Calgary public art: 11 of the city's most famous (and infamous) public art projects

Jul 3 2020, 10:29 pm

Public art in our city has always been controversial, and no new piece is ever immune from the waves of appreciation… or the cries that public art is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The City of Calgary takes the matter of art very seriously. According to their website, “Our public art program is committed to acquiring great public art that impacts Calgary’s urban landscape and transforms the way Calgarians see, think, and experience the city around them.”

There is a lot of fantastic public art in our city, much being considered cultural landmarks, but there has also been a lot of missteps along the way.

Below is a list of some of the most famous and infamous pieces of public art in YYC.

Brotherhood of Mankind by Mario Armengol

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Originally built as part of the British Pavilion for the 1967 Montreal Expo, it was auctioned off to a businessman who donated it to the City of Calgary.

In Classic Calgary style, public perception of the new art installation was very negative at first. The nudity of the statues caused quite a stink 40 years ago, but perceptions have changed in the time that followed, turning the statues into something of a Calgary icon.

The Conversation by William McElcheran

Donated by Noreen Energy Resources to the City in 1981, this statue is often at top of mind for Calgarians when we think of public art.

Other artists have occasionally added their own touches to the statue by giving these businessmen scarves or mittens.

Some Calgarians love it, though others firmly believe that the addition of two more businessmen on Stephen Avenue doesn’t do the place any favours.

Wishing Well by Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen

This is a piece that lives in infamy. A polished mirror split sphere that was supposed to allow visitors to send text message wishes for it to convert into a light and sound “symphony” that cost the City $559,000.

The reality of the project was a default display every time it was sent a message, and it even allegedly burned holes through one visitor’s jacket.

Wishing Well has since been put away in a storage facility, and every so often there is a brief discussion about bringing it back out.

Although it finished construction in December 2013, this piece of public art still gets Calgarian blood boiling.

Travelling Light by Inges Idee

Despite being a feat of engineering – in that it is able to stand freely without any support structures – and representing movement and progress, everyone still sees it as just a giant blue circle.

In any conversation about public art in the city, Travelling Light is always brought up, and often used as an example of the worst public art decision ever made in Calgary’s history.

Bowfort Towers by Del Geist

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Most public art sees both admiration and distaste, but few illicit an apology from the artist.

Del Geist, the artist behind the infamous $500,000 art piece, apologized if anyone felt offended by his work.

And people were offended. From the broken construction site look some people see, to the insistence it’s inspired by Blackfoot culture, people do not like this sculpture.

Wonderland by Jaume Plensa

A steel mesh sculpture in the shape of a girl’s head standing in front of the Bow is one of Calgary’s favourite pieces of public art.

Maybe it’s because this piece of art is actually recognizable as representative of something that exists in our world. Maybe it’s because it’s interactive to an extent, with its two door-sized entrances allowing people to walk through it. Whatever the reason, this sculpture is quite appreciated – especially for getting that perfect ‘Gram.

Self Made Woman by Paul Slipper

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Sitting just outside SAIT, this sculpture of a woman chiselling her own form out of marble was installed in 2009. The creator, Paul Slipper is a Canadian artist from Vancouver.

Chinook Arc by Joe O’Connell

By anyone’s standards, $370,000 isn’t cheap, but this piece of art is generally well-liked. This sculpture is interactive and emits a soft glow from inside. It is inspired by chinooks and the historic Beltline Streetcar loop.

TransitStory by Jill Anholt

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This project cost the City $215,000 and was completed in February 2012. This piece is also relatively well-liked, depicting people, past and present, waiting for the train.

An Auspicious Find

Near Eau Claire, this sculpture uses about 15,000 glass marbles to create four pixelated images. This piece, created by a Calgary artist and completed in 2004, is another project that has received more positive than negative reviews.


public art

Derek Besant’s Public Art Piece ‘Snapshots’ (Kaitlyn Johnson/Daily Hive)

One of Calgary’s most infamous works of public art, Snapshots made headlines last year when it surfaced that the photos, which were supposed to be of everyday Calgarians, were actually headshots taken from the 2015 Edinburgh Art Festival line-up.

The artwork was installed underneath the 4th Street underpass back in 2015 to the tune of $20,000.

The installation was taken down shortly after the artist made a public apology and recommended that Snapshots be removed.

Honourable Mentions

There are many other examples of public art in Calgary but to include them all would create a list so large it would be unreadable. Below is a list of honourable mentions.

  • Roger that
  • Under the Helmet
  • Jumping Trout
  • Peace Bridge
  • One Puck Hollow
  • The Fold
  • Versus
  • The Readiness is All
  • Calgary Scroll
  • Rundle LRT Station Benches
  • Georgina Thomson Offices
  • 61st Chinook Greenway
  • Confluence Martindale Public Art
  • Passages
  • Field Station
  • Confederation Park Murals
  • RIpple
  • Forest Lawn Lift Station
  • Outflow
  • The Colour of Snow
  • Frozen River
  • Bow Passage Overlook
  • Charged Line
  • Hawk Hill Calgary Sentinels
  • Luminous Crossings
  • Ascension
  • Confluence
  • Rhythms
  • Recollections, Topiary and Topiary Quilts
  • Stewward
  • Water Garden
  • Ernie Starr Arena
  • Tracking the Trail
  • Strung II
  • Skywalk
  • bearing
  • The Language of Life
  • Celebration of the Bow River 2010
  • Body Mind Spirit
  • Bridge, Abridged
  • Celebrations
  • From the Clouds to the Water
  • Crenellated Habitat
  • Frozen Dreams
  • Guardian
  • Triclopse
  • Seed Pod
  • Mount Pleasant Moments

Lucas TaylorLucas Taylor

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