Another municipality may gain the opportunity the City of Vernon passed on to show its residents that expressing their experience with mental health through art can benefit the local economy, culture and community.
That’s the message of the Vernon Public Art Gallery after city council voted Sept. 6 to pull its support, and $33,000 in funding, of the Behind the Mask public art project and exhibition. The gallery’s staff and board of directors are stunned by the city’s decision to back-pedal its support.
“There needs to be a better system for decision-making on public art,” said Dauna Kennedy, executive director, Vernon Public Art Gallery. “Few cities consult the public in the manner proposed by members of council because art is emotive and subjective. Public art is an important means of providing not only beautification to a community but also provoking thought and dialogue through critical works designed to challenge the viewer.”
Behind the Mask is a three-part public art project in which eight Vernon residents who have experience around mental health, along with two local supporting professionals, express who they are and how they want the community to view them through masks.
Their journey of self-exploration and mask-making was guided by Katie Green, a renowned artist-facilitator who specializes in public art projects exploring societal issues.
With no public art policy in place, Kennedy says the VPAG had to submit under the sign bylaw to seek approval for the murals. After creating the project outline, in early 2022, the VPAG received the support of the city, Downtown Vernon Association and Social Planning Council before applying for funding through the Canada Council for the Arts.
Prior to the city reversing its decision, the project had reached its funding goals with $55,000 from the Canada Council, $33,000 from the City of Vernon, $10,000 from the Regional District of North Okanagan and $7,500 from Vernon Tourism. The supplies and artist’s fee have already been paid for.
After negative commentary started circulating on social media and sparked an open online petition, the City of Vernon asked the gallery to conduct a public consultation. However, the gallery realized with photographs of the murals already being exhibited, it had a special opportunity to help Vernon residents gain a well-rounded understanding of both the art and the people behind the masks before completing the survey.
“The gallery consultation was designed to ensure that whoever participated in the survey had the opportunity to see all the pieces, to read each artist statement and understand the entire process,” said Sarah Kennedy, board member. “This resulted in a much smaller sampling but still sufficient to be representative of the Vernon public. And every type of media was used to invite the public to come to the gallery to participate.”
After participants experienced the work in person, 65 per cent of the 353 viewers were in favour of the mural project moving ahead.
The project, Sarah added, would have offered many benefits to the economy, community and culture.
“Recognizing how big of an issue mental health has become because of COVID, we wanted to create a dialogue around mental health using the visual arts as our language, and create awareness in a positive, engaging way,” said Dauna.
“We’ve already had a tremendous response from our community and the social services community about why it’s important to shed light on mental health issues, and we saw that as people visited the exhibit, and they really learned about the people behind the masks and the intention and very uplifting outcomes of this public art project, that it did give people a broader perspective.”
The gallery will now have to navigate the possibility of having to return grant funds to the Canada Council and compromise its ability to secure future grants.
“Canada Council grants don’t come through every day,” said Andrew Powell, gallery president. “This project would have given us the opportunity to apply for operational funding which would have effectively subsidized the gallery and saved the city money in the long run, especially as we look toward the promise of a new facility. We are unhappy with this decision, to say the least.”
After being advised that there was a potential for the city to reverse its position and pull its support, the gallery went back to the city with a recommendation for a scaled-back exhibit that would see only eight murals in locations that fit with the theme and a shortened shelf-life of three years instead of five. This was also turned down.
The gallery has been approached by another community willing to provide space for the mural installations.
“It’s disappointing to see this decision after we did all that we were asked to do and having previously secured the City’s support as well as that of mental health professionals and community groups,” says Powell. “Thankfully, other communities have expressed interest in assuming this project and in supporting those with the courage to share their experiences with mental health.”