A Nightmare Blob?

Public Art & Outrage in the 1950s

Patrick A. Dunae

Public art can be outrageous! It has inflamed passions, caused heated debates, prompted elected officials to run for cover. That's what happened nearly fifty years ago, when the British Columbia government considered new artwork for the front lawn of the Parliament Buildings. Because of an outcry over proposed designs, the project was abandoned. But a cherished mural at the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children in Victoria was an unexpected outcome of this controversy. It all started when a concept for public art did not mesh with public opinion.

The provincial government planned to install a large sculpture evoking the theme of "Youth" as a legacy of British Columbia's centennial in 1958. A prominent spot near the west wing of the Legislature was selected as a site. School children were invited to contribute to the costs of the project, so that the sculpture would be regarded as a gift from the youth of British Columbia to future generations.

In 1956 a competition was held for a suitable design. The competition was open to all artists in British Columbia and to artists residing outside the province who had lived in B. C. for at least four years. Entrants were required to submit scale models of their proposals to a Sculpture Project Committee c/o the Vancouver Art Gallery. Submissions would be assessed by a jury that included Fred Amess, principal of the Vancouver School of Art; B. C. Binning, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at The University of British Columbia; and Lawren Harris, the celebrated landscape painter from the Group of Seven. Seattle's George Tsutakawa, a sculptor and architect famous for his public fountains, was also a member of the jury. In the realm of postwar art and architecture, this was one of the most illustrious juries ever assembled in the Pacific Northwest. Their job was to select three finalists from all of the entries received.

A prize of $250 would be awarded to each of the three finalists. From the short list, one entry would be declared a winner and the winning artist would be commissioned to create the actual sculpture. $20,000 was allocated for the cost of materials and for the artist's fee. This was a substantial sum of money and not surprisingly the competition generated a great deal of interest. Nearly 50 proposals were received before the competition closed in April 1957. The distinguished jurists spent the next month selecting the top three contenders.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education had launched the fund-raising drive. Every student attending a public or private school was invited to contribute ten cents to the Youth sculpture project. The campaign was intended not only to raise money for the sculpture, but to "encourage in pupils...a better understanding and an appreciation of the historical past of British Columbia, as well as its rich future." When the sculpture was completed, the Education Department planned to give a postcard-sized picture of the artwork to every pupil in the province. The postcard would be a centennial souvenir and note of thanks to the youngsters who paid for the sculpture.

In June 1957 the jury announced its short list. Herbert Siebner of Victoria was one of the finalists. Siebner was already known for his abstract art and would become a leading member of the Limners, an artistic group devoted to innovative representations of the human figure. But his work would not grace the grounds of the Legislature. His proposal, along with proposals from the other finalists [Reginald Dixon of Vancouver and Gerhard Hans Class from North Vancouver] was assessed by senior bureaucrats and community leaders on the British Columbia Centennial Committee. While committee members prepared for their deliberations, scale models of the three leading designs were displayed in a Vancouver department store. Almost immediately, the Youth sculpture project began to unravel.

Many people were offended by the art. In their view, the designs were unintelligible and unattractive. There is no graphic record of what the designs actually looked like, but judging from remarks made in letters to the press and petitions to government, it seems that one concept involved a reflecting pool and another evoked a broken column. The third design was a non-geometrical shape, described derisively as "a nightmare blob."

Not only were critics offended by the art, they were offended at the idea of using children's dimes to pay for the art. "No matter what our august judges wish to cram down our throats, surely the Government of the Province of British Columbia will not ask the school children to pay for this," an angry mother wrote. "My children will certainly not help pay for any of it, and I'm sure many other mothers will feel the same way." She was right. Opposition to the proposed sculpture was especially strong among parents' groups.

The government was caught off guard by the groundswell of opposition. But an alternative plan presented itself in a letter from the South Saanich Women's Institute. The women suggested that funds earmarked for the controversial sculpture be used for a recreational facility at the new Solarium for Crippled Children then under construction in Gordon Head. "An appropriate plaque would permanently indicate that it was a B.C. Children's Centennial project. Such a project would be a benefit to the children of British Columbia for many years." It was a masterful suggestion, at once practical and politically sound.

But first, the government had to discharge its obligations to the competitors. Each of the three finalists received an honorarium of $250 and thanks from the Centennial Committee for their "winning" designs. The sculpture project was scrapped and a new plan implemented. In September 1957 the committee announced that all funds raised by pupils would go towards library books and playground equipment for children at the Queen Alexandra Solarium in Victoria and the Preventorium in Vancouver. (The Preventorium was renamed Princess Margaret's Children's Village and is now Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children, a site of the Children's and Women's Health Centre of British Columbia.) Ultimately, students raised $18,885 for the two hospitals.

In 1958 every school contributing to the fund received a special certificate acknowledging contributions that had been "Given as a thank-offering this Centennial Year to help brighten the lives of those less fortunate the children in Queen Alexandra Solarium and the Preventorium."

The concept of enduring artwork was not forgotten. A senior official in the Education Department asked Jack Shadbolt for help in creating something aesthetic for the centennial. Shadbolt obliged and his students at the Vancouver School of Art created two murals, one for the Preventorium, another for the Solarium. The artwork created for the Solarium is actually a large cedar panel exquisitely carved with sea creatures. Today, the mural hangs in the main building of the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children's Health (as the Solarium is now known) on Arbutus Road. The mural inspired a tradition and over the years artwork of all kinds has been donated to the centre from Vancouver Island schools.

In the early 'Sixties, students from Central Junior High (now Central Middle) school in Victoria created a fantastic mobile that hangs from the ceiling above the hydrotherapy pool. In 1964 students from Oak Bay High School created some very striking artwork for the exterior of the building. Students from Cowichan Secondary School in Duncan, BC, created an inspiring array of paintings for the interior corridors of Queen Alexandra Centre.

The original concept of celebrating Youth in art has been realized and continues at the former Solarium. But the patch of grass on the grounds of the Parliament Buildings reserved in the 1950s for a sculpture of youth is still unadorned.

This article was written in 2003. It was inspired by a furore over a public artwork by Mowry Baden, entitled Pavilion, Rock and Shell. Baden won a competition, sponsored by the City of Victoria, to create a sculpture to adorn the forecourt of the city's new arena. The competition was adjudicated by a committee of "art experts". But when a model of the winning design was unveiled, it provoked a public outcry. Baden's sculpture was nevertheless completed and installed in 2005 in front of the Save On Foods Memorial Centre.

I appreciate the comments and suggestions I received from Gary Sim and Carolyn Heiman in writing this essay. An abridged version of the essay was published in the Arts section of the Victoria Times-Colonist (15 July 2003), B6-B8. (This web page was revised in July 2012.)