Vernon city hall story of year: Debate over mask murals

Murals stirred controversy

Tracey Prediger

Castanet is revisiting the top stories of an eventful 2022. Today, for the Vernon city hall story of the year, we look at the mask mural project.

Few issues captured the public's imagination in Vernon during 2022 like the controversial mask mural project.

The murals were eventually rejected by city council, but not before what was undoubtedly the biggest conversation the city has ever had about public art.

The Vernon Public Art Gallery collaboration with clients of Turning Points Collaborative Society was initially given council support without public consultation in March.

By May, word of the project began to generate opposition.

The masks that would be shown in the photographic murals were called "scary" and "disturbing" by some, ridiculed by others.

Eleven of the murals were to be placed on walls around downtown Vernon.

The masks were made by Turning Points clients as part of the 'Behind the Mask' exhibit at the gallery in conjunction with Calgary artist Katie Green, focusing on participants' mental health stories.

The proposed project would have seen the murals in place for five years.

“During COVID, it became very apparent what an impact mental health was having, not only on our local communities but beyond,” VPAG executive director Dauna Kennedy said at the time.

The gallery received a $55,500 Canada Council for the Arts grant for the project.

In June, an online petition was launched against the murals, and it quickly gained traction. A week later, a pro-mural petition was also created.

The anti-mural petition far outpaced the one in favour.

Council then backtracked on its earlier approval and sent the project back to the gallery for public consultation

“Obviously, there has been some outcry from the community,” Coun. Akbal Mund said. “I don’t think the community is ready for this.”

“Maybe they look funky and cool to some. Maybe they’ll look creepy and scare children. Maybe they’ll raise awareness of mental illness and maybe they’ll make people shake their heads in puzzlement,” said Coun. Scott Anderson, complaining of an “utter lack of public consultation.”

The gallery launched a community consultation that was also criticized, as residents had to tour the exhibit to register their comment and could only do so in person, at the gallery.

“Recognizing how big of an issue mental health has become because of COVID, we wanted to create a dialogue around mental health using the visual arts as our language, and create awareness in a positive, engaging way,” said Kennedy. “We hope people will take in the exhibit and reflect on these characters, and also each person behind these masks.”

The gallery also offered to reduce the number of murals to 10, dropping the highly visible downtown parkade location, and shortening the length of time the murals would be up from five to three years.

The gallery made a final plea to council in July to allow the murals to proceed. It would not succeed.

In early September, council decided 'Behind the Mask' should remain a gallery-only exhibit.

Councillors said they had never received so many letters and emails on a single issue.

The gallery responded angrily, saying the city “missed an opportunity to show up for Vernon residents expressing their experience with mental health through art.”

“There needs to be a better system for decision-making on public art,” said Kennedy.

“Public art is an important means of providing not only beautification to a community but also provoking thought and dialogue through critical works designed to challenge the viewer.”

She said the turnabout was a “serious threat” to the gallery’s reputation and would damage its ability to obtain future funding.

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