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Former Alberta premier Dave Hancock to be the subject of a hanging Monday afternoon at the Legislature

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Dave Hancock

"You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit."
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

As predicted in this space three years ago, it was only a matter of time before we Albertans had added to our premier provincial collection new portraits of first ministers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock.

Portraits in oils and acrylics through No. 1 (Alexander Rutherford) to No. 13 (unlucky Ed Stelmach) were hanging on the walls of the third floor of the Legislature Rotunda in Edmonton when I made that prediction, and they have since been joined by one of No. 14, Alison Redford.

Just before the close of business on Monday, the official portrait of Hancock, the second-to-last Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta, will join the distinguished company -- or the rogues' gallery, if you prefer -- on the now increasingly crowded walls of the Legislature Building.

We await the hanging with great hope, as well as a certain amount of trepidation.

Oscar Wilde, the 19th Century author and bon vivant quoted at the beginning of this piece also observed in The Picture of Dorian Gray -- a rather good yarn about a portrait with a life of its own, which contains many observations apropos to the 21st Century -- that "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

This is certainly true when it comes to the cost of the arts in latter-day Alberta. So the cost of these portraits -- typically around $12,000 since Ralph Klein's was hung in the Rotunda -- has inevitably become a matter of public controversy. This is owing to the fact that, by tradition, the public pays the freight but the premier who is to be the subject picks the artist.

However, as was said here not so long ago on the occasion of the hanging of Redford's image, if we ask why we are spending that amount of public money on portraits of premiers (and Legislative Speakers, too, it must be added) we are asking the wrong question.

The question we Albertans should be trying to answer is not why we are paying for portraits of politicians, or how much we are paying, but why the results we have been getting lately, are not, shall we say, more inspiring.

In fact, we've been paying too much and not paying enough at once for these artworks. That is, we’re paying too much for art that's not very good, and we're not paying enough for art that's worth publicly supporting. This is proof of the axiom that in Alberta politics you really can have it all, though not necessarily in a good way.

Back at the start of the 1970s, when Social Credit leader Harry Strom was still premier, we got something akin to Socialist Realism -- perhaps we'd be better to describe it as Social Credit Realism. It was OK, though.

Things have been mostly going downhill since, however -- perhaps because of the lamentable tendency of modern portrait painters to work from photographs, or perhaps because of the choices exercised by departing premiers, who are self-evidently mostly not experts in the arts.

Hancock may be different. With his choice yet to be unveiled, one can be forgiven for praying the man who was premier for only 176 days will also be the former premier bold enough to give us a portrait worthy both of praise and our investment.

The artist will be Tom Menczel and we should not prejudge his work. The cost has not yet been officially revealed.

Regardless of the success of Hancock's artistic choice, as the owners of these portraits, Albertans need to do better more consistently. The first step should be to stop letting the premiers pick their own artists if they're going to use public money for their portraits.

Yes, there needs to be a certain degree of sympathy and engagement between an artist and his or her subject. But you can go too far with that idea. To dip again into the wisdom of The Picture of Dorian Gray, "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

So the time has come to let the departing premier pick his or her portraitist from a selection of qualified artists chosen by a jury of people at least vaguely capable of making such choices.

It's true that such juries tend to be too cautious -- which is why a selection of artists with the final call made by the subject of the portrait would inject an interestingly unpredictable element into the mix.

But public support for the arts is too important, and public paintings of premiers are also too important, to merely be left to the whim their subjects.

Thus endeth the art lesson. Almost. One further thing needs to be considered. We have been going through an awful lot of premiers lately in Alberta. It is the view here at AlbertaPolitics.ca that we should slow down and keep the one we have, Rachel Notley of the NDP, longer than a single term.

That would give us time to figure out where to display future premiers' portraits, now that the third floor of the Rotunda is full.

It would have the additional benefit of ensuring several more years of good government and sound policy-making as well.

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

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