I stood near the corner of Bank and Somerset one day, puzzled, as I watched a woman struggle to lock her bike to a fence that protected one of the newly planted ash trees, while a brand new bike rack stood vacant, less than 4 feet away, with no bike to call it’s own.
This year I have watched with interest at the discovery and use of the new Bank Street bike racks and wondered how long it will take to for people to really make the connection.
Public engagement with new community art is always a slow process.
Last year the City of Ottawa put out a call to local artists to submit graphic drawings that would be used as templates for steel bicycle racks. This was part of the long overdue Bank Street North rehabilitation project between Laurier Avenue and the Queensway. It is one of many public art commissions the City currently has underway along central neighbourhood streets, such as Preston and Wellington.
Gone are the sketchy pink Miami Vice signs along the “Bank Street Promenade” and welcome are the sleek monochrome industrial features that now line the once cluttered sidewalks.
Most welcome are the new “urban art” bike racks. A variety of images were chosen from both established community artists, like Christopher Griffin, and relative newcomers. Some are simple, while others are more graphically complex. 30 original designs are replicated three times down the street and are often inspired by Ottawa itself.
Unlike the majority of public art, the bike racks serve a specific function: to meet the needs of inner city commuters. The old struggle of form vs. function is evident in this case. People take for granted that art is about form (or art for arts sake). Art with a practical function, on the other hand, is something entirely different.
Take the lady avoiding the obvious new bike rack in favour of the standard fence. When a public art project with a clear social mandate and environmental benefit is implemented , Ottawa citizens are apprehensive.
Embracing a piece of art for its own sake is challenging. I admit. Seeing art as something that was made for you to use is another type of appreciation entirely.
On Bank however, all you need is a lock to make the all-important link.
This new wave of municipal-funded public art is exciting because it not only connects us as individuals, but it also connects us as communities. Creative communities.
Public art makes a free gallery space out of our neighbourhoods. When was the last time you took a stroll down Bank Street North to enjoy the art?
-Kate Wetherow is an arts enthusiast with an interest in creative development projects and creative communities, including education and public engagement. She spent many years working in the arts and now works at a charitable foundation.
Kate works on Bank Street.