Overeager city administrators are being blamed for ordering the painting-over last week of an art installation at Withrow Park deemed "too political" for the public's good. Embarrassed city staff quickly reversed their decision June 25 after a storm of e-mails from artists, activists, trade unionists and city politicians - but not before exposing holes in the city's approval and decision-making process when it comes to works of art.
The local community advisory council, which had seen and approved the work in question, apparently wasn't consulted about a city employee's order that the work be painted over.
"The primary thing about all this for me is the issue of process, and the lack of it," says Florencia Berinstein, the artist at the centre of the controversy. "When I was told I had to stop painting and cover it up, there was no chance of recourse of any kind - no appeal process, no grievance procedure, nothing."
Berinstein was among 14 artists taking part in Wade, a project in which artists use city wading pools as sites for contemporary art. Berinstein's piece, a linear map of the local water system, was meant, she says, "to highlight something that we take for granted: the source of our fresh water."
Her problems began when she began painting headlines dating from the 1914-17 era, a time when the area was still being served by wells and privies and a public water system was being proposed, around the rim of the large blue pool. They included, "City water is good, but it can be better."
That's when she was approached by a parks employee, Berinstein says, and told to remove the headlines, which had not been approved by the city, by the next morning.
"I was devastated," says Berinstein, who was particularly puzzled by the contention that the project was "too political" and not "child-friendly."
Berinstein says that when she submitted the proposal eight months ago, it didn't include the text, but she adds in her defence that "a work of art always evolves, and I didn't know I had to keep everyone informed of the changes."
After consulting with her curators, Berinstein sent e-mails summoning friends and acquaintances to provide emotional support and help her to paint over the offending words. But the scary spector of censorship provoked a strong reaction from artists and union activists among her correspondents.
Katie McGovern of CUPE 4400, who helped organize the e-mail campaign that saved the art work, urged Berinstein to rethink her decision.
"In the union movement we recognize bullying when we see it," says McGovern. "It was a mutilation, with no process and no discussion. There needs to be better communication and due process when a problem arises."
Local councillor Paula Fletcher was in a meeting when an aide delivered Berinstein's e-mail.
"I was shocked to read that an artist planned to destroy her own work," she says. In fact, as Fletcher points out, the contentious text "recalls an important period in the city's history. The public water system that grew out of this debate was quite a remarkable technology and the zenith of public health."
Parks and rec director Don Boyle says, "When the organizers approached the city about this project, they assured (us) there would be no surprises. In the end, we noted that the text would likely have been approved if it had been in the original submission, so there was no reason not to permit the artist to complete the work."
So on Friday morning the atmosphere was festive as Withrow Park filled with children, and artists and activists gathered to help Berinstein finish the interrupted work. Kids challenged one another to leap the still-wet letters, while a toddler appropriated an orange pylon and danced around with it on his head.
Indeed, in this battle for public voice and space, a few innocents learned their lessons, and all is forgiven.