Culture & Conversation

Public Art, Public Places

Next time you notice a striking piece of sculpture outside a new building, be sure to stop and take a good look. Chances are, you helped pay for it.

Few people realize that thanks to Quebec’s ground-breaking “1% policy,” all new and enlarged public buildings must devote a portion of their construction budget to art acquisition.

Officially known as the Politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture et à l’environnement des bâtiments et des sites gouvernementaux et publics, the 1% policy means tax dollars are going toward the purchase of murals, sculptures, paintings and other pieces of visual art created by Quebec artists, for display in and around public buildings.

The latest of these offerings is a series of engravings by Kamila Wozniakowska called Acer Concordiae, located in one the tunnel leading to the Guy-Concordia metro and running under boulevard De Maisonneuve. The 52 laser-engraved stainless steel plaques (26 plaques in each direction) depict the growth of Concordia amidst the city of Montreal. This development, represented by the growth of a tree, the Acer Concordiae, takes place from when Montreal didn’t even exist (only the Mount Royal is visible) to present day.

Presented by Clarence Epstein, Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs at Concordia, the engravings were the high point of a short discussion on public art at Concordia University. Priding himself on the way Concordia chooses to consciously integrate art to its architecture, Epstein says that while the 1% policy forces public buildings to buy art, Concordia feels it’s its obligation to celebrate art and culture in its insitutions. Unfortunately, some works are hidden or not clearly visible: Francois Houde’s Four Horsemen, a glass mural, is located high up on the fourth floor of the Vanier Library and one of Jean McEwen’s three painted glass windows, in the mezzanine of the Sir George Williams building, is hidden in an office. This, in Epstein’s opinion, reflected the fact that previous administrators viewed the 1% policy as an obligation that couldn’t be avoided. Now, he explains, public art helps state the university’s identity within its urban setting. This is particularly the case of the downtown campus that isn’t characerized by greenery like the Loyola campus is.

If one had to choose a jewel to crown Concordia’s public art it would surely be the glass mural by Nicolas Baier on the eastern facade of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Complex (corner of Sainte-Catherine and MacKay). A piece that apparently can only be viewed in all its splendor early in the morning, it represents, with its foliage, the four flowers that make up the Montreal flag and the multitude of people that haunt Concordia University. According to Epstein, Baier and other recently commissioned artists have been sensitive not only to the university’s history, but also to the connection between the university and the city and to the location where their art will be displayed. A subterranean piece (Yehouda Chaki’s The Four Seasons) offers light for those dreary walks from one building to the next and a colourful painting (Holly King’s Seascape and the Sublime) shows the transition between public and private places through movement and shifting colours.

It is precisely these elements — the history of Concordia, the agreement between the university campus and the urban milieu and the passage of students — that inspired Wozniakowska work. Not meant to be stared at, Acer Concordia is like the images in a flip book: the engravings progess gradually through the ages and through the seasons.

A list of all public art displayed at Concordia University is available on their website.

An occasional column entitled Public Art/Public Places offering a glimpse of public art in Montreal will begin in May.

Image of Acer Concordiae courtesy of the artist.

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