Vernon Public Art Gallery is slamming the city council after it pulled the plug on a controversial community mural project.
The council voted this week to revoke a $33,000 grant for the “Behind the Mask” public art project, which would have seen people with mental health challenges express their feelings by creating and being photographed wearing masks. The final phase of the project was the creation of large murals on city and private properties based on the images.
The art gallery says the city’s withdrawal of its support for the project means the municipality has “missed an opportunity to emerge for Vernon residents expressing their experience with mental health through art.”
“There needs to be a better system for making decisions about public art,” says Dauna Kennedy, executive director, Vernon Public Art Gallery.
“Few cities consult the public in the way council members are suggesting because art is emotional and subjective. Public art is an important means of not only beautifying a community, but also provoking thought and dialogue through critical works designed to to challenge the viewer.”
When the project was unveiled, it created an uproar among sections of society. Dueling petitions were launched both in support and opposition to the murals, something the gallery blamed on a “low-resolution image and negative commentary” that began circulating on social media.
Because the city of Vernon has no public art policy, the art gallery says it had to submit its proposal under the bylaws. The gallery received support from the city, the Downtown Vernon Association and the Planning Council before applying for funding through the Canada Council for the Arts.
The art gallery says that before the city reversed its decision, the project had met its funding goals with $55,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, $33,000 from the City of Vernon, $10,000 from the Regional District of North Okanagan and $7,500 from Vernon Tourism. The supplies and artist fee have already been paid.
When the public debate over the murals started, the city asked the art gallery to open a public hearing on the issue. The gallery says 65 percent of the 353 attendees were in favor of the mural going ahead, although you would have to actually visit the gallery to give their opinion.
“The gallery consultation was designed to ensure that everyone who participated in the survey had the opportunity to see all the pieces, read each artist statement and understand the entire process,” says Sarah Kennedy, gallery board member.
“This resulted in a much smaller sample, but still sufficient to be representative of the Vernon audience. And all types of media were used to invite the public to come to the gallery to participate.”
The project, Sarah added, would have brought many benefits to the economy, society and culture.
“Recognizing how big an issue mental health has become due to COVID, we wanted to create a dialogue around mental health using the visual arts as our language and raise awareness in a positive, engaging way,” says Dauna.
“We’ve already had a huge response from our community and social services about why it’s important to highlight mental health issues and we saw that when people visited the exhibition and they really learned about the people behind the masks and the intention and very uplifting results from this public art project, that it gave people a broader perspective.”
The gallery says it will now have to navigate the possibility of having to return grant funds to the Canada Council and “compromise its ability to secure future grants.”
This is a “serious threat” to the gallery’s reputation and damages its ability to obtain future funding, they said.
“Canada Council grants don’t come through every day,” says Andrew Powell, gallery president. “This project would have allowed us to apply for operating funds that would have effectively subsidized the gallery and saved the city money in the long term, especially as we look forward to the promise of a new facility. We are, to say the least, unhappy with this decision.”
The gallery says it has also been approached by another community willing to provide space for the mural installations.
“It’s disappointing to see this decision after we’ve done everything we were asked to do and after securing the support of the city as well as mental health professionals and community groups,” Powell said.
“Thankfully, other communities have expressed an interest in taking on this project and in supporting those who have the courage to share their mental health experiences.”