Cities across Canada have an official policy that governs the process for commissioning public art. Hamilton’s policy has always been an anomaly because it attempts to achieve a level of transparency and community involvement that most public art programs lack. When municipalities strike committees to adjudicate submissions for public art projects, they almost always include a ‘community representative’ – usually defined as a non-art professional who is somehow attached to the community/location that will live with the art being commissioned. This person could be from the local BIA, a community activist, or a business owner. Interestingly, Hamilton takes this community outreach one step further than involving a community representative on the committee. Hamilton begins the entire commissioning process with a community consultation where stakeholders come together and discuss the themes that are relevant to the public art commission before the call to artists even goes out. Once the call is open and the committee creates a shortlist of 4-5 artists, Hamilton then holds a public consultation where the shortlisted submissions are made public and written comments from the public are sought. Often referred to as “Hamilton Idol” by artists in the community, this consultation is not actually a vote, but a method of gaining feedback to help the jury make the final decision. I have never experienced a public art process that took such a transparent approach to commissioning work before I was short listed for a project in Hamilton.
The City of Hamilton is currently in the process of reviewing its Public Art Master Plan, the document that governs how the city commissions and acquires public art, and through this review the city is upping the ante on community involvement. The obvious thing to do in the internet age is to post a survey online to acquire feedback on what has been done and what is planned for the future, and Hamilton has done this; however, what interests me the most is that they have also created an interactive map that shows existing works of public art and where projects are being planned. Best of all, the map allows anyone to suggest locations in Hamilton for future public art projects. I decided to take a quick look at the suggested projects the other day, and I easily spent an hour scrolling through some truly inspired suggestions, ranging from turning the Bitmar oil storage tanks off the Skyway into giant canvases for murals (suggestion 93), a massive work at Kay Drage Park that would capture the attention of commuters on the 403 (suggestion 120), an outdoor stage for theatre in Tweedsmuir Park (suggestion 156) and so on.
Since they are unattributed, I have no idea if these suggestions are coming from artists or non-artists, but most of them are insightful and give a glimpse into the fabric of our city. More importantly it is allowing the community to drive the public art process and take ownership of how we want to see our city build communities through works of art. As Hamilton continues to evolve into a major force in urban renewal and growth in Canada, this process is an example of trying to maintain a grassroots approach to city building. Hopefully the city will listen to the suggestions and feedback from its citizens. If you haven’t had a chance to visit the survey or the interactive map I encourage you to do so – here are the links: