday dawned dark and snowy but there was plenty of hot breakfast and coffee to accompany a keynote presentation by Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed AKA Big Rock Candy Mountain. This collective creates child and youth-focused workshops that are public and participatory. They consider what children can offer to their practice, and are interested in what happens when children are introduced to the creation and consumption of art. They use candy as a negotiating tool to get children to think about things differently, to investigate taste, and to think about how taste is constructed culturally. In addition to working with the students to create a language they could use to describe flavor and experience of eating candy, the artists also allowed them to create their own space within the institutional space of the school. This correlates with how artists are expected to challenge power structures, to question authority.

The inclusion of public art curators is a relatively new trend in public art practice and Ciara McKeown, who is the Public Art Curator for Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue Streetscape project, spoke about the project and the questions that must be addressed when taking on multi-year, large-scale public art projects. The role of a curator is one of big picture thinking, to look at projects holistically in the long term, and think about how the art will look over time as well as how it will contribute to city’s overall public art collection.

Two 45-minute workshops broke down the public art process and communications. Visual artist Erin Pankratz and Public Art Officer Robert Harpin engaged the delegates with a presentation that shared tips for administrators and visual artists working together on lengthy projects. (Hint – it’s all about clear channels of communication and meeting deadlines!). Communications Officer Eva Marie Clarke then shared several case studies with delegates that illustrate the value of proactive information sharing and engagement.

Filmmaker Jason Gondziola and Brooke Leifso, a multi-disciplinary artist and administrator presented the summit’s Cornerstone Workshop on Engagement and Ethics in Community Arts, bringing the discussion that began on Tuesday evening full circle.

The workshop took on the challenges of working with communities and asked, “How can creating art create social cohesion?” Done well, community art can be a true reflection of the people and neighbourhood that inspired it, but the artist must ensure there is informed consent and that community members know what they are participating in. Artists have to build trust before proposing a project and know that depictions can be subjective. Transparency is vital and artists must keep in mind that community art is process driven, it’s about building consistency, it’s not just about the final product. Jason Gondziola summed it up, “This work is not easy and there is no right way to do it. You learn best practices as you go.”

The core content was rounded out by a series of 5X5 presentations from Michelle Schultz of dc3 Art Projects, Barb Chapman of Strathcona County, artist Amy Loewan, Bob Rasko, Churchill Square Programmer for Edmonton Arts Council, Karen Begg, Studio West Bronze Art Foundry, Cochrane, photographer Wes Bell, and Erin McDonald, Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA).

Thank you to the 62 delegates who spent their time with us in Edmonton. We hope you enjoyed your introduction to the City, and we’re looking forward to meeting again next year in Medicine Hat.

To see the full list of presenters and topics, please refer to the 2018 – Edmonton, Alberta page