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The blogger as art critic: If we're paying the piper, we should get to call the tune!

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Alison Redford Portrait

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The real story about the portrait of Alison Redford that was hung in the Alberta Legislature Building Thursday has very little to do with whether the former premier was there for the unveiling (she wasn't) or how much it cost ($12,500).

Nor does it have all that much to do with whatever message the painting by Calgary artist Liela Chan is trying to send us, presumably with the encouragement of the star-crossed former Progressive Conservative premier she painted. One commentator described the light in the painting as crepuscular, and Redford's smile as enigmatic, both reasonable enough observations.

No, the real story is about the art we're getting for our taxpayer dollars, and the process that leads to us getting it.

Now, I will admit that I am not crazy about Redford's portrait, or the ones done not so long ago for premiers Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach either. One more at least is in the works, that of Dave Hancock, and there may eventually be others -- of the hapless Jim Prentice, last, at least for now, Tory premier of Alberta, as well as for New Democrat Rachel Notley, the current holder of the office.

Someone reading this is likely at this point to ask: And what do you know about fine art, Mr. Blogger? So let me answer: About as much as Klein, Stelmach, Redford, Hancock, and Notley. Prentice, being a bazillionaire former bank executive with plenty of time on his hands, may know more.

But the point is, though, for all of us the answer would be: Not much. Indeed, for some … you could even make a case for zip, zero, zilch … nada.

Which is why, of course, I shouldn't be making the decisions about whose art gets to hang on the Legislature's walls -- and neither should the distinguished political luminaries listed above.

Now, it is acknowledged that there has long been a tradition of allowing Alberta premiers to choose the artist who will paint the portrait that is to be hung (not hanged, the predictable jokes of the gutter press notwithstanding) on the walls of the Legislature's Rotunda.

Whether or not you have reservations about the work that they have requested, it's our money that foots the bill, and, therefore, it's time for this bit of post-colonial ad hockery -- harkening back to a time when there may have only been one competent portraitist in the province anyway -- to change.

It is simply not the right way to do things when public money is involved. We wouldn't, for example, let a premier pick the engineer to design a new bridge across the North Saskatchewan, the architect to design a new hospital, or the contractor to build a pipeline. And we shouldn't let premiers -- great leaders and accomplished politicians though they may be -- pick the artist who gets to paint their official portraits.

Leastways, let me qualify, we shouldn't let them pick just any old artist they feel like to paint their official portraits, which is pretty much what’s been going on here in Alberta.

This, by the way, is not about how much we're spending. Artistic commissions should not -- must not! -- go to the lowest bidder. And there is a whiff of the low bid about all the recent portraits, which seem to have had their acceptable maximum price set by Klein, a politician of the school that calculated the cost of everything and knew the value of nothing.

Klein's portrait, by another Calgary artist, Xin Yu Zheng, cost $12,000 back in 2007. But surely Klein was exactly the wrong person to be allowed to make such a determination!

The main controversy at the time, however, was that the painting showed mountains you can't actually see through the window of his Legislature office -- which is a degree of literal-mindedness to which no artist should be asked to adhere! I don't believe a price was ever mentioned for Stelmach's portrait, by Edmonton artist Tunde Vari.

In reality, $12,500 is far too little. We don't support the arts properly in Canada or Alberta as it is -- to the point the arts have become the red-headed stepchild of public funding, considered suitable only for sound and regular beatings by right-wing philistines who think anything that's not spent on a pipeline is a "special interest."

So let us say about artists what is often said about corporate executives and senior civil servants -- with considerably less accuracy, one might add, in the case of the former -- if you want great work, you really need to pay the person who does it a great amount of money!

Certainly, it takes a particular kind of artist to paint an official portrait with just the right combination of edginess and gravitas. Remember, part of the artist's job is to produce worthy portrait of the subject; but another part is to show off the culture and creativity of the jurisdiction that is the commissioner and owner of the work. 

Not every subject will necessarily like the result. Queen Elizabeth II, it has been said, was not wild about her 2001 portrait by Lucian Freud. She, of course, is rich enough to commission one herself by an artist she likes better.

This does not diminish the value of Freud's work, about which the professional critics were divided. According to the BBC, the chief art critic of the Times, Richard Cork, described the portrait as "painful, brave, honest, stoical and, above all, clear sighted." The royal photographer for a mass-market tabloid disagreed, opining that "Freud should be locked in the Tower for this!"

The point is, we need a way to choose artists for these efforts that benefits the province, the owner of the work, without unduly offending the subject of the portrait. Whatever method we use should also support a vibrant arts sector as part of the province's economy, which it is.

Allowing premiers to pick their painter and unofficially setting a low limit on what they can spend is not the way to do this.

I suggest we strike a committee of critics, artists and students of the arts -- in other words, people capable of making appropriate judgments -- to vet the work of artists who would like to be considered for official commissions of this nature. Then let the former premiers (and former speakers too, it should be noted) pick their artist from that list.

Alternatively, if we are unwilling to support the best art our province can produce, we should do as they've been doing in British Columbia since the silver-nitrate era, and hang small photographic portraits in a hallway of the Legislature Building.

Redford, of course, is one of the most controversial public figures in recent Alberta history, so journalists were naturally disappointed when she didn't show up for the unveiling.

But given what would likely have happened, who can blame her? Deservedly or not, she was given a rough ride in office, and an unveiling with pomp, ceremony and a crowd of reporters and camera-people would have been an opportunity for more of the same.

Instead, the announcement was made on the morning of the installation by way of a low-key press release from Speaker Bob Wanner, consisting mainly of a short statement by Redford. In it, she noted that, traditionally, these hallway portraits in the Legislature Building allow their subjects "to paint their own picture of how they want to be remembered and what they hope their legacy might be."

"I am choosing not to do that," Redford wrote. "I instead choose to leave the history of my time in office to be written when time has provided a clearer perspective."

Hmmmmmm… I'm not sure her effort -- or, rather, Chan's -- actually achieves this goal, but it is a worthy thought. Perhaps the best way to ensure this happens in future would be for future former premiers to voluntarily relinquish their traditional right to choose their portraitist. Plus, of course, for the Speaker's Office to set an appropriate budget for the effort.

We will know we have accomplished something worthwhile when an important art critic who knows what he or she is talking about is moved to review the work.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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