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Del Geist's sculpture Bowfort Towers, located near Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

Jeff McIntosh

The glint from glass towers might be the most visible reminder of how Canada’s hot real estate market is supersizing our biggest cities. In Toronto, the past 18 years have been the most active in terms of condo starts – with more than 200,000 new units built – since the house type was first made legal 50 years ago.

But because developers typically have to commit either a dollar amount per square foot (as in Vancouver) or a percentage of the construction budget (as in Toronto) to beautifying the public realm, Canada’s streets are also forever changed. Further proof of Toronto’s recent boom: 64 per cent of its public art from the past half-century is less than 15 years old, according to advocacy group, The Artful City.

Importantly, though, the freshly unveiled sculptures, murals and digital installations that attend almost every dewy structure are not simply idle monuments. The work creates a stronger sense of place that we all enjoy, enriching the value, financial and otherwise, of our vibrant, vital cities. And the more the people building the fabric or our cities invest in it, the better off we all are.

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That said, while Canada’s public-art programs aren’t novel – they are patterned after one started in Philadelphia in the late 1950s – they often generate controversy. Some citizens bemoan their lack of aesthetic standards (a series of permanently melting, scary looking snowmen called Born and Raised is an odd thing to encounter outside a Toronto rental tower, especially when not in winter; Calgary’s much maligned Bowfort Towers, composed of rocks and rusty sticks, are just plain ugly). And some developers view them as a frivolous tax that makes development needlessly more expensive.

Douglas Coupland's Digital Orca, located on the waterfront in Vancouver.

Darryl Dyck

“Many of my conversations start that way,” says Karen Mills, the founder of Public Art Management, a consultancy that works with developers, municipalities and other stakeholders to procure and install standout sculptures and installations (her portfolio includes the much Instagrammed Digital Orca, a 3-D pixilated killer whale on the waterfront in Vancouver). “But typically, when people see the benefits good art can have for them, they see its importance.”

And those benefits are myriad, going beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings people get when they see a resonant piece (such as artist James Turrell’s effervescent, highly praised Straight Flush, a light installation Mills consulted on in Toronto’s financial core). Good art improves local economies. “Some people say, ‘That better not be my tax dollars at work,’” says Cameron Cartiere, an artist and professor at the Emily Carr University of Art & Design. “But often times, it’s not paid for by public money. And usually any dollar spent on it comes back five-fold into the community.” That’s in part because, according to Eric Frederickson, public-art program manager for the city of Vancouver, the majority of any art budgets goes to local craftspeople, builders and engineers – not imported art stars.

Moreover, if done well, it affects the developers directly, helping them to brand, market and bump up the sale prices of their buildings. Which is why the savviest developers are becoming more ambitious with their art programs. “There’s a lot more competition these days for the best talent,” Mills says. And fittingly, in Vancouver, even though developers can save 20 per cent on their public-art requirement by giving the city money directly to spend elsewhere (not on their property), “most developers choose to do art on site,” Frederickson says.

Ian Gillespie, the Vancouver-based founder of Westbank, is one of Canada’s keenest developers when it comes to commissioning original, marquis creative projects. “We typically spend 300 or 400 per cent more on public art than we’re required to,” he says. “It’s become a real passion of mine. It’s how I like to spend my time, more than the day-to-day running of the business.”

Douglas Coupland's Northern Lights, located in Calgary on Telus Sky.

Courtesy Douglas Coupland

Recently, he personally spent three or four hours at the studio of master minimalist Frank Stella, recruiting him to work on a project for the continuing redevelopment of Toronto’s Mirvish Village (Stella said yes). He has also worked closely with Canadian icon Douglas Coupland, author of the aforementioned orca, on several projects, including a digital piece called Northern Lights, Calgary’s largest public artwork (comprising 160,000 square feet of LEDs, it cascades across Telus Sky, a mixed use tower currently completing construction).

“Ian used to be a developer’s developer,” says Coupland, who is currently working on a to-be unveiled project for Westbank’s King condos in Toronto. “But then he got evangelized. I’ve known him pre and post … What’s great is the level of trust he puts in the artist.”

Zhang Huan's Rising, located outside of the Shangri-la Hotel and Residences in Toronto.

Bob Gundu

Gillespie can’t think of a particular moment when he embraced art, but credits it in part for making some of his buildings the most valuable real estate in their respective cities. His Shangri-La hotel and condominium in Toronto is fronted by a $5-million, exuberant explosion of shimmering steel by Chinese artist Zhang Huan. (Not to be outdone by the exteriors, the lobby is dotted with a collection of vintage couture gowns by designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, hand-made lighting installations from Vancouver artist-architect Omer Arbel and a custom, $300,000 hand-built piano from Italy’s Paolo Fazioli). The finery is one reason Shangri-la’s condos resell for almost 25 per cent more than the downtown average, according to

What Westbank is noticing is borne out by research. According to a 2016 study done by the University of Warwick, neighbourhoods with a higher content of public art – even temporary installations or more community art events – experience higher than average real estate gains.

That’s not to say that Canada’s insanely high house prices are because of the spate of public art. Gillespie points out that the actual price of something is set by supply and demand, which is determined by much more complex factors (interest rates, an influx of foreign buyers, restrictive zoning rules, etc.). Art is just one enticement on the demand side.

Plus, for those weary that art is driving gentrification, and think that maybe it’s superfluous anyway, Coupland asks that we consider the alternative. “Without it, you’re basically live in a parking lot,” he says. “If you go to a place without public art, it’s like its soul has been extracted. It’s just like a husk.”

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