Council should have offered apology, says president of district arts council.


The Sault Star

Michael Burtch has been through the ringer over the past week.

Caught in the glare of both the local and national media spotlights, the Sault Ste. Marie artist and art gallery director has stomached the indignity of having his integrity questioned.

Some city fathers claimed that the statues Burtch made for their city catapulted into the national spotlight, as the arts community and its supporters crossed brushes with city officials.

After so much controversy, would Burtch ever consider doing city-commissioned work in the future? "AS long as (the city) could see it first," he told The Sault Star with a laugh, moments after council opted to reinstate his three nude, bronze statues, recently yanked from the front of the John Rhodes Centre.

"I just want to sculpt," Burtch told reporters later. "If I've got something that's appropriate for something and somebody wants to look at it ahead of time, great.

"But to actually do something on spec, I found it personally very draining the last couple of weeks. My first priority as an artist is to make art. Whether or not I enter a (municipal) competition or not at this point, it's a moot point."

The Claim that he delivered something other than what was commissioned is rubbish, Burtch charged.

The three nude, athletic figures, Corpus Mobilis, indeed reflected the original design OK'd by council.

"I wouldn't tone down anything, because nothing was toned up on that one," Burtch reflected." They were tame. They were conservative sculptures. I didn't break any rules on that one."

As for all the public opposition to the sculptures that city staff claimed existed, well, cough up the names and numbers, the arts camp demanded.

"It's 2001. I'm surprised we're debating the issue of nudity," Burtch said. "Public art, yes, but nudity?"

With the dust slowly settling on the issue, Burtch called the brouhaha a learning experience, suggesting that next time around, the city might consider a selection process whereby an expert panel would choose contenders whose work would then be selected by the public.

"I hope that's something the city can build on and help use the arts to revitalize the community."


It appeared to come as a surprise to those who packed council chambers in support of the sculptures that no one from their group was allowed to address the meeting. Council, prior to approving the statues reinstallment, passed a resolution not to debate the matter.

Doug McChesney, chair of the Cultural Advisor Board was told to sit down upon arriving at the podium.

He downplayed the matter afterward.

CITY COUNCIL PASSED a resolution not to debate the statues issue, which kept Doug McChesney, chair of the Cultural Advisory Board, and other local residents from addressing the matter at Monday's meeting.

"It's time to mend fences to a certain degree," McChesney said. "I think council realizes there may be some internal things that need to be looked at in terms of procedure ... which is something I would have liked to address."

McChesney said he hopes and believes the fracas won't deter other artists from offering their work for municipally supported projects.

"Artists are a particular breed of very-well focused (individuals) with a deep sense of inner satisfaction form the work," he said. "I don't think something as silly as this is going to deter people from doing their art."

Bill Slingsby wasn't as forgiving of council for closing the debate.

In fact, the president of the Arts Council of Sault Ste. Marie and District contends council ought to have offered both Burtch and McChesney an apology for what he branded the city's utter misconduct in handling the issue.

"We're not spoiled children that we can just ignore it and say, "Well it's going to go away, he said. "Yes it will go away but the reputation's going to stay for a long time if we don't do something to remedy it."

He suggested striking an arms-length body to oversee such art issues, a body that wouldn't have to "worry about the trailing's of political aftermath."

Is the Sault likely to witness an encore in the battle between the city and its arts community? If it does, don't be surprised to see Kelly St. Louis once again planting herself on the front lines.

"I don't just jump on any bandwagon - I've never done that - but with the arts and Michael, I have a loyalty," said the Sault woman, who spearheaded a 200 name petition in support of the statues.

St. Louis, who has posed nude for Burtch, said the most deeming elements to have emerged from the debate is the community support for the works, not just the arts crowd, but from people who perhaps have never set food inside the city's art gallery.

"The arts intimidate a lot of people, or they just don't understand, so they were thankful to say, "Hey, here's something I'm going to sign. Yes, I'm going to oppose what the city staff is doing."