Redefining Public Art in Toronto

Toronto is poised to become a leader in public art after four decades of significant investment. At the same time, Toronto is at an inflection point; our investment and overall initiative has lagged vis-à-vis peer cities. Toronto will thrive if we renew our commitment to a powerful public art presence for our city and support that commitment with appropriate private and public sector institutional capacity, funding, and collaboration.

Spurred by this dialogue and by the relevance of public art to universities, researchers from OCAD University and the University of Toronto joined together to produce this report, Redefining Public Art in Toronto.

Funding for this project was graciously provided by the Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso, Leslie Gales, Metropia Developments/Howard Sokolowski, David Moos Art Advisory, Bill Morneau & Nancy McCain Foundation, the University of Toronto, and OnSite Gallery and the Office of the President, OCAD University. We acknowledge the important contribution of Ilana Altman’s research to our conclusions. We thank David Moos for inspiring us to undertake this project.

We also extend a sincere thank you to our informal Advisory Group: Mitchell Cohen, Elsa M. Fancello, Leslie Gales, Emanuelle Gattuso, Claire Hopkinson, Peter Kingstone, Nancy McCain, David Moos, Anthony Sargeant, and Carol Weinbaum.

We thank our readers who gave helpful feedback to our draft: James Booty, Rebecca Carbin, Stuart Keeler, Bruce Kuwabara, Ciara McKeown, Terry Nicholson, and Catherine Dean and her City of Toronto colleagues.

OCAD University Team

  • Dr. Sara Diamond, OCADU President
  • Dr. Marie-Josée Therrien, Associate Professor
  • Ala Roushan, Assistant Professor
  • Francisco Alvarez, Executive & Artistic Director, OCAD U Galleries System
  • Dr. Claire Brunet, Associate Professor
  • Derek Sullivan, Assistant Professor
  • Xenia Benivolski, Alumni/Independent Curator
  • Macy Siu, Graduate Research Assistant
  • Roman Romanov, Undergraduate Research Assistant
  • Jade Lee Hoy, Graduate Research Assistant
  • Robin Buxton-Potts, Coordinator

University of Toronto Team

  • Dr. Daniel Silver, Associate Professor
  • Noga Keidar, PhD Candidate
  • Dr. Analays Alvarez Hernandez, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Yasmin Koop-Monteiro, Graduate Research Assistant
  • Dr. Mark Cheetham, Advisor Associate Professor


“Redefining Public Art in Toronto” provides a blueprint for the future of public art in Toronto. It makes a number of recommendations:


  • A renewed vision for public art in Toronto
  • Redefine public art
  • Public art everywhere
  • Simplify process
  • Robust funding for public art
  • Build new collaborations
  • Promote public art
  • Integrate public art into all future planning

Executive summary and major recommendations

Toronto is poised to become a leader in public art after four decades of significant investment. At the same time, Toronto is at an inflection point; our investment and overall initiative has lagged vis-à-vis peer cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Ottawa. Toronto will thrive if we renew our commitment to a powerful public art presence for our city and support that commitment with appropriate private and public sector institutional capacity, funding, and collaboration.

Given the cultural diversity of Toronto, its Indigenous population, ongoing development, population growth, and the strength of its public institutions, Toronto should be known for the reach, diversity, and transformational power of public art in its downtown core and across its neighbourhoods and communities. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and a dynamic hub of economic activity and immigration. It is increasingly a vertical city where the public realm plays a critical role in its social and recreational life. Public art can educate and engage youth, spark tourism, help us to understand ourselves better, and enhance our day-to- day experience of the urban environment. Public art can be a powerful force that serves many constituencies and can unify and challenge us across our cultural identities and neighbourhoods.

While at a turning point, Toronto has benefited from decades of significant investment in public art. City policy has harnessed the unprecedented development boom to make public art a compelling presence in the downtown core and other areas of intense growth. Development is now moving into other neighbourhoods, heralding opportunities for continued developer-driven public art investment outside of the downtown core. The number of public art works within the city borders is at an all-time high (700 public artworks in Toronto from 1967– 2015), and various programs co-exist to deliver large-scale permanent work, festivals, and temporary and ephemeral installations across multiple media and scales.

Yet there are gaps and challenges. The City of Toronto lacks a public art master plan. Outside of intensive development zones, public art is scarce; and in the urban core there are few sites where it is aggregated into larger or interconnected projects. In comparison with other cities’ public art policies and bylaws, Toronto lacks strong policy tools to bring public art to underserved areas. The City of Toronto does not mandate a significant place in its own infrastructure plans and budgets for public art. Moreover, Toronto’s formal public art guidelines have not kept up with emergent global public art practices, which increasingly encourage more open and diverse ideas of what public art is and can be, emphasizing the power of public art for audience and viewer engagement. Even within the limits of its current policy framework, there is much that the City of Toronto could do to expand the scope and vision of public art. For example, public art created through the City’s own capital projects offer opportunities to realize projects beyond sculptural work, thereby redefining the notion of permanence when it comes to public art.

Over the last four decades public art has galvanized neighbourhoods around the world, yet in Toronto it is a relatively untapped tool for engaging with and promoting vibrant and inclusive communities. Inspired by the potential of art in public space, a vigorous dialogue has sprung up from many sources with the goal of making Toronto a leader in global public art practice. Participants seek to evaluate current practice and explore future opportunities to expand the definition, practice, and support for public art in this city. Though this conversation transcends policy, policy is a key part of the puzzle. Spurred by this dialogue and by the relevance of public art to universities, researchers from OCAD University and the University of Toronto joined together to produce this report, Redefining Public Art in Toronto.

While the final chapter provides an in-depth discussion of our conclusions and recommendations, major recommendations are summarized below and structured into immediate actions and midterm actions.

1. A renewed vision for public art in Toronto


  • The City of Toronto must renew its commitment to public art.
  • Establish the goal of international leadership in public art.
  • Establish the goal of public art everywhere and end “public art deserts” outside the downtown core.
  • Launch a one-year public art working group to develop a public art master plan (called for in the 2003 Culture Plan for the Creative City but never implemented). In the short term, establish a timeline and oversee implementation of immediately actionable proposals in this report. Include City of Toronto staff, public art experts, artists, developers, planners, and architects.
  • Augment the public art master plan with an implementation plan and integrate public art planning into other key City planning documents and core values.

2. Redefine public art


  • Change Toronto’s definition of public art to encompass artworks of different typologies, durations, and media, from the temporary and ephemeral to semi-permanent and permanent installations and sculpture, media art, and performances, reflecting best practices in leading cities.
  • Define inclusive eligibility for professional artists, interdisciplinary artists, and teams that include (for instance) artists, designers, architects, landscape artists, and new media artists-engineers.
  • Support local, international, and emerging artists’ projects.
  • Create opportunities for Indigenous and culturally diverse voices.

3. Public art everywhere


  • Build a district-oriented approach into a new Public Art Master Plan while simultaneously fast-tracking new local-area public art plans.
  • Deploy public art as a means to create community hubs and districts and to humanize and aestheticize much-needed infrastructure.
  • Commission public art as a means of social engagement, dialogue, and social interaction, including all City of Toronto neighbourhoods.


  • Integrate public art into specific plans, including those of TOCore, Parks and Recreation, and other Toronto agencies.
  • Aggressively deploy existing policy tools to pool public art contributions collected through Section 37 and City capital projects, hence creating dialogue across projects and spaces.
  • Strengthen policy mechanisms that permit pooling existing and future funds from private and public sources.
  • Establish a centralized and consolidated Public Art Trust Fund from City of Toronto capital projects and new funding sources, capable of targeting any part of the city.
  • Partner with Toronto’s existing Local Arts Services Organizations (LASOs) to build a strong public art presence in all parts of the city.
  • Support purchases of existing works and loans as an economically viable means to expand public art works.

4. Simplify process


  • Create a single Public Art Office that spans Culture and Planning. Ensure that artists are engaged in site and project planning to better guarantee quality, integration, and cost.
  • Create clear policies regarding process to acquire existing works: sustainability and stewardship for loans (lending practices), rentals, and purchases.


  • Create and more proactively implement flexible methods to acquire public art through open calls, invitational competitions (RFQ and RFP), commissions of new works, rentals, loans, and purchases of completed works.

5. Robust funding for public art


  • Implement Toronto City Council recommendation (2003) that the City of Toronto and its agencies apply a “per cent for art” program to all major capital projects, both for new buildings and infrastructure.
  • Create a set-aside to service conservation of City of Toronto art works over the next five years to bring works up to appropriate standards, including conservation and annual reviews by conservators who will issue reports and updates.
  • Mandate that the set-aside from developer-supported projects for maintenance (10 per cent or another agreed-upon amount) support an arms-length fund for conservation and annual reviews by conservators, who will issue reports and updates.


  • Create policy mechanisms that require developers to make public art projects a component of all new building projects in the City of Toronto, according to a clear set of guidelines. We acknowledge that the Ontario Planning Act does not currently enable this approach through Section 37. However, this practice is common in many Canadian, North American, and international cities. Possibilities include recognizing public art as an eligible development charge.
  • Develop new tools for funding public art. Possibilities include setting aside a portion of current billboard taxes for billboard public art, setting aside any new City hotel or vacant property tax, and provincial recognition of public art as an eligible development charge.
  • Create a central Public Art Trust Fund to support significant public art projects. This fund would pool City of Toronto funds with other potential funding sources.
  • Create specific project funds for Indigenous works, screen-based and media works, and works of shorter duration.
  • Create opportunities for artist-run centres and post-secondary institutions to commission public art works that are temporary, created by emerging artists, and/or community-based.
  • Require that all City of Toronto agencies contribute a fixed percentage of
  • their capital budgets towards public art.
  • After the task force completes its work, create a “Friends of Public Art" group to foster collaboration and dialogue regarding public art in the City of Toronto and to build the Public Art Trust Fund.

6. Build new collaborations


  • Collaborate with the Ministry of Canadian Heritage to ensure that there is a public art set-aside for investments in cultural spaces funding in Toronto.


  • Strengthen collaborative programs between professionals, public institutions, the City of Toronto, the Toronto Arts Council, Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), neighbourhood and civic associations, developers, and universities.
  • Promote public art exhibitions in public facilities, such as libraries, police and fire stations, community and civic centres, and municipal and provincial service centres, as well as cultural institutions and universities.
  • Embed public artists in many city agencies, on the model of Edmonton’s "Art of Living" plan, Seattle's Artist-in-Residence program, or Vancouver's Artist-Made Building Parts program.

7. Promote public art


  • Create online interactive tools to promote Toronto’s rich public art holdings by building on Ilana Altman’s The Artful City.
  • Develop ongoing support for expert-led engagement with artworks in partnership with universities, existing public art agencies, public art leaders, and other groups, in collaboration with Tourism Toronto. Community consultations and community involvement in the function, site, and conceptual approach of a given public art project should be woven into both the process of choosing artists and finalizing commissions.

8. Integrate public art into all future planning


  • Integrate public art into all aspects of urban planning such as urban design guidelines. Use public art to enhance the meaning and impact of policy priorities, such as affordable housing, infrastructure developments, or environmental awareness.
  • Review policy every ten years in recognition of the dynamic environment of Toronto.

Approach to research

The interdisciplinary OCAD University and University of Toronto team consisted of public art practitioners, curators, art and architectural historians, design thinkers, urban planners, and cultural sociologists. We deployed a mixed-method approach, beginning with a literature review. We then examined Toronto’s own history through an overview of policy documents, interviews, and a quantitative analysis of the number of public art works produced in Toronto over time to understand where public art is produced and who is producing it. We considered the Canadian and international field of municipal public art policy and practice through a rigorous evaluation of policy documents in order to identify trends and future directions in the field. We undertook a deep comparative case study with Montreal, again using documents and 40 interviews from both cities as part of our qualitative approach.

Public art bylaws, zoning, and funding models vary from province to state and from city to town, as delineated in this document. But a common theme across policy and legal environments is that cities with a strong commitment to public art find a way to realize that commitment, whatever their distinctive policy challenges may be. Measured against the international trends in the field, Toronto has not kept up in the ways that we document.

We are suggesting new elements of programs and strategy as well as the implementation of previously proposed but unrealized ideas. But we are also supportive of much that exists in Toronto, seeing ways to update its currency for now and the future. Although not focused beyond Toronto, our recommendations may bear relevance for other cities in Ontario and beyond.

The report is structured as follows: Chapter 1 provides a synthesis of our methods, while Chapter 2 is a literature review. Chapter 3 examines Toronto’s history and practice through its policy documents and patterns of public art development over time. Chapter 4 develops the international comparison, while Chapter 5 discusses the results of our qualitative research, interviews with key public art stakeholders in Toronto. Chapter 6 briefly reviews ideas from two public forums, the result of collaboration between the Art Gallery of Ontario and OCAD University. Chapter 7 articulates the results of a close comparative case study with Montreal.

Chapter 8 reiterates our recommendations. It was clear that Toronto could adopt best practices from other Canadian cities, such as Ottawa and Montreal, as well as from international leaders such as San Francisco, while continuing to lead in this city’s considerable commitment to public art — not only through ongoing investments by the developer community, but also by expanding the City’s own investment while pursuing other new funding tools.

Title banner for "Redefining Public Art in Toronto" with OCAD and U of T logos.
Monday, June 19, 2017 - 4:45pm
Lab Member: 
Dr. Sara Diamond
Marie-josee Therrien
Ala Roushan
Claire Brunet
Derek Sullivan