Artists in Toronto have long been undervalued. “Artists were constantly pitching projects to the city, but there was never enough money [in the city budget],” said Devon Ostrom, co-founder of BeautifulCity.ca, an alliance of over sixty organizations supporting the arts in Toronto.

BeautifulCity.ca worked tirelessly for more than a decade to change the conversation in City Hall from thinking about the arts as a “special interest” to how it is an integral part of city life. A strong and welcoming arts and culture scene attracts creative and vibrant people to the city, improves public space, and strengthens the community.

Billboards in Toronto

So, how did they do this? “In 2001, we went [to City Hall] with a solution, rather than asking for money,” Ostrom told me in an interview in January 2014.

The bold idea was to create a specific revenue stream for the arts: a billboard tax.

Ostrom and others involved in the 2001 Creative City Youth Consultations in Toronto were inspired by the graffiti an artist did on a billboard in the city. It made them ask, “Why did [companies] have unlimited access to public space [in the form of billboards]? How could we diversify this access to public space?” Ostrom said.

Billboards are a very cheap advertising cost per capita. Whereas television and print news use advertisements to help fund the information and entertainment they provide, billboards advertise and additionally detract from public space. The billboard tax then becomes the way this form of advertising can help alleviate the esthetic cost in the community.

Although the public supported increased investment in the arts, the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada took the City of Toronto to court after they adopted the tax. Fortunately for the vibrancy of Toronto, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the tax.

In 2009, the billboard tax (or Btax) was enacted in Toronto, to date accruing $24 million into the arts reserve. In 2003, 2010, and again in 2011, Toronto committed to $25 per capita for the arts, up from $14 in 2003, but continually failed to achieve this goal. For comparison, Montreal invested $26 in 2003 and has since increased to $33. In a survey of Toronto residents, most agreed that “on a per person basis Toronto should invest as much funding in arts and culture as in other major Canadian cities”. By 2017, Toronto will reach its $25 goal.

Now with funding secured, BeautifulCity.ca is returning to its original mandate for the arts to:

1. Celebrate diverse voices and activate art programs across Toronto;
2. Create and build ownership of vibrant & healthy public spaces;
3. Support Toronto’s living and practicing artists;
4. Build the capacity of young people.

The Toronto Arts Council will be responsible for distributing the funds to artists, being sure to serve all of Toronto, including its inner suburbs. Councillor Adam Vaughan agrees with their focus for the funds: “Now it’s only fair and right to invest the new resources in young artists and to continue Toronto’s role as a magnet for creative people from around the world to come to pursue a career in the arts.

ArtReach 2013 Youth Arts Pitch Contest

ArtReach, an organization that gives grants to young artists and builds capacity in the community, is one of the great projects supported with revenues from the billboard tax.

What other ways do cities invest in the arts? How do you view the role of public art in urban planning and design?

Credits: Photographs by Lindsay Vanstone. Data linked to sources.