What is your favourite piece of public art in Toronto?
"That's like asking me which child I like best," says Terry Nicholson, Manager of Cultural Affairs for the City. "I like a lot of what we have in Toronto, and we continually add new pieces." It's no surprise Nicholson can't bear to pick favourites. He's responsible for overseeing the process by which public art on city-owned lands — including parks, subway stations, sidewalks, and city-run attractions such as the Toronto Zoo — is chosen and acquired.
Not everyone may share Nicholson's sentiments. Most people, in fact, are quick to point out which pieces of public art they don't like, and many probably haven't even given Toronto's public art much thought at all. Those of us who have are full of opinions, and we don't always agree.
This is the context in which Nicholson must work. For a city government, elected to represent Toronto's 2.5 million residents, it goes without saying that trying to find public art that speaks to everyone is a challenge.
Public art of many forms is officially sanctioned and owned by the City. There are sculptures, such as those mountains in Simcoe Park beside the CBC building (Untitled, by Anich Kapoor); donated monuments, such as the notorious Per Ardua Ad Astra, better known as "Gumby goes to heaven" (a tribute to pilots who won the Victoria Cross, by Oscar Nemon); life-like statues, such as the one of Glenn Gould sitting on a bench (Glenn, by Ruth Abernethy); and even murals, such as the geometric shapes on the wall of the Jimmy Simpson Recreation Centre on Queen Street East (Stretching from Mind to Body, by Rosa Miller). Among other things, Toronto's public art also involves architecture, landscaping, installations, and fountains. So far, we own over 2,500 pieces.
The process the City currently goes through to obtain new pieces involves committees, competitions, money from developers, and a host of other time-consuming, bureaucratic things that one would expect from a government. It's all done with the aim of keeping the process as open, fair, and transparent as possible.
According to Nicholson, it wasn't until the 1960s that the debate on how public art should be decided really started. In 1966, Henry Moore's The Archer was unveiled in front of city hall. At first, city council refused to spend the $120,000 asking price for the work, igniting a controversy over whether spending money on public art constituted an expensive frill or much-needed amenity. In the end, mayor Philip Givens set up a public subscription fund to raise money for the piece.
Later, in the 1970s, the federal government set out on a mission to foster Canadian culture, starting with competitions for new buildings, followed by a push to expand the nation's outdoor art collection. Of course, it was difficult for the feds to connect with Canada's diverse communities, so in the 1980s Toronto finally got serious about creating deliberate policies of its own.
"Toronto was the first city in Canada to have a program where public art was part of the planning process and where public art is required for private development," says Jane Perdue, Public Art Coordinator for urban planning and development services.
Perdue's job is to make sure that public art is included in plans for major new developments. When the east side of the Gardiner Expressway was dismantled, for example, Perdue helped ensure that public art was part of the plans to redevelop the area (see page 43). Likewise, construction of the Spadina transit right of way included eight commissioned pieces of public art along the transit route, in addition to the redesigned street and the new sidewalks and streetcar shelters.
"If you integrate [public art] into the development process, it doesn't cost much more," Nicholson explains. "We have to work in art from the beginning or else the opportunity is gone forever."
Once a location for art has been determined, an open competition is usually held to pick the artist. Anyone qualified is invited to apply, after which a small number of artists are chosen to put together unique proposals adhering to restrictions based on building standards, materials, and foundation.
"There has to be a competition because it's on public lands," Perdue says.
The artists are paid for two months' work to develop their ideas, after which a jury, made up of experts and representatives from the community, chooses the winner. Because their proposals are for a specific location, the artists who don't win the competition will never end up building the piece they spent months creating. Many works of public art across the city mark the site of three or four unrealized ideas.
In a small number of cases, an artist might come to the city with a suggestion, or someone might make a donation. This was the case with artist Noel Harding, who created Elevated Wetlands with the help of money and technical expertise from the plastics industry (see page 42).
Nicholson says his staff will also work with community organizations who want to raise money for outdoor art in their neighbourhood. The city will often put in money to establish a "proper process" (meaning an open competition), and work with groups to help determine an appropriate location.
"From our point of view, there's no such thing as too much public art," says Nicholson. Sadly, his department isn't free to simply seek out spaces in communities in need of art. Lack of cash is an unfortunate roadblock.
"We're opportunity-driven," Nicholson admits. "The process does cost money."
But some areas don't appear to be lacking public art at all; in fact, they're almost overflowing with it. While there seems to be a sculpture around every corner in the financial district, for example, finding public art in Parkdale, despite the fact that so many of the city's artists live there, is a challenge.
Esthetic ghettos like the financial district exist due to a controversial part of the planning act called section 37, which University of Toronto urban planning student Susan Mintz refers to as a "trigger for community goodies." Under section 37, if the City approves a building that exceeds Toronto's zoning bylaws, the developers must give the community something in return. They are free to choose from a list of benefits, including child care facilities, community centers, affordable rental housing, parks, and public art. According to Mintz, who has conducted in-depth research on section 37, art and parks are the most popular choices among developers because these things are more likely to enhance their property.
Section 37 art is not only concentrated in certain areas, it's also often located on private property. Mintz gives the example of the life-sized granite couch (Untitled, by Mark Gomes and Susan Schell) that sits in the courtyard of the Prince Albert condominium complex on Avenue Road, just north of Bloor Street. Passersby might be tempted to venture off the sidewalk to get a closer look at the couch. They might even like to try sitting on it. Unfortunately, the courtyard is private and monitored by security guards.
Incidentally, Mintz believes the couch is a wonderful example of good public art because it engenders discussion — you can't sit on it, yet it's paid for with public money.
Mintz points out that a lot of the art in the city is built for a particular class of people. "I can sit [by the cow sculptures by the TD Centre] and have lunch, but other people can't," she explains. Security guards monitor the area, and they have the power to move along people they may find undesirable.
The process for choosing art funded by section 37 doesn't have to follow the same steps that Nicholson's department must follow for art that is initiated by the city. Developers are not required hold an open competition, though they are certainly free to do so. They are often advised by a committee made up of members of the community, artists and academics. It's "incredibly incestuous," Mintz says, arguing that the kinds of people critiquing the art are the same as those producing the work. Even Perdue admits that a lot of the same artists seem to be granted commissions (see story page 46). She says the city could overcome this by offering different kinds of opportunities for artists, such as anonymous competitions, and different methods of selection.
Acquiring really great pieces of public art, however, may come with a risk.
"To get something really remarkable, we need a process that would also allow for something butt ugly to exist," Mintz says.
The degree of success of the City's public art programs and policies may be a matter of opinion. Some people can point to favourite pieces of art throughout the city, while others opt for "unofficial" art such as graffiti, interventions, or sidewalk chalk drawings.
"Our experience with the process has been quite good," Nicholson says. "At the end of the day some people will like it more than others." What makes a work of public art remarkable may be in the eye of the beholder.
"A good work of public art reveals itself over time. It's nice if a piece responds to people who see it everyday," Nicholson says.
Whatever the individual successes or failures, Nicholson and others at city hall believe having a plan in place to generate public art is a matter of necessity. "We believe fairly strongly, it's about making the city more beautiful."