During a lively reception at Toronto’s Union Station, an unmasked crowd of artists, curators and culturecrats gathered to celebrate what the city has designated as a year devoted to public art. Upstairs, around and about the echoing Great Hall, there was a Day of the Dead altar, aerial views of disastrous South American mining projects funded with Canadian money, and a photographic mural that inserted images of enslaved servants into a crowd of commuters. Downstairs, in the bowels of the newly renovated transit hub, there was vodka, beer and charcuterie boards for the initiated.
At this delayed party for a delayed project, it was finally time to toast Toronto’s decision to devote more money, more space and more thought to murals, sculptures and pop-up exhibitions in 2021-22. Public art is no longer just some chunk of bronze plopped down on the street, but as the project infiltrates parks, plazas and shopping malls in the 10 months ahead, it raises questions about its audience. Who is public art serving and how? What about the uninitiated?
One of the most prominently displayed pieces at Union Station is House of Bâby, a large lenticular print showing a contemporary commuter crowd in which 18 figures appear and disappear according to your viewing angle. It is the work of Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner, artists who have investigated the slave-owning history of James Bâby, an early 19th-century Toronto landowner. Their research shows Bâby enslaved 18 Black, Indigenous and Métis people and now, in a prime civic space, the artists have represented them as ghostly figures re-emerging from a conveniently forgotten history. In a regular year, tens of thousands could be expected to walk by House of Bâby every day. Even if a tiny percentage bother to stop and read the text about the figures, the work will have made a mark.
Union Station notwithstanding, one of the goals of the city’s strategy is to place more art in underserved locations. For historic and financial reasons, most of Toronto’s vast public art collection, which originated long before the city’s amalgamation with its inner suburbs, is located downtown. Monuments and memorials, such as the forbidding statue of Sir Adam Beck on University Avenue or that bizarrely retro tribute to multiculturalism in front of Union Station, tend to be erected on ceremonial routes or in historic parks. Developers are asked to commit one per cent of their building budgets to public art but those works, whether the developers commission the art themselves or just hand the money to the city, are clustered where the most dense and expensive development takes place.
So, ArtworxTO, as the year-long project is dubbed, reaches out to the suburbs by pooling money and identifying new locations. Sometimes, this is just a matter of catch-up: A statue of Black abolitionist, escaped slave and local resident Joshua Glover was erected last summer in the new Etobicoke park that bears his name. But the city’s plan also includes a series of year-long community hubs located in Downsview, Etobicoke and Scarborough, expanding the definition of public art to include temporary installations, free indoor exhibitions and performances in shopping malls or other public buildings.
These create more premeditated and curated encounters than the conventional stroll by a graffiti-busting mural or forgotten old monument. At the Cloverdale Mall, for example, you’ll need to pass an attendant and enter a storefront space next to the Service Ontario office to see Akshata Naik’s Bloody Boats, an eye-catching wall covered with red paper boats as part of a larger piece about immigration. That takes some commitment from the Cloverdale shopper.
Traditionally, an encounter with public art is serendipitous, the sculpture or mural providing an unlooked-for presence in the urban space. That is, after all, why public art often makes people angry. Lately, Torontonians have hotly debated the merits of Toronto Man, an oversized statue of a man in a dress shirt clasping a condo tower to his chest that has been placed at Yonge and St. Clair. Is the piece celebrating development or criticizing it? And, in 2018, citizens lambasted a brightly coloured wedge of steel girders erected at Bathurst and Vaughan that some believe will distract drivers.
Perhaps the real problem is that neither is particularly successful – the first both bombastic and ambiguous, the second an unimaginative use of the space.
Seeking some of the many new pieces flagged on the ArtworxTO’s fabulously comprehensive website – it covers hundreds of art works, old and new – makes you realize how hard it is to craft successful public art. Whether populist or lofty in its intentions, good public art animates effortlessly, such as the trompe-l’oeil mural with which Derek Besant decorated the Flatiron building on Front Street in 1980 or the two giant circles designed for the Bay-Adelaide Centre by Micah Lexier in 2017. Asking people to plan their viewing, enter a specific building or follow dense thematic schemes seems to defeat the purpose: The art should introduce itself to them, not vice versa.
At Downsview, there is one new piece that does command the visitor to go the distance. On the top of a high knoll, bright blue flags can be seen from across the park. Those who make the climb are rewarded with an explanation of a wind rose, a system for representing prevailing winds that would have been used to position the runways of the former Downsview airport. Two flags featuring petroglyphic figures – a turtle and a traveller – have been added to the first piece by Mi’kmaq artists Chris and Greg Mitchell to acknowledge the Indigenous presence on the site long before any plane landed. From the top of that hill you can see the city spread out before you; it’s a place that seems to demand a marker, and now it has one.
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