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The State of the Art

Image of Nancy Bauer

Recently I learned a new term, “art-washing.” It means that a real estate developer offers a piece of public art to a city government in exchange for its approving a variance in the building code. That happened in Fredericton a few months ago. The city council approved a many-storied condo building bound to spoil a lovely streetscape in the downtown. This comes on the heels of the destruction in Officers’ Square with the removal of many trees, the historic wall and fence, and the green lawn. Those who opposed this demolition were derisively called “The Against Everything Crowd.” I did write to my city councillor about the trees, but otherwise didn’t participate in the protests.

Once forty years ago I was part of the protest movement against the destruction of the old bridge across the St. John River and the construction of the Westmorland Street Bridge. The artist Marjory Donaldson set me straight. She was so right, and I and my cohorts were so wrong—the old bridge would have become impossible. The green, the trail, and the walking bridge, which were part of the new plan, are delightful.

I am 85 and so won’t be affected by the changes for long. I also know I am not infallible about these civic judgements. I offered my collection of New Brunswick books to the Harriet Irving Library. They snapped it up. I now am an historical artefact myself, and these books have become valued—even the Harlequin Romances, the poorly printed skinny poetry chapbooks, the self-published novels. Librarians Lesley Balcom, Jocelyne Thompson, and Julia Roy were delighted with this raggle-taggle. When they carried it off, I expected to be sad, but instead I was so elated that I took myself out to dinner.

It made me wish that my beloved house would become a heritage artefact, be preserved, and thus my adored Norfolk Island Pine would have a forever home. You should never fall in love with the material, we are told. But we do. We can’t help it.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery curator John Leroux has discovered hidden treasures in the Gallery and hung them up: a hunk of a nineteenth-century William Morris tapestry—a little woebegone; a drawing by an important twentieth-century Bauhaus figure, Josef Albers. Leroux not only loves art, he loves the history of art; not only contemporary architecture, but historical buildings. The house he designed for his family is an intriguing blend of the old and the new.

Blending the historical and the contemporary, keeping what is valuable in the old while making room to add the new, is a touchy business. Some people think a fancy stage for rock concerts in Officers’ Square outweighs the benefit of the heritage walls and trees. It is tricky to satisfy all, and I can see both sides. Taking up space in the library for the history of literature in a golden age I lived through is dicey. Trying to hedge my bets, I established a fund at the library for the purchase of new books for new courses.

Debates going on now: should we have a new Playhouse or a new swimming pool? We apparently can’t have both. Should we have more downtown housing at the expense of ruining the most charming streetscape in the city? Someone decided that the original jolly colour scheme of Chalmers Hospital should be gone in favour of dull, but soothing, white and green. New Brunswick Power succumbed to the fad of putting the electric lines in the back of our house, leaving our street view more aesthetically pleasing. Wonderful, Bill and I said. Fifty years later it turns out to have been a lousy idea, making the maintenance of the lines difficult, resulting in power outages.

We appreciate “the shock of the new” of the last 100 years in visual art.  In creative writing courses poets are urged to imitate the poetry of the last sixty years. I don’t know if I would recognize completely new and original literature, would be able to appreciate a new genre. Probably I would be like those who thought Eduard Manet’s paintings were crazy.

What I do know for certain is that we should keep all such debates civil. We should acknowledge the expertise of the experts but also take into consideration the desires of the majority. The opinion of new citizens should be considered along with those of people who have lived here all their lives and cherish their heritage.

What will the public art donated by the condo developer look like? Where will it be put? I hope it turns out to be an iconic work so that someone fifty years from now will write, “Imagine! It was almost not created. Wouldn’t that have been tragic?”

Nancy Bauer

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