ACT News

Gang-gang. Calculating the joys, not just the costs, of public art.

Readers have appreciated the news, reported in Wednesday's column, that we share this city with an exquisite goanna species, Varanus rosenbergi​, Rosenberg's Monitor.

It is living on Mount Ainslie where, not well understood, it is now being studied by experts. We only had room on Wednesday for one photograph of it, a portrait of its handsomely patterned face. So here today is another picture of it that gives a better idea of its camouflaging and of its size (Rosenbergs grow to a length of 1.5 metres) and shape, since after all it is goannas' long and tapering lizardry that is their essence.

Belconnen's Powerful Owl sculpture as painted by Trevor Dickinson.
Belconnen's Powerful Owl sculpture as painted by Trevor Dickinson. Photo: Trevor Dickinson.

And while with wildlife, to be more precise with representations of wildlife, Tuesday's paper contained yet another complaint from a philistine about the modest, $400,000 cost of the controversial Powerful Owl sculpture on Belconnen Way. The towering edifice is by Melbourne sculptor Bruce Armstrong.

We look forward one day to a similarly large and very expensive public art statue of a Rosenberg's Monitor. But it will generate controversy when the Chief Minister unflinchingly unveils it, because horror at the costs of public art are an enduring part of this immature city's conversation.

Rosenberg's Monitor on a Mount Ainslie termite mound.
Rosenberg's Monitor on a Mount Ainslie termite mound. Photo: Matthew Higgins.

There are great frustrations for those of us who approve of (fine) public art and of the spending of generous piles of shekels on it. In this we Davids can never stand on a level playing field with the Goliaths, the philistine whingers. If only we had a way of calculating in beans or in dollars (the only sorts of sums philistines can do) the amounts of joy a fine artwork gives those who glimpse it. Bean-counting detractors can point to the owl sculpture's cost (in this case 400,000 beans) but the sculpture's defenders struggle to quantify its benefits. If we could calculate them we would surely find that the owl has vastly repaid its purchase price.

We frisbeed this dilemma to Dr Andrew Leigh MP, the federal member for Fraser. Like him, the sculpture is an adornment of the Fraser electorate. He is an imaginative economist well-known for his lateral thinking and scholarship on the economics of our lives.

"One standard approach," he tells us "is to ask people how much money they'd be willing to pay for public art (it's known as the contingent valuation approach)."

"In the case of the owl, my recollection is the initial cost was $400,000. So if each of the 92,000 people in the Belconnen region would be willing to pay $5 or more for the owl (less than the cost of two coffees), then it was good value for money."

Meanwhile one of the sure proofs that Belconnen's owl is a true wonder of the Canberrascape is that it has, like our unique bus shelters, captured the admiring attention (pictured) of discerning artist Trevor Dickinson. Prints of his Belconnen owlscape are on sale via his website Newcastle Productions. trevordickinson.com/

The same Letter to the Editor that deplores the owl also deplore an "intellectual divide" between a point of view (about spending of public money) expressed in a Canberra Times editorial and a point of view expressed in this column. But surely it should be a matter of joy (for those capable of that emotion) that The Canberra Times is such a pluralist publication. It would be shame if a newspaper serving a clever city spoke in the same voice from cover to cover, like, say, the Pyongyang Times or The Australian.

While on Letters to the Editor, a perplexing letter in Wednesday's paper takes us to task for last Friday's column that allegedly made a "mean-spirited attack on the good burghers of Yarralumla" in announcing the Yarralumla Residents Association as this column's 2015 UnCanberran of the Year. That letter goes on to carol the achievements of the YRA, as well as to say unkind things about this mild-mannered columnist. This is perplexing because the piece for which the writer takes me to task did not even mention Yarralumla or the YRA, while announcing that our feared UnCanberran of the Year gong had gone to the ignoble anti-light-rail Can The Tram cult. Yarralumla and the YRA didn't even cross my mind as I composed that item.

Alas, this is typical of the way in which the contents of the Letters pages so often fall below the otherwise high standards of the remainder of The Canberra Times, written by journalists displaying our calling's clear-eyed obsession with truth-telling, with accuracy, with logical thinking.

Still with the letters, a wise old raven comes to the native plants oasis of my garden to sit at my elbow while it drinks from my best bird bath. It has noticed the alarmist and oh-so-Canberran Letters to the Editor expressing horror at the revolutionary idea of people planting vegies on their nature strips. The first world burghers' first horrified thoughts are fears that they will cultivate vegies only to then have a dream aubergine, an immaculate marrow, stolen by the lower classes.

"It's a very Canberran, mean-spirited response, isn't it Ian," the great fowl mused, giving one of the melancholy sighs for which its species is famous.

"But then," (gesturing with its mighty beak at the bleak, non-native gardens of my disappointing street in Lower Garran), "most Canberrans are too miserly to grow anything for their native birds to eat, let alone for their fellow humans."