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Gentili: This kind of public art is not a good use of public funds

A good chunk of taxpayer money was spent on the steel and green glass structure on Durham Street downtown, and for what?

Public art. You know, that thing that often gives more legitimate forms of artistic expression a bad name. 

Public art is often little more than pablum: it can loosely be called art, but it’s not so artistic as to risk offending anyone.

Unless it’s huge and impossible to ignore. Case in point: the green glass and steel structure recently unveiled on the corner of Durham and Elgin streets downtown.

Since the tarp came off the thing in July, the common reaction has been something to the effect of “what the heck is that supposed to be?” followed quickly by “how much did that thing cost us?”

First, the structure (I hesitate to call it a sculpture) is part of the Brady Green Stairs project. The $1.2-million municipal endeavour serves several purposes: to repair a storage building and hydro vault, to provide additional lighting and sightlines downtown to minimize crime in the area, and to continue a Downtown Master Plan effort to have greenspace and parkland extend from Paris Street to Durham.

When the Tom Davies Square courtyard project is completed a “linear” park will extend from there, through Memorial Park, to the Brady Green Stairs and Durham. Mining-themed murals are planned for the walls at the new park area (a new mural is planned for the underpass from Elgin to Riverside Drive as well).

I love art and I love artists; I just want to get that out of the way right now. This isn’t about art. Artists always have a unique point of view on the world and the human condition. I appreciate that about them. 

And I think art is important. Yes, art is ultimately useless. That’s one of things that makes it great. It’s something humans feel compelled to do for no discernible purpose. It doesn’t feed or clothe or house us, but art plays a role in how we present the food we eat, in how we express ourselves through the clothes we wear and in how we choose to decorate the places we call home.

It’s an existential scream of “I am here!” into an uncaring universe.

Art isn’t just a thing we put in museums. It permeates the daily lives of every person in every culture on the planet. That applies to our communities as well.

Public art comes in many different forms. Lively sculptor Tyler Fauvelle, for instance, has created something like 20 bronze sculptures that celebrate important people and events in communities across Ontario. His work is evocative and striking. No one would say it isn’t art.

But we must differentiate between that kind of public art — in which an artist executes their vision of something on a subject of local importance — and the kind of sterile, heartless public art represented by the Brady Green Stairs.

The murals that dot our city thanks to the Up Here festival that happens in August (the fifth edition is just about to begin) have turned downtown into one large art gallery, prompting walking tours, Google listings, tourism and a great deal of discussion.

Some of the murals I like, some I don’t, but they certainly aren’t devoid of anything representing human expression.

The important question is not “what is it” but “why is it." The Green Thing on Durham (which has been hilariously photoshopped into the Gumbi character ) was designed by the Sudbury firm J.L. Richards and is supposed to represent a mine, the city told reporter Darren MacDonald. 

Why this odd green thing? Originally, it was supposed to be a multi-coloured glass dome, but concerns about that design’s ability to hold up under heavy snow load forced a redesign. And this green thing was the result of that redesign.

It was OK'd by city staff and then ultimately OK'd by city council. What are they seeing that I’m not? I mean, I’m not offended by the design – to me it isn’t visually interesting enough to be offensive, but I am offended that both staff and council gave the thumbs up to spending likely hundreds of thousands in materials and salaries for something that serves no purpose other than as decoration.

Because that’s all it is — decoration. It’s an expensive throw pillow. Sure it looks OK on the couch, but it’s neither big enough nor soft enough for a comfortable sleep.

Sudbury isn’t alone in using taxpayers’ money to fund the construction of bad public art. In fact, there are numerous online blogs dedicated to bad public art. Calgary is absolutely lousy with the stuff

Obviously, art is subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that. Like I said, this isn’t really about art. This is about the responsible use of taxpayers’ money. 

To the denizens of Tom Davies Square: There’s enough art by committee in cities already, without Sudbury jumping on the bad public art bandwagon. Please leave art to the artists.

Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life and Follow him on Twitter @markgentili. He can be reached by email at


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