Promissory Horizons: Beautiful City Billboard Fee

by Bria Cole

Ideas float in and out of our heads. Ideas circle around our best hunches. Working out our thoughts, we are competent in creating our own dreamscapes. We become magicians when we give life to our ideas. For Toronto, one such archimage is not a single hero, but a coalition, Beautiful City Billboard Fee (BCBF). In 2013, as a result of BCBF’s relentless spirit, Toronto’s City Council officially passed an enormous, transformative levy, the Third Party Sign Tax (TPST). This, along with additional commitments urged forward by BCBF, would grant a quota of $22.5 million to public art and cultural communities throughout Toronto. The incipient moment was in 2001 when artist-curator, Devin Ostrom, contemplating the presence of billboards in Toronto, had the seemingly radical idea of taxing billboards as a source of revenue for the arts. From that idea, BCBF, a coalition of 60 artist and culture groups, began its eleven-year crusade to challenge the proliferation of commercial outdoor advertisements by persuading the City of Toronto to provide funds towards the city’s vigorous, multi-peripheral artistic community. Starting with an idea, BCBF ignited and refined an incorporated media economic change to strive for direct cultivation of public involvement in Toronto’s visual scenery.

With the mandate, “A Charge on Billboards to Fund Art in the Public Sphere,” BCBF is an example of a politically engaged creative community developing an innovative financial structure that is, and leads to social change. BCBF reconfigured approaches to public space stewardship, in favour of local, community-based artwork by implementing policy. The TPST extracts revenue from an affluent advertising industry and converts it into public funds. Advertising messages from the billboard industry dominate the city’s landscape, perpetuating established consumerist values and behaviors. Meanwhile, in the current economic climate, there is a distinct lack of arts funding from the municipal funds. Thus, the TPST emerged as a comprehensible method of generating revenue specifically for public arts, a budget item that is likely to be under-funded or neglected. For the virtue of visual diversity in a shared physical space, the TPST obliges the billboard industry to remunerate creators whose efforts are not directed by a profit imperative. BCBF activated the idea that alongside with billboards, Torontonians have a right to encounter and express their own messages. This case is exemplary of critical engagement with visual communication in an urban setting, and was able to translate an abstract idea into a purposeful tax. BCBF’s history is worthwhile, as well as the discussion of the cultural values activated by officiating this tax.

Looking upwards, around, at, and through streets, “the city is a field of experience in which built architecture, visual displays, and personal communication overlap to form a … rich mesh of impressions.” BCBF co-founder, Devin Ostrom illustrates a deep appreciation of the compositions within the city, and how inhabitants identify as Torontonians.

"This is a chance for the city to really shine - nothing like this has been done before. It not only represents an historic commitment to art and a long-term investment in the economic health of the region, but will make the city a more humane and beautiful place to live in. People are at least 50% a product of their environment - a cityscape where people are addressed and treated as creative agents and as citizens is a more entrepreneurial, innovative and vibrant city."

With the cityscape as the underlying thread, BCBF culled the perspectives and opinions from Torontonians as a fundamental start to the ambitious campaign. To form a strong informed link between the public, the issue, and city hall, BCBF wrote in-depth articles, organized campaigning events, and persistently made the issue visible in city hall meetings. The campaigning was successful in bringing the conversation to the forefront of imagining Toronto’s Future. In 2009 report, “EKOS [Research Associates found] that 70% of Torontonians support a billboard tax to fund art. Along with formal statistical research, 4,700+ handwritten signatories from every Toronto ward supported a petition for a tax on billboards. This response shows that Torontonians encouraged the idea. Compelled by its citizens, City Hall began the boardroom discussions considering the tax.

In 2009, a draft bylaw was presented to the Planning and Growth Management Committee (PGM). To remind councilors of their duty to represent Torontonians, BCBF rallied volunteers and supporters to voice their support for the tax. Involvement included completing an action checklist such as making written deputations to to the PGM Committee Members, and coordinating Exploding Telephones calling systems to organize how the public could get in touch with the appropriate councilor. A flurry of polyphonous voices wrote and called, endorsing the tax. City Hall would then approve of the bylaw 2009, followed by a nearly unanimous agreement to increase art funding to $25 per capita in four years.

A year later, The Outdoor Advertising Industry would sue, contesting the TPST. And win. This was a nearly disheartening moment. The City of Toronto and BCBF would respond by appealing the decision, in front of the Supreme Court of Canada. On November 22, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada would approve of the appeal, granting the reinstatement of the bylaw, “[declining] any further appeals after supporting the TPST”

Then, on January 10 2013, Toronto City Council officially announced all revenue from the TPST is exclusively directed towards art funding, and fully committed increasing arts funding to $25 per capita by 2017. Suddenly, after more of a decade of campaigning, Toronto artists would be beneficiaries to a newly created $22.5 million fund. The Toronto Art and Culture Reserve was specially created to receive revenue from the TPST. The funds would be distributed equally throughout the Toronto Wards through the Toronto Art Council, mainly through grants. Alongside with these auxiliary cultural bodies and City Hall, members of the BCBF coalition remain involved with the TPST program, ensuring that the values of public art funding are consistently upheld. 

While skeletal look at the BCBF’s timeline is impressive, there are powerful cultural lessons to be observed here. With creative industries emerging, there is increased potential for groups of people to imagine political innovation and intervention. The focus on artistic communities reflects the ideals of collaboration, aesthetic knowledge, design, and challenging the status quo. While art and commerce are linked, the goal is not to critique this relationship, but to observe methods in which communities are able or attempt to accomplish goals without solely a profitable end. New fixations of civic engagement can include attending to how money flows through media and cultural infrastructures. Politics and capital form an intimate relationship, and can be disempowering for those people who have great ideas. As David Meslin mentioned in his Tedx Talk, it is important to consider “apathy as a ‘’complex web of cultural barriers that perpetuates disengagement, rather than some kind of incurable internal syndrome.”

In critiquing the proliferation of billboards in the city, Meslin reviews how Toronto’s public space is structured, and notes that it has a price tag on it. Dundas Square is an example of a central, communal intersection for Toronto, and it is dominated by advertising messages. It is important to continuously recognize the relationship the private sector has with a city because, as Meslin states, there are many amazing important messages that are omitted because they are not profitable to say. It is unlikely that they will not be seen on a billboard. Efforts are needed to open pathways for these amazing messages to reach citizens.

In a rapidly homogenizing landscape, BCBF exfoliated a demand for resources for Torontonians to collectively embody one’s own city. If capital is the advantage to the city’s messaging canopy, then a compensatory system must be set up. Local artists must have some means, and opportunities to identify with their own city. One of the nine reasons to support the TPST listed on the BCBF campaign page, one explicitly outlines a need for leverage: ”An objective of BeautifulCity.ca and the original spirit of the levy was to balance and expand access to creative expression in public spaces. Andreas Broeckmann in discussing public spaces notes, “it is the role of artists to destabilize (dichotomies of legality/illegality, visible/invisible) to undermine the certainties and expectations about what is visible and what is invisible, and to pinpoint the visual regimes coded into different display and media systems.” In order to actively render visible perspectives, the arts, like advertising, need resources to compose the materials, images, texts, colors and effects of their messages.

Revenue is an elusive word for artists. The financial structure of the arts relies on grants, philanthropy, sponsorship, commission, awards, residencies, and fellowships. Revenue is available and possible. However, the issue of commercialization of art (including private philanthropy and sponsorship) endures several debates and dubious stances. Arts funding, in general, is experiencing cuts and declines, especially from governmental support. Additionally, the virtue of public art is that it is noncommercial. As Keith Haring wrote in his journal in 1978, “The public needs art…Art is for everybody.” The sky is a shared expressive space. BCBF exists to illustrate the concessions for the use of that space for advertising. As quoted from the website,

Almost all other forms of advertising subsidize significant cultural content in exchange for the public’s attention (e.g. TV includes 45 minutes of educational or entertaining content in exchange for 15 minutes of advertising – newspapers provide about 50/50). Billboards, however, effectively give only advertising to the public, as people have no choice in viewing the messages.

BCBF devised a way to directly access capital through a government intermediary to the arts by addressing a social immaterial tenet: the sky is for everyone. This taxation enacts the possibility for multi-directional messaging from artists to contrast the imposition of abstractly ideal commercial messages, set down from somewhere else. The city is to be a site of its own identification.

The TPST is not a “cash-grab,” as the arts and cultural enterprises are valuable to the city’s economic engine. BCBF is entrepreneurial and is concerned with increasing the overall value of Toronto: “ According to EKOS Research 80% of Torontonians think that government investment in arts in public spaces improves the local economy.” The space is also frames in terms of tangible economic benefit: “Vibrant public spaces enhance property values, improve safety, boost tourism, give something highly visible back to residents, create opportunities for small business and will help beautify ad build the city.”

Artists and citizens are granted the chance to communicate their everyday knowledge. Meslin to address apathy encourages people to understand that heroism is collective and imperfect, and that it is not glamorous. Most importantly, it is not an assignment, rather heroic actions are based off of voluntary efforts. Meslin says it actually means “following your dreams uninvited, and then working with others to make those dreams come true.”

When the diverse messages become fluctuating fixtures in everyday lives, layers of tacit knowledge emerge. Toronto exhibits a range of artists whose practices already are predisposed to emphasizing idiosyncratic existences. There is a strong talk back community advocating diverse, marginal or overlooked perspectives. Street art is prevalent in Toronto: it is one of the palpable forms of expression that signals the consciousness of the dwellers. Three non-exclusive examples of non-commercial, public art showcasing lived realities include street artist Eliscer’s Hugging Tree, fauxreel’s Regent Park Portraits, and the Housepaint Phase 2: Shelter exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Eliscer, a prolific, “best loved” Toronto graffiti artist, is partially famed for painting a tree stump, nicknamed the Hugging Tree on Queen Street West. His paintings depict embraces, families, overlooked faces, wandering eyes, and dreamy streetscapes, expressing observations of subtle warm moments. The Hugging Tree is an abandoned stump with the written message, “Hug Me.” Passerbys do throw their arms around the stump embracing its message. For the community, Eliscer continuously refreshes the Hugging Tree appearance with new coats of aerosol paint. One Torontonian commented, "I think the more love you put into it, the more love stays in it… Energy leaves footprints. However you're feeling in a certain space, that energy stays there for a while ... if everybody hugs it every day, it could come back to life."

In tune with connecting to the community, Dan Bergeron, otherwise known as fauxreel erected a wallpaper-based public art ‘exhibition’ in a community-housing neighborhood. He explains on his website, “Regent Park is Canada’s oldest and largest social housing project…boasting the highest percentage of youth residents under the age of 18 in all of Toronto.” While there were deep political and economic concerns about affordable housing and the displacing the tenets from Regent Park, fauxreel wanted to remind about who lives there. He plastered giant black and white photographs of Regent Park residents, staring starkly out to the passerby. These portraits amplified the special characteristics of the photographed, addressing the stigmas that are imposed on Regent Park and got ”Torontonians to visit a diverse community whose future may redefine housing in city centers around the world.”

Housing is a common central concern for Torontonian artists, whose works were presented in a formal cultural institution setting. Houspaint Phase 2: Shelter curated by Devin Ostrom at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), addressed these housing concerns. In a previous time, a community of impoverished dwellers lived in Toronto’s landfill. Through resourcefulness and necessity, these people built self-designed, sustainable shelters, which became to known as Tent City. The City of Toronto evicted this community, without providing any means for alternative shelter or subsistence. An entire self-sustaining population became homeless overnight. At the ROM, ten colorful canvas houses painted by Canadian street artists, accompanied with a live, progressive mural painted throughout the duration of the exhibition, drew attention to social problems of poverty and homelessness, and invited the public through conventional doors, closer to the neglected topic.

These examples exemplify a portion of Torontonian art community whose practices are geared to public art. There are countless more examples, and are worth discovering for yourself. The TPST is essential for the continuation of these expressive capacities. The prediction is that the communal spirit will extend and discover fresh artists who will invigorate their local streets.

What is unique about BCBF is that the coalition was not focused on an error, a problem, or a wrong met with rehabilitation or a solution: gaps in funding and policymaking were part of the discussion. Rather, this BCBF demonstrates a form of activism that integrates ideas and propositions into a pre-existing and dominant economic and political structure. As a result, BCBF has mutated the fundamental operating system that governs resources, access to space, and availability of decision-making power. This is the result of an idea given life.

This bylaw heralds a participatory city by distributing the resources of financial privilege towards a communitarian scheme. The tax transforms billboards into a tangible good, to bargain the airspace, to input the messages that will be erected, and to shift a portion of the urban expressive capacities to Toronto’s residents. Toronto has arrived to promissory horizons for diverse, local, and creative expressions.