Together Outside: Toronto’s Year of Public Art
Published Date: Sep. 22 2021
Image: adé abegunde
Growing up in Trinidad, the word gallery had multiple meanings. Yes, it meant a place to display or sell works of art, but it also meant to make a show of yourself, either in the form of boasting or just by strutting around. Peacocking, if you will, when you were feeling yourself. Anywhere could be your stage, the show could start at any time, and anyone could be your audience. More than anything, the theatre that is living was made explicit.
When you come from such a place, your relationship to public space is forever charged. Performance is ever possible, and artistry may erupt at any moment. Words and gestures move minds and mountains, from friends and strangers alike. In a complex place like Trinidad, where so many are deprived of so much, it is a rich way to live.
In this complex place we call Toronto, where too many are deprived of too much, our relationship to public space has been forever changed. Over the past 18 months, public space has simultaneously become a newly contagious threat as well as a newly controlled relief. Grappling with the pandemic has meant both staying away from the public realm while also moving a great deal of our lives into the outdoors. For many of us, outside has become the place to work, to play, to eat, to exercise, to pray.
Public space has changed in nature and quantity too. Streets have been claimed, sidewalks have been transformed and parking lots have been repurposed. With this expansion, we have been living in front of each other more than ever before, and that energy has felt familiar. Even through the immense pandemic grief and suffering, in seeking connection and stimulation and relaxation with and through and from each other, here in Toronto’s outsides, we have begun to gallery.
Wherever you look, there are now more everyday spectacles on view. Perhaps the choreography of a physically distanced park gathering has dazzled your eye, or the poetry emanating from patio diners has made you shine. That public space has so often become a paradoxical haven is reflected in the ways that we are displaying ourselves to each other. Despite it all, we are feeling good out there and letting it show.
Such ground is the fallowest for artists, many of whom have likewise shifted things outdoors. Whether their work is public art or not, their art has become public. A park is a stage, a fence is a gallery, and a porch is a concert hall. No matter the production, the experience is buoyed by the sheer pandemic bliss of Outside. The mutual potency between artist and audience blurs lines and casts spells, leaving us thinking, knowing, or feeling differently about our city than we did before we arrived.
This is public art at its best, though it bears scant resemblance to what has largely filled the city’s collection to date. While our monumental sculptures and stunning murals indeed have plenty to offer, it is art that galvanizes a communal public experience that stirs my heart most. Work that asks us to share space and time binds us as a community, even if it’s asking difficult questions, challenging cultural narratives, or serving as a memorial to historical atrocities. There is alchemy in the crowd, and those shared interactions both embed us in this place and let us soar. More traditional forms of public art can get us there too, but the broadening definitions and priorities for Toronto’s Year of Public Art promise intriguing civic engagement opportunities ahead.
In advancing Indigenous place-making city-wide, encouraging new methods of community-engaged public art works, and funding temporary public art, the forthcoming public art strategy is saying all the things I want to hear. We will be brought together more often, in a greater number of neighbourhoods, by a truer diversity of artists. We will take up more space for discussion, debate and exchange across difference. We will have more chances to connect, bear witness to stories that have yet to be told and establish a sense of belonging.
As the fissures widen and the world continues to burn, this is the work to which our artists are committed. We need to look back as we look forward, and we need to care for this land and each other. As we work to build a more flourishing city for us all, our public art can help us to gather and to cope and to rejoice. In the ongoing conversation between this city and ourselves, it can help us to confront our hard truths and to imagine beyond what we think is possible. All this help will be needed to see us through these coming cruel and precious days.