We look at how the City adds to its expanding collection of public art
It’s no coincidence that for nearly every tall condo building a piece of public art emerges alongside it.
Toronto owes its ever-growing outdoor gallery to City policy. By design, one per cent of the cost of a capital project or private sector development is set aside for public art.
It’s a rarity to spot public art that exists without money pouring in to create a new streetscape, to improve transit, or to add to the cityscape, says Jane Perdue, public art co-ordinator at the City of Toronto.
Follow the trail of development dollars and it will lead to the discovery of easy-to-miss art in oft-overlooked neighbourhoods and side streets—whether it means visiting the bustle-free corridors of North York or the high rises clustered near the Gardiner Expressway.
Ahead of the launch of ArtVenturist, our brand new public art column, we looked at how public art is managed, what makes public art successful, and why Toronto tends to play it safe.
When did Toronto’s public art policy take root?
Toronto is in league with cities like Mexico City, Philadelphia, and London, which see public art as an extension of city building. Public art can imbue a sense of identity to a budding community, establish landmarks and break up the monotony of walking past seemingly identical glass towers.
The former City of Toronto initiated its public art policy in 1986, making it the first Canadian municipality to actively encourage commissions under the one per cent recommendation. With it, the Toronto Public Art Commission (TPAC), composed of volunteers from the art and urban design community, was created to advise council on projects.
Amalgamation, which brought East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and York together with old Toronto in 1998, simply expanded the program.
The City has two divisions that oversee the process for adding to Toronto’s public art collection. City Planning has jurisdiction over private developer commissions, while Arts and Culture, formerly Cultural Services, takes the reins on public art projects on City lands.
Who looks after securing public art for privately owned properties?
City Planning implements the Percent for Public Art Program, which outlines guidelines adopted by council in 2010 to ensure commissions constitute a public benefit—that is, it must be visible, accessible, and add to the urban character.
Its main avenue for pursuing public art opportunities is through Section 37 of the provincial Planning Act. Under the umbrella of Section 37, developers exchange community benefits for zoning concessions (like the height of a building, or the amount of units), and the City can secure funds from developers for public art, affordable housing, recreational facilities, and other types of approved local improvements.
Within the developer’s budget, one per cent of the gross construction cost can be allocated to acquire public art on-site (on private grounds), off-site (on city property), or a blended approach. It’s up to the developer to decide if, under Section 37, it wants to initiate a competition for new public art.
If the developer decides to move forward with an on-site public art contribution, a draft Public Art Plan is submitted to City Planning staff for review, followed by a draft to TPAC for its recommendations, after which staff submits the report to council for approval.
As the public watchdog, TPAC offers input on how to make the selection process fair. It holds meetingsevery six to eight weeks that are open to the public. The 11-member group co-ordinates with City Planning to review plans for public art opportunities proposed by the private sector, and does not sit on the art jury.
The jury panel of three to five people, must mainly be made up of art experts. A seat can be reserved for the applicant, and one can also be open to a local community member.
Young, untested artists are not usually on the radar of the selection panel unless a mentorship or workshop is initiated by the developer. The program requires that the artist have concrete work that backs up their ability to produce a high-quality piece that will stand in perpetuity.
What about public art in City-owned spaces?
Arts and Culture, for its part, works closely with community organizations to identify spaces where public art projects can have the most impact. For City-led projects, Arts and Culture manages the commissioning process.
“We meet with the community and neighbourhood association to canvas where the community would like to see the money spent,” says Clara Hargittay, public art officer of Arts and Culture. “We often conduct community consultations before we start and develop proposals.”
If a private developer opts for an off-site contribution, wherein funds are pooled for use on city property within close proximity to the project, then it falls within Arts and Culture’s domain. However, community organizations like Waterfront Toronto can take the lead in shaping the project, as long as the commissions fall within its guidelines.
Off-site projects such as those managed by Waterfront Toronto provide opportunities to take a “curatorial approach” in the commissioning process, says Rebecca Carbin, public art manager at Waterfront Toronto.
With Waterfront Toronto’s East Bayfront project, it’s pooling money from various development blocks to commission nine new pieces that relate to one another.
“In the end, you have a cohesive collection for a neighbourhood,” says Carbin. “It’s a collection of public assets.”
Once completed, Arts and Culture inherits the pieces for its Public Art and Monument Collection. For instance, through the West Don Lands development, it added Peeled Pavement by Jill Anhalt and The Water Guardians by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins, among others, to its inventory. Each piece comes with a maintenance endowment.
“Ultimately, everything we commission we hand over to the city,” says Carbin. “We work with them to make sure that we’re giving them things they can take care of.”
What makes public art successful?
If public art can animate a space with its scale and design, and it speaks to its surroundings, that constitutes success for Perdue. “I think the success is that people return to them, they talk about it, [and] they, maybe, have their photos taken,” she says.
For Carbin, public art should ideally engage a broad spectrum of pedestrians with a limited or extensive art vocabulary. “It doesn’t matter what kind of engagement it is. [It’s successful] when somebody [who] has absolutely no art background takes something from it and wants to share it with somebody else,” she says. “And it’s when somebody who has a lot of art history background can understand the artistic concept and what merit it brings to ongoing discussions.”
Why does Toronto play it safe?
Apart from annual arts festivals like Nuit Blanche or Luminato, temporary public installations don’t usually populate the city year round. There’s no rotating platform for public art to be mounted on, as in Brooklyn Bridge Park or in London’s Trafalgar Square, says Carbin.
As such, permanent public art funded through City policy purposely avoids making provocative or political statements, as was the case in Philadelphia last year, where its streets, including city hall, became a canvas for the stories of undocumented immigrants. Or in London, in 2013, when artist Katharina Fritsch got cheeky—and cocky—with Hahn/Cock, a massive blue cockerel roosting on Trafalgar Square. It was on display for 18 months.
“Sometimes it has to be risk-averse and not offend people because it’s going to be there forever,” says Carbin. “A temporary timeframe frees that up a bit and allows art to maybe ask more pointed questions like you do in the safety of a gallery.”
While Carbin says it may be years down the line before we see separate funding efforts for one-off installations, artists and planners do keep pushing what’s possible by creating a cohesive public art collection.
“There’s this huge volume of public art. Let’s not just have it happening in unrelated increments, but make it say something more, so the whole is greater than the sum of parts.”