Listening to Brian Williams talk about the value of public art, his enthusiasm is palpable. As Tourism Development Officer with the Town of Gander (a position he’s held for the past four years), Williams has witnessed first-hand how art can not only invigorate and beautify public spaces and attract visitors, but also connect people to their communities and change lives.
Prior to his current role, Williams managed the North Atlantic Aviation Museum where, with the help of funding from Service Canada, he worked with at-risk youth (providing them with an arts-based eduction, including painting and photography) to develop original works of art for the town, including murals at the Gander Arts and Culture Centre and airport terminal.
“And some of these young people did go on to careers as artists, I’m very delighted to say,” Williams says.
These days, as part of his role, Williams manages the town’s Art Procurement Program – a unique program that, since 2007, has been helping to identify, celebrate and support local artistic talent (both emerging and established), while ensuring public access to their work and demonstrating to residents the value and importance of arts and culture.
Artists can submit up to three pieces each in a range of media, including (but not limited to) painting, photography, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, ceramic, glass, fibre art, metal and mixed media. “Over the years we’ve gotten pretty much everything,” Williams says. The works are then arranged in council chambers and present for at least one meeting, he adds, “so that when (it’s) televised on Rogers, the public has a better ability to see the artworks that we’ve received – which is fantastic for the artists, because we try to make it as public as possible.”
For added exposure, the artworks are also photographed and shared on the town’s website and Facebook page, where viewers can vote for their favourite (“Residents’ Choice”). This past year, Williams says, there were over 10,000 views of the artworks, “which of course the artists loved…and some of them have said, ‘I have been contacted, I have sold works of art because of the exposure.’”
Each year, a jury is appointed consisting of two representatives from the Gander arts community and the town’s Economic Development Manager or designate, and five or six pieces are chosen for purchase, depending upon the town’s budget for the program (which Williams says has increased for 2022). Since its inception, he adds, the program has been strongly supported by the town and incredibly well received by artists and the public, with the number of submissions increasing over the past few years (this year saw 34 submissions from 16 different artists).
Since 2007, the town has purchased 64 pieces in total. “These are mostly paintings and photography. However, in recent years we’ve gotten sculptures and reclaimed wood, and one artist likes to paint on old church window panes. One year we had a quilt. We’ve had tapestries. This year we had two entrants for macramé,” Williams says.
There’s a dedicated space in the town hall lobby, “where people come and go,” he adds, where the chosen artworks are displayed for 12 months, along with the name of the artist, the title of their artwork and medium. “The artists have also said that they’ve gotten contacts from people who’ve been to the town hall to pay a bill or what have you, seen the artwork and then contacted them about purchasing something else,” Williams says.
“Its a win-win for everyone. It beautifies the town…beautifies an otherwise industrial type space, and the artists get recognition.”
Once a new year rolls around and a new program is held, the new artworks go up at council chambers and the old ones come down and are distributed among municipal buildings (generally lobbies and public spaces), where they’re swapped around from time to time to keep things fresh.
“It’s a very enjoyable program. Council is behind it. The employees look forward to the new artworks every year and on occasion, if an artwork isn’t purchased by our program…an employee has liked one so much they bought it and brought it home,” Williams says.
Since he stepped into his role four years ago, Williams has looked for other ways to use public art to help beautify the town, getting inspiration from the City of St. John’s Traffic Box Art Program, which hires local artists to paint scenes onto traffic control boxes around the city. Wanting to kick off the initiative in Gander, he got some pointers from the city (“They were only too happy to give me insight as to how they did it,” Williams says), and worked with his committee and local artist Melissa Francis (check out her mural “The Real Heroes,” a tribute to essential workers, in our Explore Art NL public art app) to bring seven beautifully painted traffic boxes to life.
“The public is really behind it. And she’s got seven pieces of art in the community that she owns with her name on it, and it’s done wonders for her,” Williams says.
For other municipalities that may be interested in starting their own Art Procurement Program, Williams says “speak to the very members of the arts community who you will be soliciting for submissions…you can’t go in cold turkey, ‘This is what I think artists will want to do, therefore this is how our policy is going to be’ – no, you need to speak to the people who are going to be involved.”
And if anyone needs help in getting started, he adds, he’s only too happy to have a chat.
“If there are other communities out there that can benefit by me giving them my experience, then the artists benefit, and isn’t that what we all want?”
Are you a municipality that’s interested in starting your own Art Procurement Program and looking for some pointers? You can contact Brian Williams at the Town of Gander at 709-651-5914, or email@example.com.