Toronto wants to make the year 2021 all about public art

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

After a move to Scarborough, city-run art event Nuit Blanche will expand to North York and Etobicoke in 2020. Photo: Samuel Engelking.

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.

@rosemheather

The 10 best art shows of 2018

Historical legacies and Toronto’s changing landscape were major themes in galleries and in public art works this year

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER

DECEMBER 3, 2018
Ibrahim Mahama’s Radical Histories, 2012-2018 wrapped City Hall in jute fabric during Nuit Blanche. Photo: Cheol Joon Baek


Toronto is growing by the square metre, with buildings popping up everywhere. The city’s art scene is also changing and, in some cases, responding.

In 2018, all-night art event Nuit Blanche extended to Scarborough and Don Mills. Fighting condo glut, artists are building spaces in overlooked corners and raising voices against the threat of Toronto becoming homogenized for the rich.

Thinking about the urban landscape is second nature in a profession in which space is a core element. That’s one reason arts organizations here and across Canada are drawing attention to the contested status of the land beneath our feet. Land acknowledgments of First Nations territorial rights preceding art events have become common. This year saw Canadian art galleries cited internationally for changing the terms under which Indigenous art is exhibited. At the same time, one of the city’s leading curators, the AGO’s Wanda Nanibush, started a conversation to get arts professionals to better understand how to do it right.

With this attention to historical legacy, and commitment to reasoned dialogue, the art world increasingly feels like a realm more thoughtful and separate from wider public spheres. Artist-led dialogue contrasts strikingly with conniving public figures like Premier Doug Ford, who emulate the worst tendencies of our U.S. neighbours. Toronto artists are fighting back in the best way they know how. By making art and putting on shows – some of it explicitly in protest.

1. Ibrahim Mahama, Radical Histories, 2012-2018, Nathan Phillips Square (September 29)

For Nuit Blanche, the Ghanaian artist transformed the pedestal ramp of City Hall by wrapping it in a patchwork curtain of jute fabric that had previously been used in trade of cocoa, coffee and charcoal. A thrilling, instantly readable monument to labour, colonialism and the hard truths of commerce.

2. The Work Of Wind: Air, Land, Sea, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (September 14-23)

This massive art project in Mississauga’s Southdown Industrial Area featured 13 outdoor installations that visitors could tour using a specially commissioned MiWay bus. Many of the works captured the event’s theme of stewardship in the face of environmental crisis, while remaining playful. A show highlight was Tomás Saraceno’s giant walk-in air balloon made from thousands of plastic bags.

3. Rebecca Belmore: Facing The Monumental, Art Gallery of Ontario (July 12-October 21)

For those who saw Belmore’s excellent 2014 show at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, her AGO exhibition was a revelation. This show featured a different but equally compelling range of works. Her monumental stack of shopping carts packed with fresh clay offered a concise statement about Indigenous dispossession. Just one of many works on view that combined critique of social and power structures with strong emotional impact.Expand

GTA’s billboard in Trinity-Bellwoods Park proposed legislation to curb house flipping and make the city more affordable. Photo:Courtesy of Gentrification Tax Action (GTA

4. GTA, Gentrification Tax, Trinity Bellwoods Park (February 25); Public Studio (June 1-July 30)

GTA stands for Gentrification Tax Action, an ad hoc artist group who – in different combinations of people – have made activist art since the 90s. Via a temporary billboard installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park and poster project, GTA proposed a practical solution to Toronto’s gentrification problem: a tax on real estate speculation, with the money redirected to affordable housing. Their work added much-needed nuance to the conversation around the city’s affordable housing crisis.

5. Shannon Bool, Bomb. Shell., Daniel Faria Gallery (November 1-January 12)

Canada produces a lot of strong artists. Bool is a contender for one of the best. Her stunning photo collages and tapestries in this show combine the work of modernist giants like Le Corbusier with vintage postcards of nude Algerian women, whom the architect also made sketches of in his off hours. A deft exposé of Orientalism and the darker underpinnings of modernism.

6. Shelley Niro, Ryerson Image Centre (April 28-August 5)

This was a welcome survey show for the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Niro is skilled at bringing humour to dark subject matter like the decimation of her Indigenous ancestors by white settlers in Canada. The preference for comedy and a light touch on view in this exhibition made clear her connection to the sophisticated craft-based work of artists like General Idea and Allyson Mitchell.

7. Believe, Museum of Contemporary Art (September 22-January 6)

Attendees at the MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at its new home in the Lower Junction Triangle were probably as curious about the building – five floors in all – as they were the art. This show is multifaceted and sprawling, with textile works sitting next to a playable and wildly decorated pinball machine, adjacent to sculptures and video works. A total experience of art and space, its highlights include works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Rajni Perera.

8. I continue to shape, Art Museum, University of Toronto (September 5-December 8)

This group show features mostly First Nations artists taking a non-didactic approach to settler and Indigenous histories. By combining traditional First Nations and contemporary art vocabularies – see Nicholas Galanin’s re-carving of a traditional native mask – the artists bring viewers into a fresh dialogue with the subject matter. In a show of great works, Joseph Tisiga’s paintings using Archie comic characters as stand-ins for white obliviousness are standouts.

9. Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, Gardiner Museum (February 22 to June 3)

How calming it was to visit the white environ Yoko Ono created in her three-part, ceramic-based installation. Ono was part of the first wave of artists making interactive (or instructional) artworks in the late 60s and 70s, and this recent work confirms her preeminence. Made with the help of museum visitors – who reassembled broken china and threaded twine into a room-sized spider web – and probably for that reason, the installations evoked the timeless mark-making of artists like Cy Twombly.

10. Diagrams Of Power, Onsite Gallery at OCAD University (July 11-September 30)

This exhibition articulates the forms power takes in the 21st century through works that highlight how today’s geopolitics are networked. We understand we live in a networked world and yet it remains intangible in important ways. The research-based works in this exhibition, such as Bureau d’études’ mappings of what they call “the World Government,” create a visual lexicon for grasping ideas society has yet to fully grapple with.

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/the-10-best-art-shows-of-2018/

@rosemheather


Toronto artists are gathering images for anti-Ford protests

The Artists Projection Protest Project is taking steps to align with labour unions, teachers and health care providers in Ontario

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER, OCTOBER 31, 2018

Anti-Ford Art Protest
Illustrator Gary Taxali contributed this image to a projection protest in Queen’s Park on October 24.

Resistance to Premier Doug Ford is just getting started. That’s the view of artist Kelly McCray, who staged a protest on a chilly Wednesday night last week in Queen’s Park.

Along with artist Ian MacLeod, McCray and a small group of supporters used a construction hoarding as a backdrop and projected a series of images onto a makeshift screen.  Thirty artists – including high-profile local talents like Shary Boyle, Suzy Lake, Jon Sasaki and Gary Taxali – made work for the Artists Projection Protest Project.

McCray says the Ford era recalls the 90s when Mike Harris was Ontario’s premier. The Conservative leader implemented a series of budget cuts in the name of smaller government and deficit reduction. Among the most controversial was the amalgamation of Toronto and five boroughs into a megacity.

Fiercely opposed at the time, the move is reminiscent of Ford’s reduction of seats on city council from 47 to 25. Both were supposedly undertaken to create “efficiencies” by shifting power from elected officials to admin staff – not a smaller government so much as one less democratic by design.

“We’ve already been through this,” says McCray, who adds that tactics like the rolling one-day anti-Harris strikes, Days Of Action, now seem relevant again. “We should have taken measures back then to protect our city.”

As the anti-Ford movement gathers steam, he and MacLeod are among artists thinking about how to respond.

Included at the protest, Lyla Rye’s close-cropped black-and-white image of a women’s face with the word “SHAME” superimposed on it pointed to a number of recent issues: Ford’s opposition to the carbon tax, and/or his scrapping of the progressive sex-ed curriculum.

Illustrator Taxali, known internationally for a signature style that riffs on 20th-century newsprint ads – think pulp comic figures and the Ben-Day dots of the four-colour printing process – contributed an image of a broken heart bisected by a silhouette of the CN Tower. The work’s subtle power gradually sunk in over the course of the night. Who wouldn’t be sad given the pointless destruction Ford has inflicted during his short time in office?

McCray and MacLeod are in the midst of finding other opportunities to stage the project. They are reaching out to labour unions, with the plan to align with any forthcoming protests. They are also open to working with teachers and health care providers around the province.

There is an important difference between the Harris years and today: the internet. The pair plan to add their images and others they collect to an image bank for use at future protests and to be circulated on social media.

Like many things today, protest will happen on the web as much as it does IRL; the contemporary model for political action is necessarily two-pronged. By holding events on the ground, the Artists Projection Protest Project continues the history of vibrant street protest. On the day of the protest, there was a demo on the south side of Queen’s Park against Ford’s move to freeze the minimum wage at $14 per hour. The location of the projections in the north end of the park was also close to where to an Indigenous protest encampment had been set up for a number of weeks during the summer.

Of course, circulating images through Facebook and other social media platforms will create greater exposure for the project. However, so far the right has made better use of meme culture than the left. A meme as innocuous as the cartoon Pepe the Frog is now considered a hate symbol by the anti-bigotry ADL (Anti-Defamation League) because of the ways it was circulated online by right-wing extremists.

How the left can use images to galvanize online support remains an open question. As the writer and podcaster Anna Khachiyan pointed out in a recent NOW article, using internet platforms for protest has troubling implications. As a society, we have barely come to terms with how sites like Facebook and Twitter double as mechanisms for surveillance. Furthermore, activity on these platforms might be free but at the cost of a fait accompli donation to the tech giants who profit from data mining. That reality must be considered when answering the question: how do artists protest today?

For McCray and his cohort, creating images for protest is a good first step. It’s a way to workshop even bigger gestures that capture the imagination and bring people together.

“There are a number of ways to get the message out,” says McCray, “but our focus will always be on artist images.”

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/toronto-artists-doug-ford-protests/