As I write this I am currently wrapping up my participation in a temporary public art project in Sweden. I am exhibiting a version of Sputnik Returned #2 (see image) that I have been invited to present as part of OpenArt2017 in Ӧrebro. As I prepare to hop on a plane and head back to Canada it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on my experience working as an artist in Europe versus North America.
Often in Canada we tend to romanticize how artists are treated in Europe based on experience, assumption, and rumour. We assume that European society values the contribution of creative individual. We hear anecdotes of how galleries are free of admission fees, artists do not pay taxes, some countries pay professional artist a living wage, and that generally exhibiting in Europe is a more professional experience that what happens in Canada. Of course, this all conjecture and there is no objective way to evaluate these assumptions; however, having completed a number of projects in Europe in the past decade (Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, and Sweden) there are some observations that I am willing to make based on my experience.
In Europe, it seems easier to get permission for public art projects. Want to crash a replica of Sputnik into a parked car and let it sit in the street for three months? Sure, why not, no questions about permits, or insurance, or other forms of bureaucracy. To be fair, I have never been turned down when proposing a public installation in Canada, but there always seem to be hoops to jump through.
During the installation of the project this week, we had to use a boom crane on a public street to lift a crushed car over parked cars and place it in its location on a set of stairs. This process took about two hours during rush hour traffic. Besides average commuters wandering by, there were city officials walking by, parking attendants watching, and twice the police drove by, but no one stopped to question what was happening. No one asked us for permits or seemed upset that two ton mass of steel levitating above the street. I am not sure if this because no one cared, or if they saw the exhibition signage and assumed we had permission, but in similar circumstances in Canada there would have been as much time spent explain the project as installing it.
Again, these observations are based on my own experience, and might not be reflective of larger truths. However, the one thing that is not different between working in public art in Canada versus Europe is the audience reception. The positive conversations and enthusiastic conversation with viewers always vastly outnumbers the disparaging remarks, and this is true for either continent.