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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

How much will Albertans spend on oil portraits of Alison Redford and Dave Hancock?

| August 12, 2014
Alberta Premier Dave Hancock Portrait Imagined

"I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don't interest me. They have not got the charm of novelty." -- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

Unlike our neighbours in British Columbia, where since Oscar Wilde was alive a modest photograph has been sufficient to honour each of the province's 35 premiers, Alberta's premiers are memorialized with a large and elaborate portrait, painted in oils.

The paintings from No. 1 (Alexander Rutherford) to No. 13 (unlucky Ed Stelmach) now hang on the northeast wall of the third floor of the Legislature in Edmonton.

Alberta's premiers each pick their own artist -- which can be controversial, as when Premier No. 12 Ralph Klein's pick, Calgary-based Xin Yu Zheng, broke with tradition and painted Klein with a huge dream catcher in the background and the mountains (which are not visible from Edmonton) out the window of his Legislature office.

By contrast, the last similar brouhaha in British Columbia was when B.C. Premier No. 26, New Democrat Dave Barrett, circa 1973, was assailed for choosing a portrait that was, quelle horreur, in colour, hitherto an unheard-of innovation in that province!

Getting back to paintings in the Alberta Legislature, there's room for only two more in the area devoted to public hangings of this sort -- and guess who they'll depict!

The subjects will be, of course, No. 14, the catastrophic and wildly unpopular Alison Redford, and No. 15, the current premier pro tempore, Dave Hancock.

Indeed, one of my sources tells me an artist is already at work at on the painting of No. 15, Hancock. Presumably a painting of Redford is under way as well, although the way things are going they may decide to hang it in the Legislative sub-basement, while upstairs the actual Redford shows no signs of aging. The Speaker himself seems to know where the next two portraits will hang.

In normal times, this would not even cause a breath of controversy. But in light of the spending scandals associated with Redford's unhappy premiership, the cost of having a portrait painted in oils by a professional artist of a premier who was in office less than three years, let alone of one who will have been in office for less than six months when he departs, is bound to spark yet another uproar.

That may explain why the government of Alberta was unhelpful yesterday when I attempted to get it on the record that the two portraits are being painted, and find out what they will cost.

The Speaker's Office referred me to the Public Affairs Bureau, which referred me to the Premier's Office, which referred me back to the PAB and eventually to a person with a name, whose telephone voicemail message box was full. Oh well…

As for trying to estimate the cost of a painting of this nature, that proved surprisingly elusive -- apparently Alberta's professional journalists have not thought to ask they money question when recent portraits of premiers like Klein and Stelmach were unveiled with cheerful press releases and receptions in the Legislature.

Just saying, but there probably won't be a similar event with cheese and bubbly when the portrait of Redford is unveiled.

Alas, artist Tunde Vari, who painted Stelmach's legislative portrait, lists no prices on her home page.

Xin Yu Zheng's personal website lists a few prices -- $12,000 for a 2002 portrait in oil of 118 by 108 centimetres, similar in size to Klein's picture. Klein's, for which no price was listed, was completed from photographs in 2007.

So, this not outrageous compared to the cost of a Sky Palace or a trip with an aide to South Africa, but certainly enough to annoy a lot of citizens in the case of a premier who spent considerably less time in office than Klein, and was considerably less popular while she was there.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Redford and Hancock, both of whom view themselves with considerable esteem, have chosen artists who charge a higher rate for a commission than that speculated upon here. The only way to find that out, I suppose, will be for some enterprising journalist to file a FOIP request.

After all, as Oscar Wilde also observed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." And who knows who Redford may have been tempted to commission!

However, in the mean time, I've got a modest proposal that will continue to support the arts in Alberta, but not unduly outrage citizens.

Let's continue to commission painted portraits of Alberta premiers who manage to remain in office for three or more years.

Premiers like Redford, who don't quite pass that threshold, should get a nice photographic portrait by an Alberta studio artist.

And premiers like Hancock, who are in office for less than six months, can take a selfie with their cell phone.

Sound fair?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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