Spanning about 800 metres of the Laurel Trail, parallel to the LRT track in Waterloo Park, is an outdoor gallery of over twenty visual artworks. Images of flowers, animals, landscapes and people have rotated through the gallery, where they are printed on vinyl banners and hung onto lamp posts.   

I have walked this footpath several times over many months and each time I look up at the lamp posts, harboured frustration asserts itself within me.  

I have prevented myself from responding to this public art initiative out of respect for the artists whose artwork is hung on display, yet I find myself now writing out of the same respect for the artists—and for art—that prevented me before.  

I confess, I was intrigued by the outdoor gallery the first time I saw it. The artworks brightened the path, and it added another bit of excitement to the then changing park. Yet being positioned on a path, I passed by the gallery often, and the more I did, the more I began to question its presence and what it meant by being there.  

Original visual artworks have been converted into pixels, altering their colours, sizes and textures. Each artwork, whether created in oil paint, gouache, acrylic, graphite or even digitally, has been exported onto the same vinyl banner as the others, becoming uniform in both material and design.   

What could be considered the ‘framing’ of the artworks is a white background that takes up the bottom quarter of each banner.  

The names of the artists appear beneath their work in the bottom right corner. Their names are printed in a large bold font and capitalized, drawing the viewer’s attention directly to them and asserting an almost visual equivalence of artwork with artist.   

This equivalence is not surprising given the gallery’s desire to showcase artists, but it is also not unmarked. It points to the fact that such a gallery is designed less as an opportunity for the artworks to be pondered than it is one for the artists to reach a new public. 

 Their work is a sample, their names seem meant to lead the audience elsewhere, perhaps to a social media page or a website. Given the positioning of the artworks on a path—a place of movement—the transitory state of the gallery is undeniable, though perhaps ineffective. Pedestrians and cyclists pass by the art as they would scroll through images on their phones, without truly looking.  

Adjacent to the artists’ names on the banners is the appearance of the logos of sponsoring bodies. The logos of the City of Waterloo and Create Waterloo appear on the bottom-left corner of every single work of art.  

Recognition of funding is surely necessary at some point in the outdoor gallery, but the appearance of the funders’ logos on each artwork achieves nothing more than marking the artworks as a product of their monetary support.  

The City of Waterloo and Create Waterloo mark their presence through several other light blue banners interspersed among the artworks, which curate the experience of the gallery.  

One invites viewers to look for the 22 other public art pieces in Waterloo; one invites artists to join the artist roster to “find out about opportunities like this.” One asks, “What is Public Art?” with a web address listed beneath it (a page which, as of December 2023, is not available), confirming my belief that the substance of this gallery is meant to be found elsewhere.  

There are two banners that I cannot bear: the first: “This gallery features local artists. That’s cool.” The second: “Public art is cool.”   

I cannot walk by this gallery without feeling disappointed by the lack of seriousness of its pursuit and the way in which it sees art as an occasion for marketing and self-promotion, a mutable form that can be homogenized; something that is ‘cool.’  

I appreciate the effort made to compensate artists and offer them an avenue through which their work can enter the world, but I am suspicious of the routine ways this seems to be done.  

Artists in the Region of Waterloo are often offered occasions to decorate the city: to adorn public lamp posts, paint picnic tables and paint murals to be mounted on buildings. In each of these contexts however, ‘art’ is considered an add-on—an afterthought that (deliberately or inadvertently) prevents any meaningful change of the object or structure onto which they are added or the viewer who sees them. Public art under such terms can be certainly pleasant to look at, as the outdoor gallery is, but it is unarousing and truthfully, quite forgettable.  

I do not hope for any public art in Waterloo Region to embody forgettability nor settle for being ‘cool.’ The public deserves public art that is much more than ‘cool.’ And surely, we deserve more than this.