By Fateema Sayani
A couple of day s ago, I posted a picture of the new Bambini installation at Preston and Gladstone Streets to my Facebook page and the response was fast and furious. Most people dissed it or said they had no idea what it was. Was this a collection of spoons? Of Olympic medalists?
It seems Lori Mellor was dealing with those questions too. When I visited the executive director of the Preston Street Business Improvement Area last week, she was responding to protesting emails about the installation. One had the subject line that said, “Thanks for all the spoons.” The message concluded with the words, “nothing would have been better than what is there now.” Other people wrote in to say that they didn’t want their money wasted on such a structure.
Mellor wants it to be clearly known the installation was not paid for with public money, rather it was funded by a levy paid by all businesses in the BIA’s boundary. The cost has surged to $650,000 for the project, up from early estimates for $350,000. Company owners had a chance to review the plan for the project and it was approved by the BIA’s board, which includes owners from area businesses including Preston Hardware, Pub Italia, La Roma, Photolux, and Sakto.
Bambini was designed by Chantal Gaudet, a landscape architect with Stantec, the company that had the contract for the Preston Street beautification project of the past few years. Gaudet took inspiration from other gateway installations including the Maman piece that welcomes visitors to the National Gallery of Canada and the Papa piece in Gatineau that we’ve described as giving an Instagram-like effect on old-Hull.
Bambini is meant to represent how a child might draw a soccer team. “That’s why it’s quite naïve and simple,” Mellor says. “We loved the thinking behind it.” Gaudet even took inspiration from her child’s art when designing the piece.
Where the v-shaped medals are now is where lights will be installed. At the end of September, 36-inch multi-coloured granite soccer balls will be installed at the base along with benches, so that Bambini can serve as a meeting place. Its location in front of the St. Anthony’s Soccer Club home field also helps to make the link between community and soccer—a huge part of the Italian tradition, Mellor says. “Soccer is a sport that the community coalesces around.”
So far, it seems like the installation has been bringing the community together in dislike for the structure. In researching this piece, no one would admit to liking Bambini.
Edward Kwan, better known as drag performer China Doll, is part of the family that owns Shanghai in nearby Chinatown. He calls the installation tacky. He suggested hurling tomatoes at it at an upcoming one-day festival.
Mixed-media artist Marc Adornato takes umbrage with the piece because of its prominence.
“A very small handful of jurors, curators, and other decision makers don’t necessarily share the same taste in art as the public at large,” he says. “This is not a big deal if they’re decorating their own home, but in this case, they are decorating the city with expensive cultural landmarks.”
Adornato describes Bambini as blight and says the artistic taste is “horribly off the mark.” He says in this day and age it would be easy to consult widely using social media. “This would allow a much larger percentage of the population to have a say in their cultural identity.”
Mellor says managing the opinions of hundreds would still result in unhappy people. “Art is subjective,” she says.
Summer Baird, owner of the Hintonburg Public House, is part of the nearby Wellington West BIA, and is shocked at the $650,000 price tag. “I am a huge supporter of local art, but I think this piece is a colossal waste or money.” She says the installation is definitely making people stop and look, but she sees most people shaking their heads at it. “If they knew the price tag, I am sure they would be horrified.”
There are plans for more entryway features at Preston and Albert Streets and at Somerset and Preston Streets, to complement the arches near Carling Avenue that were erected in 2000. Each feature is meant to mark the area as a unique cultural district, Mellor says. She says the Preston Street BIA saves up for each project and doesn’t borrow to finance the structures.
Deborah Landry is a sociologist at the University of Ottawa and says that the commentary around Bambini sounds like citizens are asking if it is only those willing to pay who get to determine what art is publicly available.
“This does not sound like a public art piece so much as a branding strategy paid for by the BIA to mark this area as a unique lifestyle for consumers to come visit — which is understandable, given the goal of business is to make business,” she says.
However, she points to the work of cultural geographer David Harvey who says a path to a truer form of democracy in these contemporary diverse cities we dwell in is to invite more collective participation by all citizens regarding what a city should look like.
“Perhaps it is not too late to hold some good old-fashioned town meetings to discuss what to do now, and allow the citizens of that area who wish to be involved to contribute to a collaborative solution, instead of engendering more feelings of alienation,” Landry says.
What do you think of Bambini? Preston Street business owners, we’d love to hear from you too.