A statue beyond limitations

Amid all the debate surrounding the Skywhale, perhaps it's time to reflect on an alternative reality.

If former chief minister Jon Stanhope had vetoed the vast, mythical beast bound for the sky, and opted for something different, what would the public have preferred?

Not one to shy away from controversy, especially when it comes to public art, Mr Stanhope admitted this week that he would have played it disappointingly safe in our Centenary year.

''This sounds so boring, and I know that the art sector will dig in,'' he said.

''But if [Centenary creative director] Robyn Archer had come to me and said, 'I have a spare $350,000 and I think we should commission a work of art,' I would have said, 'Robyn, I think we should commission a bronze statue of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony, to be located in a central significant space, say, on City Hill.'.''

Well, it's no Skywhale. But to many, such a work may have had appeal.


After all, if ever there was a time to venerate Walter and Marion, it's in our birthday year.

Many of the Centenary events have focused on the couple, and yet there has yet to be a sculpture of them erected anywhere in the city.

A bronze statue would at least have been permanent, a point of interest in the city, a meeting point, or a place to mark significant Canberra milestones or anniversaries.

Residents could have claimed ownership of it, and, depending on the artist commissioned or the style employed, we could have forever argued over its artistic merit.

Because it's hardly the case that challenging artworks have no place here.

There's the Alexander Bunyip in Gungahlin, for example, and the Angel Wings in Tuggeranong.

There's the distinctive blue glass tower on the Kingston Foreshore and, perhaps more divisive, the large white owl heading up the Belconnen town centre.

The much-debated per cent for art scheme that Mr Stanhope established while chief minister saw more than 20 works commissioned and installed in parks, shopping precincts and roadsides around Canberra, placed deliberately to allow the city to grow up around them.

Much of the criticism levelled at the Skywhale has been related to the work's ephemeral nature, in terms of how many people will get to see it and how long it will last.

But Mr Stanhope had a suspicion ephemeral art in and of itself wasn't the problem.

In 2010, after enduring a drubbing from the Canberra citizenry about one of the public artworks he had recently unveiled he decided to run ''a little experiment''. He put a separate line in the ACT budget setting aside $100,000 to commission a symphony for the Centenary celebrations, and wondered what the response would be.

''You know, there was not a single criticism of the symphony by anybody at any stage,'' he said.

''I thought it was interesting that if you pay $100,000 for a statue, you get kicked from pillar to post, but if you pay $100,000 to a musician to commission a piece of music, which of itself is a touch ephemeral - it's played by an orchestra, you attend a performance and you go home and the music might still be in the soul but it's dissipated - nobody minds.''