By Michael Den Tandt

A public art project to beautify parts of Owen Sound's downtown with original painted murals - launched successfully last summer - has hit a snag, due to a disagreement between organizers and the city.

Tamara Sargent first spearheaded The Alley Project in 2013, resulting in a stunning mural on the northern-facing wall of the narrow alley just next to The Bleeding Carrot café. You can see photographs of the mural in the accompanying slideshow.



This summer, plans were under way to further the project with an even larger work, facing onto the old Scopis lot, along 2nd Ave. Unlike The Alley Project, which took place entirely on private property, the Scopis lot itself is city-owned – though the building on which the mural was to have been painted is privately held.

public-artAs a result of the public stake in the lot, and also its high visibility, the city has asked that the artists procure insurance, a $50 "street occupancy permit," and also provide a sketch of the proposed mural to the city's cultural advisory committee. The committee introduced a "public art" policy in 2010.

Sargent has rejected those requests, arguing that participating artists are all volunteers, working together for the common goal of a more beautiful city, and should not be required to "jump through" bureaucratic or administrative hoops. Her arguments can be viewed in the accompanying video.

As a result of the disagreement with the city, Sargent said in an interview, the Scopis mural project has been shelved. For the time being, she says, her artists' group will focus on projects that occur entirely on private property.

City councillor Colleen Purdon, who sits on the city's cultural advisory committee, says she thinks it's unfortunate this project, which on its face is so positive and in keeping with the goal of beautifying Owen Sound, should have gone awry.

She also said, however, that she finds the request for insurance, and some public oversight, to be understandable. Liability requires there be insurance as a matter of course for any activity on city property, she said. And, "if it is a visible public space, then the city would want to have some control over those images," Purdon added.

City Manager Ruth Coursey, for her part, said the impasse has "nothing to do with the art." Indeed, she said, "we would like to see appropriate art in our downtown. That's why we have a public art policy."

Sargent, for her part, says her artists' collective already has internal policies in place that prohibit any image that might be deemed inappropriate or offensive. And she points to last summer's paintings as evidence.

Dare we propose a solution? Perhaps, rather than require the artists to pony up $50 for a permit, and additional funds for insurance, the city and the artists together could welcome a private sponsor or sponsors to cover these costs.

Also, rather than require a sketch from the artists in advance, might the city's cultural advisory committee not be well served to invite Sargent to appear and explain her project, and the parameters under which the artists' collective has already been working?

The city's only concern here, as regards the content, should be whether the proposed imagery is appropriate for a shared, public space. If the existing Alley Project mural is any guide, that will not be an issue. These are engaging, vivid and beautiful works of art.

Sargent, for her part, already has a great deal invested in this project. Surely it would also be in her interest, and that of the artists with whom she has been working, to reach a compromise with the city that would allow this terrific project to flourish.

It may well be too late for the mural work to extend to the Scopis lot this summer. But it would be a shame if so much evident goodwill were to run aground because of a dispute over process.

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