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Should art be added to Victoria's 'iconic' Johnson Street Bridge?

There’s no question it will be a bridge.
a1-0327-bridge-clr.jpg
A memo raises questions about the budget for the new Johnson Street span.

There’s no question it will be a bridge. But will the new Johnson Street Bridge be art?

With some councillors arguing that the new bridge will be so “iconic” that it could be considered art, council postponed a decision Thursday on whether to spend $250,000 on a public art component of the $92.8-million bridge project.

“I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard this referred to as an iconic bridge. I don’t understand why the bridge itself isn’t a piece of art,” said Coun. Lisa Helps.

“I’m fully in support of public art. I think it’s a great thing to do but I don’t think we need to spend $250,000 on it when we’ve got this gorgeous beautiful bridge and we’ve got lots of landscaping and other public-realm elements that will enhance the space around the bridge.”

Coun. Shellie Gudgeon said any additional money should be spent ensuring all elements of the bridge — such as railways and sidewalks — are of top quality.

“In my humble opinion, art is a luxury. But when I do renovations or I’m building a structure, I try and make sure that it’s quality development so that when art is added to it, it’s brilliant,” Gudgeon said.

Under city policy, up to one per cent of the total construction costs of “exceptional, significant civic projects” can be contributed toward public art.

Coun. Geoff Young said that had the decision been made to refurbish the existing bridge instead of replacing it, there would have been no provision for public art in the budget.

“So I have a little bit of problem with the concept. The other issue is, is this the best way to spend $250,000 for the arts community and the City of Victoria? Is this the best place for it?” Young said.

In the bridge replacement project’s early planning, $350,000 had been set aside for a commissioning a piece of public art to be erected on the downtown side. Thursday city staff recommended reducing that amount to $250,000, which would still be the largest public art budget in the city’s history. The proposal was for a nationwide call for submissions with a three-stage jury selection process. Artists would have been permitted to use a piece of steel from the former Johnson Street rail bridge.

Coun. Pam Madoff argued that $250,000 on a project of $92.8 million is “very modest,” especially given that one per cent of the total bridge project cost would be closer to $1 million.

She said public art is one of the major economic drivers in the city.

“Think about it. Think about Chinatown. What would Chinatown be without the gate? That’s public art.”

Calling the bridge iconic does not make it art, Madoff said.

Mayor Dean Fortin said it’s important the city be true to its values.

“In times of austerity, we don’t just cut everything,” Fortin said. “It’s like what do you value? I don’t think we have compromised anything in this project for art.”

Councillors ultimately decided to postpone any decision on public art until they receive a more detailed report on all public-realm elements, including landscaping.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com