Not long ago my wife and I viewed artist Dylan Ranney’s installation, “The Artist’s Garden” at the Kelowna (B.C.) Art Gallery. His statement about the work explained that he considered the city itself to be a gallery depicting itself as art revealing the values of the community to itself and to visitors. Kelowna is a city dependent on tourism, so understanding the gallery metaphor, and taking it seriously is important to their economic well being.
But what a great metaphor for any city. Building designs, transportation systems, and neighborhood appearances are artistic statements that reveal the values of the community, and open doors to partial understandings of how they are lived into. Demographic and economic data have their place, but the community itself paints revealing pictures of who it really is. The gallery that is the town itself has much to say that economic developers and chambers of commerce never mention, perhaps have never noticed, and frequently prefer visitors to overlook.
American cities are not without awareness of art and architecture as symbols of public pride, but they tend to concentrate that awareness in intentional gathering places downtown and in public parks. The gallery that is the city has other rooms that display other art. They too must be visited with open eyes and minds. Some of it is unattractive, dysfunctional, representing values lived, but not always with pride. Those rooms are neighborhoods, industrial areas, commercial corners, strip malls, and back alleys that display wealth and poverty, inclusiveness and exclusiveness, social values and economic hierarchies. City entrances, exits, and industrial areas have much to say about how the city makes its living, and what value appearance has for how it presents itself. What gets displayed in shop windows says something about cultural and social values of potential customers, whether locals or visitors.
Perfection is not the goal. Awareness is the goal. To be made aware of who we really are revealed in the art displayed in the gallery that is the city contributes to better community decisions. The other day I saw a video of a machine in the Baltimore harbor that is used to scoop up tons of trash littering the waterway. They’re very proud of it. Good for them. On a recent trip to Australia I learned that their port cities also had trash problems, not only in the water, but all over. That was a few decades ago. The cleanup began with campaigns to change public behavior. Today there’s no need for a Baltimore type machine because there is no trash in the harbor, nor on the streets, nor in old industrial areas. They became aware of the art they were displaying and decided to make the changes needed to take it down and put up something else.
If community leaders could be made more aware of the city as an art gallery displaying itself to itself as well as to visitors, I believe they would make better decisions.