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Public art reaching new heights in New Westminster

Greg Magirescu, New Westminster’s manager of arts and culture, peers into one of the city’s works of public art, outside the public library. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Greg Magirescu, New Westminster’s manager of arts and culture, peers into one of the city’s works of public art, outside the public library.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Mary Wilson is an urban wanderer.

She loves to explore and is delighted when she comes across public art in her travels. Every time she passes The Bull statue in downtown Vancouver she has to give it a hug.

So when crews started ripping up 12th Street’s sidewalks a few years ago, she went to city hall to suggest they incorporate mosaics into them to brighten up the landscape. “We can’t do that. It’s a hazard,” was the reply.

Eventually she talked to enough people that she found one, Joanne Edey-Nicol, New Westminster’s assistant director of parks and recreation, who said, “Yeah, we can do this.”

And they did do it. Now the colourful mosaics, which won a provincial award, are just one of many pieces of public art that are popping up, or will be popping up, all over the city.



Diver Inverse, at the Quay


Recently, Aragon Properties erected a statue of a diver at its Renaissance Square project at the Quay while a giant wind vane mobile was put up at the Victoria Hill end of the pedestrian bridge to Queen’s Park.

Public art has been a big part of European cities for centuries. It was part of the architecture and embedded into people’s lives. But in the industrial 1900s of North America cities became functional with a homogenized look.

In the last decade, says Greg Magirescu, New Westminster’s first manager of arts and cultural development, public art has become an integral part of the urban experience. Just like going into a person’s home and seeing what’s up on the walls or on the mantle exemplifies the resident’s personality, public art “defines us and expresses us,” he says.

“Someone comes to New West and doesn’t see any art, what does that say about us?”

Putting art in the plan

As Wilson discovered, integrating art into New Westminster has been done on an ad hoc basis in the past.

“It has been without a process,” says Magirescu, who began his job in April 2010.

Currently, however, Magirescu is in the midst of writing a report to council on a proposal endorsed by the city’s arts commission to create a separate public art standing committee. Ideally, he says, it would consist of professional and community artists, urban designers, architects and the public at large to create a public arts master plan with policies and procedures and a funding strategy. Art needs to be kept at an arms length from political decision making, he says.

“It’s as subjective as whether someone likes red or blue.”



A wind vane/sculpture overlooks the Fraser River at Victoria Hill.


Magirescu says the ideas for public art can be initiated in many ways. It can come from the city to help spruce up its projects, from the community (like Wilson), from a developer as part of a project’s density bonus agreement (like Aragon’s diver), from artists, or from bequeathed donations.

While there is a cost to public art, there is some economic benefit because it makes the city more desirable to live in, work in or visit.

Magirescu uses a long-standing, whimsical, little statue in Simcoe Park at Royal Avenue and Eighth Street as an example.

“If you take a look at the puddle jumper, what economic value does it have? It doesn’t really have any, but if you think about the number of people who photograph it every day, it’s an iconic symbol. All of a sudden a city is being known for a work of art,” says Magirescu.

Pass by the puddle jumper and it makes you smile, says Magirescu, who maintains public art should evoke emotion.

“There’s a feel-good element to some and other times you feel irritated or edgy. Its purpose is to drive some sort of reaction. It can cause you to smile or create dialogue between people. It may inspire us, give us a sense of grandeur and it may shock us at times.”

New art projects coming

Public art’s value can’t be demonstrated in dollars to the developer, either, but it can help in making the development attractive to buyers just like planting trees or installing streetscapes.

“We think public art is one of the appropriate public amenities,” says David Roppel, Aragon’s director or planning and development.

Roppel commissioned Diver Inverse, which cost $50,000, from sculptor David Robinson, It was the first public art project for Aragon, but it won’t be the last. Aragon plans to put another one in a development in Port Moody.



This clock in Moody Park is a recent addition to New Westminster’s public art installations, courtesy of the local Rotary club.


New private and public developments around town have Magirescu excited about the public art possibilities. Mosaics are also in the works for East Columbia Street. Also, the Sapperton community, the city, artists and the developers of The Brewery District residential/commercial project are working together to create even more public art for the area.

More mosiacs are being commissioned for Sixth Street between Royal and Sixth Avenues, as well as Downtown Columbia Street.

“Eventually we’re going to have quite an inventory of tiles depicting who we are,” says Magirescu.

Westminster Pier Park on New Westminster’s waterfront is to have four art components to it. The project includes Lytton Square, which was the waterfront’s original gathering place. It will have aluminum photographic panels of different sizes bolted to the stairway that will enable the city to interchange photographs telling the area’s historic story. There will also be a 12-inch metal memory band on the boardwalk containing thought-provoking words meant to bring out the spirt of New Westminster and its relationship to the waterfront. Lodge poles will also be put in to represent the footings of the old pier and artworks will mark certain playground areas.

The new 85,000 square foot civic centre—which will house the city’s art gallery, museum and archives—being planned for Columbia and Eighth Street really puts an extra twinkle in Magirescu’s eye as he contemplates the almost endless possibilities.

“Everyone has said the building needs to be designed as a canvas so that every part of the building can be used. Both the interior and exterior is potentially a canvas for art,” he says shortly after getting off the phone with the project’s architect.

He also sees the city as a canvas because public art can adorn all sorts of things from benches to bicycle racks to garbage containers.

For Mary Wilson, she couldn’t be more pleased to see the acceptance of public art in New Westminster bloom like flowers in the spring.

“I’m tickled after fighting so hard for it,” giggles Wilson.

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