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New signs coming soon for some much-needed context in Burnaby’s public art scene

Plus: Check out Burnaby’s interactive public art map online

One example of public art in Burnaby. City of Burnaby.

On Oct. 16, Burnaby councillors approved a new public art policy that would make public art more accessible, comprehensible and inclusive. Many pieces of art placed in public spaces lack appropriate signage to explain their purpose and the artist’s vision. Sometimes objects appear in front of buildings seemingly overnight, leaving residents scratching their heads wondering what this is supposed to mean or why the city placed it right here.

That was one of the main topics of discussion on Oct. 16, when Coun. Alison Gu started by saying, “I don’t understand art, as somebody who is not an artist. I want to be able to understand public art, though, because I think public art should be accessible to everybody.” According to Gu, many public artworks are confusing for people, and they exist without any context, or any plaque explaining their purpose and meaning. As an example, many of Gu’s neighbours in Brentwood use the artworks as landmarks for wayfinding in their neighbourhood. “I know that a lot of my friends who live in surrounding buildings identify their locations by saying things like ‘I live by the Buy-Low check mark’ or ‘I live by the weird tower,’” Gu said.

Gu added that one way to make art more accessible to the public is to include members of the public on the committees that select public artworks, “because public art is supposed to serve the public, there should be more public input on that and at the end of the day, there needs to be an accessibility around that public art, whether it’s through an explanation or a QR code to be able to learn more about what that artist’s vision was, and reasoning why,” she said.

Toko Nuburi and Toko Shusei, Kamui Mintara (Playground of the Gods), 1990. City of Burnaby

Other councillors chimed in with their opinions on the matter. Coun. Pietro Calendino expressed his dislike for some of the public art on display at present, saying, “I do agree that I don’t know what some of the new public art means.” Calendino added that he agreed with Gu that members of the public should be involved in selecting art to be placed in public spaces. Once, he said, he was at the unveiling of a new artwork on Douglas Rd. and when he saw the new piece he thought, “What the heck is this?” The artist, who Calendino described as “very nice” helpfully explained the artwork, the vision behind it and its purpose, at which point Calendino began to truly appreciate it.

Coun. Maita Santiago told another aspect of the story and that is cultural inclusion and humanizing the urban environment. “Public art can play a critical role, not only in humanizing it, but also in making the people that live in our city feel welcome, like they’re a part of it,” Santiago said. She added that as the child of immigrants from the Philippines, she felt profoundly moved by a mosaic on Fraser Street in Vancouver that was commissioned to reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood’s residents and had a Philippine sun on it. She called the artwork “absolutely powerful.”

“It can impact people profoundly and affect the level of engagement people can have with a place,” Santiago said.

Coun. James Wang expressed his support for the new policy and his wish to see even more public art. As a former architect, Wang said public art plays such an important role in the rapidly growing and diverse community of Burnaby. By working together to bring more public art into the community, people will develop a greater sense of belonging and appreciation for it, especially if instructions and a map of public art are included.

If you are interested in discovering more about the public art currently on display in Burnaby, check out the interactive public art map on the city’s website. It is a treasure trove of information about different artworks throughout the city. Until explanatory signs become ubiquitous on all public artworks, the interactive map is a good place to learn about the context and background of art pieces in your neighbourhood.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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