The city is revamping its public art strategy for the first time in 30 years, but Doug Ford’s developer-friendly Bill 108 is causing uncertainty
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 4, 2019
Toronto has declared 2021 “the Year of Public Art,” but new legislation proposed by Doug Ford is already causing uncertainty.
Mayor John Tory announced the city will update its public art strategy for the first time in around 30 years.
“We want to grow Toronto’s reputation as a creative city,” he said during a press conference on November 18, adding that the inspiration for the 10-year strategy – which delivers on one of his 2018 campaign promises – was a 2017 study led by OCAD University president Sara Diamond and University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Daniel Silver.
“This is a rare example of academic recommendations being put into action,” said Diamond, an advisor on the new strategy, at the press conference.
The 2017 study called for an update to the city’s existing public art policy, which was drafted in the 1980s. The program’s costs will be determined through the city’s 2020 budget process, and the proposed strategy will be considered by the city’s Executive Committee on December 11.
Tory noted that since 2017 the city has delivered on its goal of investing $25 per capita in the arts.
The public art strategy took the OCAD study as its starting point and added to that an extensive process of city-led consultation with the arts community, stakeholder groups and an advisory committee.
According to the proposed strategy, the city will coordinate an overall vision for Toronto’s public art offerings and ensure art is evenly spread out across the city. The idea is to create more landmarks, like the dog fountain at Berczy Park, that can foster stronger neighborhood identities and a deeper sense of belonging.
Another recommendation is better integration between public art and city planning, including coordination of how pieces might work together in dialogue with one another. The study also advises the city to broaden its definition of public art to include temporary works – basically, public art pop-ups that might include performances or screen-based works.
At the press conference, the mayor talked about Toronto Man, the controversial sculpture on St. Clair West by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. “I felt joy to see the debate that this work has inspired,” he said.
He added that art plays a role in branding a city’s identity. “I visited Austin,” he said, “to try and understand how that city got its reputation as a creative hub.”
Fostering Toronto’s reputation as a similar hub is a goal that lies behind the new strategy.
However, incoming provincial legislation from Doug Ford’s arts-averse conservative government could complicate the strategy.
Late last year, the Tories cut the Ontario Arts Council budget cut by $5 million, and chopped more than $2 million from the Indigenous Culture Fund, effectively eliminating it.
Now the premier’s developer-friendly Bill 108 jeopardizes Toronto’s ability to obtain benefits such as public art from developers.
To date, “developers are responsible for over 300 public art projects getting built,” councillor Gary Crawford, one of the leads on the Year of Public Art’s advisory committee, noted during the press conference.
The city runs three public art programs, including the Percent for Public Art Program, which mandates that one per cent of a new development’s cost is budgeted for public art initiatives. New commissions are funded by developers on a per-project basis and administered by the city.
Bill 108 puts the future of the program in doubt.
The Percent for Public Art Program dates back to the mid 80s, but the last 15 years saw the majority of new projects built thanks to the explosion of condo developments. Though the rate of new condos developments is slowing, the first quarter of 2019 saw 242 condominium projects constructed, an all-time high for the city, according to Urban Toronto.
“The province has replaced development-related revenue and benefit tools with the community benefits charge,” a city spokesperson told NOW. “The impact on the city’s Percent for Public Art Program is unknown.”
However, others see less reliance on developers for public art funding as a good thing.
“If [Bill108] helps to uncouple public art from condo development, this would be a positive effect,” says Rebecca Carbin, a public art consultant who advised on the city’s strategy. “One goal of the strategy was to look at other sources of funding. Currently the city’s dependence on developers creates public art deserts.”
Ensuring that public art is evenly spread out across the city is one of the strategy’s goals. Carbin notes the majority of new major public art commissions are concentrated in the core. The suburbs are home to many street mural projects, but the exact number of these and other works is a question that will be answered by a newly announced public directory of projects.
But public art is more than sculptures and murals. “One-hundred-year monuments and one-night events” are also considered public art, says Carbin.
At the press conference, the mayor made clear his commitment to the latter format, announcing that annual all-night art event Nuit Blanche will expand to Etobicoke and North York in 2020. The previously downtown-centric initiative branched out to Scarborough over the last two years.
The Year of Public Art will also be supported by new funding opportunities for artists, administered through the Toronto Arts Council (TAC). There will be grants of up to $20,000 for Nuit Blanche projects and up to $50,000 for Year of Public Art projects.
Given that Percent for Public Art Program budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the TAC grants will cover only a portion of an ambitious art project. As such, major art institutions like the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Power Plant will partner to help raise funding.
While new money to make art is always welcome, how artists will continue to afford to live in the city was not discussed at the mayor’s press conference.
Giving funds to public art initiatives is an easy concession developers can make. This allows them to expand the terms of a building project in the face of opposition. Working with artists helps to burnish their image, and Toronto condos are increasingly home to some impressively ambitious projects like Balkenhol’s sculpture or Israeli artist Ron Arad’s monumental work at Yonge and Bloor, Safe Hands.
But many people who make art may not be able to afford a unit in these buildings. A November 2019 report says that the average rent in Toronto is now $2,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. As a next step, Mayor Tory could declare 2020 as the Year of Affordable Housing.