Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu.

“Two Circles” by Micah Lexier, Two circles of identical size, identically positioned on either end of the lobby. One circle is solid black, the other a thin, black outline. Bay Adelaide Centre, Toronto. Photo by Tom Arban.

In the second interview in the series, Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue, Yan Wu, Public Art curator for the City of Markham, and art writer Rosemary Heather, talk with Perdue about her career, the changes she has seen over the years, what tools planners have for the provision of public art, what it’s like to work with private developers, and whether she has a favourite amongst the hundreds of Toronto’s public artworks.

Jane Perdue has worked as the City of Toronto’s Public Art Coordinator for the City Planning Division for almost three decades. As an independent consultant, Perdue developed a Public Art Policy Framework for the City of Markham (then Town of Markham) in 2003, predating the public art program that was formalized in 2013. Perdue has also worked with other municipalities in Ontario and Canada on developing public art policies and public art master plans.


RH: How long have you been in the field of public art and what are the major shifts you have seen over the years?

I was hired by the City of Toronto in 1991, so I’ve been with the City for almost 30 years full-time as City Planning’s Public Art Coordinator. I studied film history and art studies and after I graduated from York University my background in public art really started when I was hired at A Space, the artist run centre. I was hired by AA Bronson of General Idea at A Space. I had some idea about General Idea, but I did not realize that I had such a wonderful opportunity. I worked with them for four years. We did a number of satellite projects. Some of them were on the TTC. Ben Mark Holzberg created a project called Rolling Landscape, using Cibachrome in the ad space inside subway cars and also installations in the bus shelters. So that was really innovative, it was around 1980-81. A Space also sponsored a performance at Nathan Phillips Square, with Marina and Ulay, and that was a fabulous opportunity for me to help with that. It was a 24-hour performance of Marina Abramovic and Ulay staring at each other. Then I was appointed to the Public Art Commission in 1985 and was on the Commission for four years as a volunteer to help advise the City. I came to the City with a visual art and film background but I became an accredited planner about 12-13 years ago, because I realized how interesting planning was and I wanted to understand better how planning worked. For my first assignment, it was urgent, I had to help write a report for something that didn’t happen for another 25 years and I had trouble for a while understanding that but that was also a lesson realized: you plan for an idea and it may take a decade or two to actually be fulfilled. As far as changes, at the beginning we would be speaking with the architect with the developers and urban designers and so on and it was a very conservative approach and it was usually sometimes they are already had an artwork in mind that they thought would just be perfect for the site and they wanted to know where they could site the plinth. So it was really about an independent sculpture—and there is nothing wrong with that—but the change has been over the years is about looking at the various opportunities for how public art may play a role in defining a character or identity or terminus, or locating people to an area as a draw. The public art might be part of the community planning guidelines and the urban design guidelines objectives, so the understanding has expanded in that way.

RH: A lot of public art today is associated with condo development. Can you describe what public art looked like before there was so much development happening in the city?

When I started, it was a recession, so there wasn’t a lot going on. There were a lot of policies that were put in place. Our official plan came in, I think it was 1994, and before that we had hired a woman—Patricia Fuller—who is very well known in the States as a public art consultant. She helped us to do what we called City Plan 91, and we had a whole chapter on public art. We were very new at it as far as implementing policies and programs. Before I was hired, Ken Greenberg, who is very well known in Toronto, was running the Urban Design section and worked with a woman—Mary Lynn Reimer —and they looked at policies and programs in the United States, because those started in around 1960, 1959. We were looking at examples that might fit for Toronto. That’s why there was a public art commission in 1985. We didn’t have a lot of programming then but that was the beginning of it, looking at the processes and what would work. Since then, yes there’s been a lot of condominiums that have been built, but that’s the market. That’s not our policies, that’s what the market has offered. But we do have public art in offices and in other institutions for sure, and there’s a number of examples that are across the city and it’s not just in the downtown core. Development certainly is happening the most in that area, but also in North York, East York and the West District, former Etobicoke.


Aerial view of sculptor Richard Serra’s controversial piece “Tilted Arc”, prior to its removal, at Federal Plaza, New York, May 10, 1985. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images).

RH: You’ve been on the scene a long time, and you were working with American public art consultants. How did the controversy around Richard Serra’s public work Tilted Arc affect you?

I’m not sure it affected us but we heard about it and realized what it really came down to was moral rights and copyright. Who owns the sculpture and who can remove it? I mean, how appalling of this developer to actually remove the artwork. So rights of artists were very important to us, so we have that in our contracts with the developers. It’s a hard one to get your head around saying “Well, I own the art but I don’t own the idea.” We saw that as a landmark case. We also had our own controversy in Toronto, with Michael Snow and his geese sculpture in the Eaton Centre. The marketing people wanted to put little ribbons around the geese for Christmas, and then they were thinking about Easter, that might be fun. Michael took them to court and said “No, you can’t do that.” That was also lessons learned for all of us, about the importance of respecting an artwork. On the other hand, there are two Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man in Frankfurt and Seattle. It moves and, seasonally, it gets different hats. But Jonathan likes that. It’s playful and he supported it. But someone else might not think that’s a fun idea. People crawl up it and put a hat on it. And that’s public engagement. The Eaton Centre one was about marketing but this was not about public engagement.


YW: Part of the reason we commissioned this conversation is to look at different working models and how different the municipalities have public art programs and what we can learn from them. I’m very curious about the two streams of public art in the City of Toronto—one under Planning and one under Culture—and how they operate separately. What’s the difference? How do they interact with each other and facilitate each other?

Well, with the former City of Toronto—and this is going back before amalgamation—City Planning did all of it. City Planning commissioned capital projects, our own infrastructure projects—that’s when the public art program started—and then also the private developer program. This is when we had North York, East York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, Metropolitan Toronto. There were several different layers of governments and agencies. Metro Toronto had its own agency, and the other boroughs were beginning to have their own public art policies. With amalgamation, almost 20 years ago, the roles and responsibilities were divided up, because the City just became so big for one department to be able to manage or handle all of that. It wasn’t possible. So, the culture division is responsible for the art that is on City-owned lands. Planning is responsible for overseeing the private developer program. But from that, culture gets a lot of money from the developers. The developers have three options. One is to commission public art on site on their own property in the public realm, or they can donate the funds to the City and that would then go to the culture division. Culture is not going to commission on the developer’s property. They’re going to find a park or a public area in the vicinity of the development—ideally—and then commission the artwork. If it’s not a big enough sum, they will collect the money until there’s enough there to commission a work of art. Then the third option is a combination of the two. There might be some money that would go to the City and then some that would remain on-site. The culture division runs competitions. They are open, they are transparent, they usually happen in two stages, and they do a public call. With the install, the City oversees this, and hires consultants to help them, because it’s not a large department. City Planning oversees the method within which the developer will commission public art: what kind of competition they have, where will the art be, who is on the jury, who is making decisions, who are the artists, and so on. It’s a paper trail, in a way. They put together a public art plan. It comes to a group called the Toronto Public Art Commission, chaired by David Anselmi, which is a group of volunteers who advise the Council, and they also advise City Planning. When the plan is approved, we report it to the Council, and then they go ahead with the actual commissioning of the work. So there’s two different streams, but we work together very closely, and while the Culture division is responsible for works on capital infrastructure, they don’t always get it. It’s not always applied consistently. They actually get a lot of money through City Planning, that goes directly from the private sector. A significant amount is generated from the private sector that comes to the City.


YW: In that case, if it’s option one and the developer decides to run their own plan, on their own site, and the developer keeps ownership of the work, do they have the option to do direct commissions? In the context of municipalities, commissioning methods are limited by procurement policy or purchasing by-laws. Because of budget size, this usually requires a competitive procurement process, which makes directly working with certain artists not an option—either through direct commissions or curated projects, even though we know their work will work well in the context of the site.

Exactly. You have to be accountable. Everybody does. It doesn’t matter what kind of competition. At the end of the day everybody has to be able to say, “This is how it happened.”


YW: Even with a private developer, do they have to do this?

They don’t have to do it. But they bring forward a public art plan to the City. We review it. It goes to the Commission. We report on it to the Council, and if there’s changes, they will let us know. But the changes might be because an artist that they want to work with isn’t available. Or maybe a jury member isn’t available. But do they have to explain how they do it? Perhaps not, but they might want to. They might have a brochure or they have a plaque. And that’s for the public to enjoy as well. That’s such an important aspect of this as well. That’s really how it works. There’s a lot of accountability. Not to get too much into the bureaucracy, but let’s say they had committed a million dollars, they actually provide financial receipts. They let us know how the money was spent. We have a chart specifying how much you can spend on maintenance, on administration and how much should be held for the actual artwork. That’s what we’re interested in knowing and making sure that it’s there, that it’s not being used up by changing drawings or architecture—all of that. The other aspect you asked me about was: what kind of competition? We encourage the developers to have a competition. They could have a direct commission, and they have. Sometimes it’s worked. We just warned them, I guess you could say: “You know what that means? You’re working with one artist and what happens if it doesn’t work out? You need to have a memorandum of understanding. You need to work with the artists. Have legal agreements, that if you need to say, we can’t do this together, you can get there. I won’t name the artist, but there was a case—probably now about 10 years ago—where the artist sued the developer because the developer did not go ahead with that particular commission and commissioned another artist. And we had to be all involved in that. So they do have the option to do a direct commission, but for the most part it’s a limited competition and it’s probably five or six artists that they’re interested in. Some developers will do an open call, which is great. But you usually know which artists might apply. Or they could encourage artists to apply. So they’ll have a two stage or maybe three stage process: an open call to see what’s out there, just send in your credentials to get a short list together, and then invite those artists to produce proposals and be paid for it. That’s the other part of it that we look at with the developers, of course, how much are the artists getting, what are the fees? It’s very important to oversee that. We help the developer spend their money, in the right way.


YW: On this type of project, does the developer usually hire a third party to run the competition, or run the project as a whole for them?

Always. They will always hire a consultant. We have had a couple developers in the past who are art collectors—and again I won’t say who—but very prominent collectors, who say “I can run this competition”. And within a few days we get a phone call back asking “Who is it that we could hire”? Because it’s a lot of work. It’s administration, it’s understanding what artists are out there, understanding the implications of a contract for an artist—all of those things that happen behind-the-scenes that aren’t as much fun and interesting, but are obviously key to the success of the program. So that’s why we have in our chart a limit on how much a developer could spend on a consultant and running the competitions. If they don’t hire an art consultant, we know that the staff at the City are going to be doing a lot of work, and that’s not our role.


YW: Does the developer have the option to let the City run the project?

No. In the agreements with them, we outline what our expectations are. This includes administration, running competition, etc. Frankly, if a developer asked us to run their competition, we would say “No, we can’t do that. We don’t have the staff or the resources, and why would we be running a competition for something that then would be not on our land? That’s not part of our mandate.” Another city might say “We can help you.” And certainly, I’m not suggesting that they write a public art plan and we report to Council and hear back in three years. Not at all. It’s almost on a daily, weekly, monthly basis that we are hearing from the art consultants. If they run into problems and challenges and updates, we’re there to help them, for sure, but not to run the program.

RH: I had a conversation with the public art consultant Brad Golden and he was talking about how the competition in the market ramped up and that’s why the architecture in the city got more ambitious, let’s say, because there was so much building and they needed to differentiate themselves. That brings up the question: do the developers see that public art as a necessary evil or do they like it? Would they see it as a way to differentiate themselves in the market?

Yes, they do. And if they see it as a necessary evil, they won’t be doing it. Remember, this is an option for them. It’s voluntary until they agree to do it. It’s about density bonusing. It’s about allowing the City to be in a position to secure public benefits, and public art is one of them. It may not be on all projects that are eligible. It’s the developers option. If they want to enter into the field of public art and commission public art, they will say that. If they don’t want to, if they think it’s a necessary evil, as you put it, they’re not going to do it. And frankly, I don’t think it would be much fun for staff either. If they come in and say “we were told we had to do this, how do we get it over with, how do we do it, and so on”. Actually, sometimes it turns around and it’s more positive but for the most part, if they don’t want to do it, they won’t. But if we’ve secured a public art commitment initially, it could be different owners by then. So they may just decide to go for option two and just give the money to the City, and that’s a contribution as well. And I think when you say that some of the buildings, because of the market, are more interesting, and they’re more innovative and creative, absolutely. And so are the architects, and the urban designers and the planners for that project. A lot of them see public art as a real benefit, because it can add that character and signal that this building, this development, is different. Come stay here, come live here, come buy. Rent an office here, or whatever. I think public art not just in Toronto but in the Western world and much further has really taken this on. And it’s not new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. What public art is, with a plaza and so on. But it has evolved and I think that some developers are more open to it because they see the benefits they see how it has the potential to improve their development. They also get awards, they get acknowledged. There’s been a number of awards recently. Concord Adex got the Arts and Business award from the Toronto Arts Foundation at the Mayor’s lunch just a few weeks ago, which is fantastic. And that’s for all the public that they’ve done in the city. The Toronto Urban Design Awards for Micah Lexier at the Adelaide Centre won the top award, this is two years ago. So that gets their attention as well.


YW: How has Section 37, which allows the developer to add community benefits in exchange for increased density, played a role in the public art program?

Section 37 is part of the planning act and it has formalized the public art program. Whereas, before it came into play—and I think we’re talking probably about 15 years ago or so, in the planning act they included Section 37—and they allowed municipalities to secure public benefits as a trade-off to density and bonuses, so really formalizing that kind of engagement. Public art is mentioned, but it could be many public benefits. And it’s for municipalities to choose to use Section 37. A lot of municipalities don’t use it. They never have and that’s their choice. Before that, we had different kinds of agreements. Basically, they were called collateral agreements, formalizing a commitment from a developer to commission public art. Over the years, these agreements have become more fulsome. The public art provisions are pretty tight. We have a template that we provide to the lawyers and then the lawyers go back and forth and have a look at it and so on. So it’s a tool that we use. It’s not the only tool. We have Urban Design guidelines. We have public realm guidelines. We have secondary plans. We have tertiary plans. We have all kinds of different documents that help to engage, or help to forecast that there’s a potential for public art. And I I think in my introduction here I did mention but, I’m a planner as well as coming to the field with my background in the visual arts and film, because I find it so interesting. So I’m an accredited planner. I’m a combination of the two, which is fantastic, in that it helps me when I’m in conversation with other developers and planners. Because I understand that public art isn’t the first thing that they think about. It’s the first thing I think about. But it’s about trying to find that balance. How they would benefit. If public art can play that role, it’s fantastic.


RH: When I looked at the City’s map of public artworks, which is great, there are many little art works, but does Toronto need some kind of big huge iconic work, like the CN tower? Something that really brands the city, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago?

When you say there’s lots of little works, I mean, there are hundreds of works and some of them are little but I think a lot of them are very large, and really have impact. That map represents what Culture did and what the private developers have done and there are probably about 400 works on that map. It goes right back to the 1850s when donations came to the city and most of those are monuments and memorials and pretty traditional works. Something like Cloud Gate could be fantastic but I did hear Ken Lum’s keynote speech, and he wasn’t being critical of Cloud Gate, but he talked about the attention and how much money it takes to actually maintain that artwork, a million dollars a year, but that remember that Cloud Gate it started with a smaller budget and then it went up and up to about $25 million, and it’s fantastic. It’s a great tourism draw. I went to Millennium Park. because I want to see that and the Plensa that’s what you go to, but Chicago also has fantastic art everywhere else in the city, and architecture too. That’s a city that understands what private can do to improve the public realm. And that’s what Millennium Park is. I’m open to it. If there’s an idea for an iconic work of art. Where it would be, I don’t know. Who it would be by, I don’t know. But if we could ask the private sector to contribute to amassing monies to do this, I think that would be great. But if that means that’s all we’re going to get, then I think that might be a problem. I think you have to have a balance. In planning, if there’s an initiative—like the John Street Corridor or the Bloor Street streetscape—if there is an initiative that we say “This is real. We want to dedicate public art dollars to it” then that’s what we’ll do. And we’ll secure that from the private sector. It comes to the City. It’s held until there is the opportunity to actually do it.


YW: So about half of the works on the map are owned by the private sector?

Yes, and the City is working on expanding that inventory to incorporate existing public art websites from City Planning, Culture, and Transportation, and launching it with the Year of Public Art. This includes all of the street art programs. There are dozens and dozens of murals. That’s under Transportation, which is another really interesting program that the City does. That came about because of the graffiti that was happening. Because of the street art that wasn’t considered art—it was tagging and vandalizing private buildings. And there was an initiative to put together a committee that looked at the so-called graffiti art and an owner would come forward to the City and say, “I like it. I commissioned it. People want it,” and so it would remain. Otherwise, they were being told to remove it by the bylaw officers, by municipal licensing, and if they didn’t remove it, there would be a charge. So they would then sometimes resist and say “I like it.” We haven’t met for a long time, but I’m actually on that group that helped to evaluate whether it was art or not, which was a problem too, because that’s not for me to do, so we would say “Get some support from your neighbour or your local business association. Write a letter and tell them. That started because of all of the tagging. How can we clean up the street—maybe? And out of that came the StreetARToronto (StART) program, approaching some of these artists and saying “Do you want to do this officially, or not?” If you don’t want to do it officially then we won’t work with you. But do you want us to work with you and commission works that you can have that might be on a more permanent basis. We can pay you to do that. We can find walls and areas and you can work with the community and actually install these artworks. And that’s how that program started. That’s going back about a decade and it’s just fantastic—what’s been done and how it enlivens the city.


YW: One last question, you can choose not to answer. You have all these hundreds of works and commissions realized through you, what’s your favourite piece?

No. I can’t do that. I remember somebody else was asked that once and said it’s like asking me who’s your favourite child? We have so many backstories on projects that they might be more about how we got there to have something that’s magnificent, but I don’t think I can do that. When I do slide presentations, I do select ones that are probably the most prominent and maybe the most sophisticated in their presentation. That for me is then congratulating and celebrating whoever commissioned it and the artist, of course, but I do like the ones that people maybe don’t know about and maybe discover. There’s a lot of artworks in the City of Toronto that people don’t even know exists. Maybe you know, we have a sculpture installation by Evan Penny right at Bay and Wellington, right in the downtown core there’s an installation there that he did over 20, 25 year ago, and it’s fabulous. And then there are the big scale ones, like the James Turrell, it’s so fantastic to have one in Toronto. I remember the art consultant was saying that the construction crew were saying “What is this? It’s just light and colour. That’s not art.” It’s really more of not a trick but it’s just something that’s a little more subtle in some ways that I enjoy. But they’re all my children. They’re all my favourites.


Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu on October 21, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.