In it, MacGregor likens the public reaction to Pipe Man to that of Voice of Fire, a $1.76-million painting by Barnett Newman purchased by the Canadian government in 1990 for the National Gallery. There are differences, however: Pipe Man sits in a prominent location in the middle of town where it can’t be avoided by those who don’t wish to see it, and it cost taxpayers nothing, save for the staff time dealing with complaints since it was installed.
MacGregor notes the extensive planning that went into the sculpture – from initial concept and commissioning of artist Beverley Hawksley to open discussion at council meetings and gaining permission from Transport Canada for its location in a navigable waterway – with little public outcry prior to its installation.
The calm didn’t last long.
After Pipe Man appeared in the Muskoka River last November, reaction was swift, ranging from the benign and quizzical ‘what is it?’ to harsh criticism of the art work itself, the intent behind it, and those involved in its creation.
The overwhelmingly negative reaction took the donor, Pipefusion owner Jan Nyquist, by surprise. He said that while he can take the criticism – not everyone likes every piece of art, after all – he is disheartened by negative comments directed at Hawksley and Pipefusion staff.
The rude and disrespectful online insults both on Doppler and Facebook have been quite hurtful to members of my staff, the artist and Teri Souter (the Town’s manager of arts culture and heritage) who do not understand the reason for this type of bullying. You can offer your opinion without throwing out mean-spirited comments and low blows, insulting people who bring value to our community in so many ways. We don’t deserve to be publicly abused in the media because some people disagree with decisions made by the council they elected to serve them. It appears that this piece is providing a significant role in remembering and celebrating the legacy of Tom Thomson in this 100th anniversary of the year of his death.
Jan Nyquist, Pipefusion owner and donor of Pipe Man
MacGregor quotes the associate curator of contemporary art at Canada’s National Gallery, Jonathan Shaughnessy, as saying that public art can be a “prickly realm… Sometimes the most obvious, you get it right away and that’s great. But then it languishes in a park for 20 or 30 years and nobody pays any attention to it. What’s there to pique your interest?”
Voice of Fire remains in the National Gallery, more than 20 years after it was hung. Whether Pipe Man will win people over remains to be seen. A survey by the town requesting feedback from residents is open until August 5 – which MacGregor notes is Tom Thomson’s birthday – after which council will make a decision on its fate.
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