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It's time to talk about the water tower. And all the haters

This week's Market Squared looks at the banal, immature overreaction to a design contest, and what it really says about the so-called critics.
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Haters. Who needs 'em?

I can almost see it. Somewhere in City Hall, several months back, a couple of folks had a great idea: let’s have a contest to design a new wrap on the Verney Water Tower . . .

Big mistake.

I was prepared to let sleeping dogs lie on this, but the last straw broke the camel’s back this week, and so I have to put aside my pre-arranged piece on mixing metaphors in order to talk about this instead.

Back in September, the City of Guelph announced a contest to create a design that would be painted on the water tower that overlooks Exhibition Park. Artwork would be scored on quality, creativity, technical feasibility and relevance to Guelph, with the three finalists getting $250 each, and the winner getting an extra $750, plus, presumably, the bragging rights of having their art painted on the tower for all to see.

“This is a great way to involve the whole community in what is typically an operational project,” said an excited Wayne Galliher, division manager of Water Services, in the press announcement. “We’re excited to see the ideas people have to help make the tower into an eye-catching landmark.”

As it turned out, Galliher was maybe the only one that was excited to see what design work artistic Guelphites might come up with.

The contest was immediately hit with a protest letter from 19 local artists and graphic designers saying that the city was selling artists short by asking professionals and amateurs alike to work for cheap under the auspices of calling it a “contest.”

But contests like this have always been part of community involvement. As the water tower design contest began, voting on the 8th annual Green Party of Ontario photo contest was beginning. The top 12 winners are featured in the party’s annual calendar, and that’s all. No money involved. Just, as the email said, self-satisfaction.

“Just think of how great it would be to give this year's calendar as a gift to friends and family with your own photograph printed inside,” said the email blast.

Now before you say anything, yes, a paper calendar is different from a water tower, but I checked the social media of the GPO, and no one on there was saying that the Greens were taking bread out of the mouths of professional photographers.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a valid point to paying artists for their work. I’ve been on the board of Ed Video Media Arts Centre for almost a decade, and I can say unequivocally that making sure artists get paid, and paid appropriately, for their time and effort is a real issue.

Because everyone has a camera in their phone now, many people think anyone can be a camera operator, but there’s an important difference between knowing how to use a camera, and being a cinematographer. It’s just like how knowing how to use a hose doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to be a firefighter.

On top of that, a lot of emerging artists undercut themselves, volunteering to work for free in order to build their portfolios and get established, which once upon a time was the route to getting noticed and getting paid work. But now, there are a lot of artists out there, and a lot of people that either a) don’t know what that art is worth, or b) don’t care and will just throw the low ball because they know there’s someone desperate enough to catch it.

So as you can imagine, this hits close to home for me, not just because of my volunteer work with Ed Video, but because I have the same struggle crowd-funding my journalism with Guelph Politico. That’s why I initially didn’t want to touch this issue, but the overwhelming negative response to the contest, and my own instincts to play devil’s advocate compelled me.

I consistently note a self-satisfied tone on social media occasionally when someone wonders if Guelph is being well-covered by our current media landscape. Maybe not, but I wonder what any of those people are doing about it. doesn’t take subscribers, but it does take advertisers. So does the Tribune, though it does also have an optional subscription, but I wonder how many go that far.

In all this hand-wringing, I never see anyone ask the question, “What can I do?” When the Mercury closed, it only had nine thousand subscribers in a town of over 120,000. Well, I guess you could have started by buying a paper…

My point is that across numerous sectors, we have a disconnect between what it costs and what we pay, so it’s weird to make *this* contest the hill we die on. But what’s really been disappointing to me is the online response to the two finalists. (A third was declared ineligible because his partner works for the city.)

From the ones that declared that only professional artists have a right to create public art, to the ones that couch their criticism of the finalists by saying their work “does not represent Guelph”, to the ones that just say “these suck!” and move on, I’ve found the online reaction to the designs, and the artists that made them, galling.

Yes, great art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone’s a critic, but it’s pretty clear that the two finalists — Brandon Priebe and Haley Audet — are young artists trying to leave their mark. Instead of fostering their talent, offering constructive criticism and encouragement, the online mob has spoken: neither of these visions are good enough for the vaunted Verney water tower, which apparently is a sacred relic now or something. “Vote neither!” shout a series of digital Spartacuses from their Facebook perch.

What’s disappointing is that the thing that draws many people to the arts is the feeling that it’s a comforting place. A place where you can find yourself, and express yourself, without judgment. A place where you’re supposed to get encouragement, and mentorship, in order to grow and get better.

Instead, Brendon and Haley, who likely aspire to the same plateau as the professionals currently tearing them apart, are being told to get out of the way. To stop. That they’re not good enough, or creative enough, or insightful enough to design a darn water tower. The very attitude I remember getting from jocks as a slightly chunky, unathletic kid with asthma that drove me to the arts in the first place.

My how the tables have turned.

Perhaps this work on the Verney tower design contest is not what professional artists would have designed. Perhaps the submitted designs don’t represent a holistic, modern view of Guelph. But when the call went out, these two young people answered. They submitted their work to be judged and appraised, and that takes a lot of gumption even in the best of circumstances, and the most understanding of audiences.

I don’t know if the design contest was a good idea or a bad idea, but I do know that I’m ashamed of Guelph after this treatment. Deeply ashamed. Our artistic community has long stood as an arbiter and authority on good citizenship, moral judgement, and community spirit, but here they’re no different than the bullies they claim to despise.

Homer Simpson once said life’s lesson after doing your best and failing is to never try in the first place. Message received, Guelph.