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Sculptures staying put

The city will spend about a quarter of a million dollars to purchase five aboriginal sculptures that have been displayed outside St. Albert Place since the spring.

The city will spend about a quarter of a million dollars to purchase five aboriginal sculptures that have been displayed outside St. Albert Place since the spring.

The granite works on temporary display by Cree artist Stewart Steinhauer will now be a permanent fixture along Red Willow Trail next to city hall after several supporters of the works convinced council Monday to unanimously approve the purchase.

The city will pay for the $232,500 purchase with equal instalments of $38,750 over six years, with the money coming from municipal property tax dollars. According to the city's public arts policy, the purchase will also see 10 per cent of the purchase price, or $23,250, placed into the city's public art lifecycle and maintenance fund. This money will be paid in six annual instalments of $3,875, coming from the stabilization reserve in 2010 and the cultural services budget in subsequent years.

Mayor Nolan Crouse said during Monday's council meeting that the spontaneous purchase of the art was compromising the city's usual purchasing process, but he joined the rest of council in supporting the acquisition.

“The reason I voted for it was based on the input we received,” Crouse said in an interview Tuesday.

“My going-in position last night was to send it to budget and have it compete with other business cases. The public influence last night changed my mind.”

Council heard from 10 speakers, all of whom supported the purchase. The general consensus was the sculptures were a magnet for people that were particularly engaging with children.

Joanne Gagnon, a person of MĂ©tis heritage, said she was instantly moved upon seeing the sculptures for the first time.

“To finally see a reflection of some of the art and spirit of the people that I come from, I can't tell you how moving it was. It touches your spirit,” she said.

The artist had pegged the value of all five sculptures at $330,000 but was willing to sell to the city at a discount because of the exposure he'd received and because he liked the look of the display, said a report prepared by city administration. Edmonton art dealer Brent Luebke, hired by the city to perform an appraisal, put the total market value at $370,000.

When asked whether the purchase would make a solid business case, city manager Bill Holtby said no.

“Given our fiscal circumstance and the difficult budget that we're headed towards and the constraints that we have, I would be recommending against [the purchase],” he said.

Lynda Flannery of the St. Albert Taxpayers' Association, a spending watchdog, wasn't enthused about the purchase.

“I think the city should be looking at the necessities of what we need in the city first,” she said.

The statues' creator, Steinhauer, said he was surprised to hear Tuesday morning that the city had approved the purchase.

“I'm in shock this morning,” he said on the phone from his studio in Creston, B.C. “We never anticipated that it would go through. We knew it's an election year and there's all this fiscal austerity talk,” he said.

Steinhauer, 58, originally approached the city seeking to display the sculptures during the International Children's Festival in June. The sculptures have been in place since May 17.

Steinhauer said he wanted to see his five pieces next to a building designed by MĂ©tis architect Douglas Cardinal.

“I also wanted a place to put the large pieces out into the public eye to potentially attract a client,” he said. “It never occurred to me that St. Albert itself could be the client.”

Coun. Carol Watamaniuk, who spearheaded the purchase, said the reaction to the sculptures has been unprecedented.

“I have been stopped by several tourists asking where the aboriginal sculptures are,” she said.

Crouse said he's received 50 to 100 emails and phone calls in support of the purchase and only a few communications against it.

He didn't think displaying the sculptures in St. Albert was a deliberate ploy to lure the city into purchasing them.

“I don't think anybody sat in a back room and plotted this,” he said.