When on holiday in any city, the visitor inevitably snaps photographs of the iconic public statuary and buildings in an effort to identify a location through association with landmarks and architecture. It is allowed freely without intrusion of private indoor spaces and confirms the identity of the place visited. The relationship of the art to the environment is illustrated and the fact that one is “being there” is documented. When at home in any city, the citizen approves or disapproves of what is presented in the form of urban public art as part of his or her own cultural identity. A sense of ownership and contribution confirms that one “belongs there”. From time to time what doesn’t belong, in the view of the citizen, is the art. There is no question that urban public art has value. Visitor and citizen benefit from the safe, politically correct selections of well-formed art committees that portray history, fame, or simply artistic caprice. This paper will discuss three specific examples of modern sculpture in Canada, all of which at one time have been considered contentious and controversial. The fourth example is of art that was never created. In each case, the specific relevance and importance of the pieces to the associated environment have been determined according to prevailing local civic attitudes.
The service of urban public art to the civilized population is as old as civilization itself. Ancient monuments, architecture, and sculpture of almost every continent and every era are important facets of historic cultures. Exceptional figures and events have been immortalized through art. Religions have been fostered through worship of inanimate representations of divine symbols. The dead have been memorialized with intricate tombs and markers. As the built city has evolved, so too has the manner in which societies decorate and commemorate what is important to an individual or group within that society.
In Canada, the earliest public art examples are large wood carvings of the native North Americans which served both social and ritual purposes. The French brought sculpture and marked streets with likenesses of saints. The British influence was that of military association, and government buildings especially were modeled after familiar architecture in England (Lacroix, 1985, 1505). As the early Canadian economy grew, cities flourished. The population increased through immigration and so did the influence of various homelands in the way cities identified themselves through public art.
As Canada developed its own history, public figures and milestones had to be characterized. Construction projects, especially of government buildings and churches had to be decorated with fountains, sculpture, stained glass, plaques, and mosaics. Clock towers often indicate the centre of a municipality and certainly a universally known meeting place. Mural paintings were used for propaganda, advertising and announcements...