“It’s going to change the look of the city”: Mayor John Tory on Toronto’s Year of Public Art and his plan to stop artists from leaving
As he seeks to reinvigorate Toronto’s post-pandemic recovery, Mayor John Tory argues that civic artistic and cultural infrastructure is essential to creating a more vibrant city.
As part of this vision, Tory launched at the end of September ArtworxTO: the year of public art in Toronto. The initiative, which will run until fall 2022, will feature more than 350 new works and provide funding to just under 100 organizations in the GTA. In addition, ArtworxTO is launching a 10-year public art strategy which is committed to bringing âcreativity and community, everywhereâ.
Here, Tory talks to The Star about the importance of culture in rebuilding a world-class city and how he plans to ensure that gentrification and development does not take a toll on Toronto’s arts community. .
The launch of ArtworxTO has been delayed of your initial launch target for 2020 as Toronto grappled with the implications of the pandemic. Why was it important for you to move forward with this initiative now?
It’s interesting because I made a commitment to do this when I was re-elected and the pandemic has only magnified its significance. This is true for several reasons: firstly, I think the feeling of joy – the look and feel of the city brought to life by artistic creations of all kinds – became even more important after a desolate time when you were walking around. downtown and it was dark, I mean it was a wasteland. The second reason, which was valid before but which is now 100 times more so, is that it also allows some of our artists to tell their story. And beyond the benefits for us of having these stories told and these works exhibited, this program will retain the services of 1,500 artists during this year. This is not unimportant in the context of a group that has been hit very hard. I don’t minimize the problems others had, but the artists had a terrible time. Now we have to bring the city back to life and nothing like the arts and culture to do it.
According to you, what role can public art have in the economic and social revival of the city?
We just went through an unprecedented time – where we were told to stay apart, we couldn’t see our parents, let alone our friends. One of the aspects of visual art, especially public visual art, is that it brings people together. They’re going to go to one of those centers that we’ve established, like downtown Scarborough, and see some wonderful photographs, or they’re going to go and see the 70-foot-tall work (“Untitled” by Jorian Charlton ) on Bay Street, and they’re going to be able to stand there together, even though they can’t speak the same language and be able to enjoy it.
Overall, I think (ArtworxTO) will change the look of the city. And not just for tourists. The other day I drove past (Condo Man) on St. Clair and was immediately amused to see him again. I was in the car and I said to my wife, âYou know, I love this roomâ, because I think it’s a little weird, standing like in front of some new condos. And there are people who don’t like it. They (also) didn’t like that cow in Markham. I like the cow. It was a topic of huge debate and I don’t like anything better. Something that causes people to have different opinions; it’s good! And then there is the story that goes with the art. And there is work for artists. And (the exhibit): (Charlton) now has her name in letters two feet high on the front of a building on Bay Street. This could be the breakthrough for her to become as famous as Drake. Who knows? But in the end, she was given a chance when otherwise she would never have had the chance to show her work in such a public way.
You said earlier that arts and culture are essential in bringing the city back to life, but even before the pandemic there were criticisms that gentrification was displacing Toronto’s arts community. What are you doing to make sure that Toronto can not only attract but retain its artistic class?
You can’t necessarily do everything for everyone, but we’ve taken action. For example, we took concert halls, which were in the same situation of being evicted by escalating property values ââand redevelopment, and we gave them some tax relief. And we said we were going to look for ways to help preserve these music venues.
The main obstacle for artists in the city is the cost of being here. I think we will have to look more and more – (as) to a limited extent through companies like Artscape – for working housing for artists in the city in order for it to become an affordable housing niche. Right now, most affordable housing is what I call workforce housing because it is for people with very stable jobs. Artists are different because they don’t get a regular paycheck every week. If you solved the affordable housing problem, you would have fewer issues with affordable workspace.
Would you say this is a priority issue for you?
I am very attentive to the problem. I don’t want people with lower or less stable incomes to be kicked out of town. Period. We need them to live in the city. And we need the creativity of artists. If people see a city that has a healthy arts and culture scene – they are well supported and they have the chance to show their work – it will attract investment. This is why I am such a supporter of the arts. The arts are an important industry in and of themselves, but it’s also a huge catalyst for attracting smart people. It’s a huge advantage for us to have an arts and culture scene, including public art, as vibrant and visible as it is.
That said, what changes do you hope to see in 10 years?
I would like to have even more iconic pieces in the city. My real dream is to have a very large iconic sculpture or work of art comparable to The Bean (âCloud Gateâ) in Chicago. Something iconic that people will go to see from all over the city, the region and around the world. Second, I would like to see more public art spread across the city because, let’s face it, the concentration of public art has been downtown, both because that’s where people are. focused during the day and also because this is where a lot of development has taken place and we have mandated the developers to include it. And third, I would like to see more engagement for the hundreds of artists who live and work in the city.
Overall, I see this as an ongoing general commitment, including continued investment in this area by the city and other governments.