Savvy real estate developers are embracing mandatory municipal art programs as opportunities to add value and character to their properties.
These programs vary, but all focus on having developers give back to the communities in which they do business.
Although about 30 Canadian cities have public art programs in place, most are for public lands and buildings, said Jane Perdue, the City of Toronto’s public art co-ordinator, adding that fewer than a dozen cities have programs for commercial buildings.
Toronto and Halifax both require that a minimum of 1 per cent of the construction budget of a commercial building over a certain size go to public art or other public benefits such as affordable housing.
Vancouver’s program requires that $1.81 per square foot on projects 100,000 square feet or greater go to public art or other public amenities.
Calgary and Regina have density bonus programs. Downtown developers can add square footage to the cities’ height and other restrictions in exchange for putting money into public art or other amenities.
Bryan Newson started Vancouver’s public art program in 1990 to create art “that expresses the spirit, values, visions and poetry of place that collectively define Vancouver.”
While no one piece of work can completely define a city, he says the collection as a whole distinguishes Vancouver from other centres.
Passersby have been rubbernecking at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel since it opened in downtown Vancouver last fall. British artist and designer Liam Gillick has wrapped a repeated line of text – “lying on top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street” – around the building’s south and east sides.
The stainless steel, 61-centimetre-tall letters are erected, with no spacing between the words, on an extension of the floor plate from floors five through 22. The text turns silver in sunlight and pewter on cloudy days.
“Everyone stares at the building,” said its developer, Ian Gillespie, president of Westbank Projects Corp. “Like it or not, they look at it. We wanted to use the building as a giant canvas, and Liam had the same idea.”
Mr. Gillick, now based in New York, frequently uses text in his work. He came up with the phrase “lying on top of a building …” several years ago and had been waiting for an occasion to use it.
“I needed something to compete with Jim Cheng’s strong architecture,” he said.
Mr. Gillespie doubled the $767,000 required by the city to go into public art on this installation. “We spent well over $1.5-million,” he said. “But it adds that much more value to the building.”
Cadillac Fairview Corp. purchased works by Canadian artists John Brown, Harold Klunder and David Urban for the ground floor walls of the RBC Centre that opened in Toronto last year. It commissioned three other Canadians – Edward Burtynsky, Douglas Coupland and Jeannie Thib – to create works for the site. It’s now shopping for a sculpture.
“We wanted to showcase recognized Canadian artists,” said Wayne Barwise, senior-vice president, office development, for Cadillac Fairview in Toronto. “These are significant investments for us.”
Mr. Barwise is delighted to sees people pondering the works in the RBC Centre. “Public art has to be located where it can be accessed by the community,” he said, “not in a fifth-floor boardroom.”
Toronto encourages developers to reserve 10 per cent of the cost of a public art project for maintenance. “They own the work so they need to conserve it,” Ms. Perdue said.
Smart developers know art adds character and identity to their property. “Art enhances the quality of our buildings and the elegance of our lobbies,” said Sabrina Kanner, Brookfield Properties Corp.’s New York-based senior vice-president, design and construction.
Brookfield’s Bay Adelaide Centre unveiled Straight Flush, U.S. artist James Turrell’s $3-million light installation, when the building opened in downtown Toronto last July. Shifting tapestries of light on five glass panels transform the south lobby into an art space that can be viewed through the windows by passersby in the financial district outside.
Bringing public art to a city lets developers participate in something larger than themselves, said Karen Mills, the Toronto public art manager who co-ordinated the installations at the Bay Adelaide Centre and the RBC Centre. “Public art helps a city grow in character and in sophistication.”
Ironically, Ottawa doesn’t have a public art program for commercial buildings. Art commissioned for the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans was funded under Ottawa’s 1-per-cent policy for public buildings because the centre is a public-private partnership, owned by Forum Equity Partners and operated by the City of Ottawa.
The Shenkman, which opened last year, showcases Ottawa artist Adrian Göllner’s glass facade that wraps around its south and west sides, the colours of the panels shifting with the changing light.
It’s also the home of Montreal sculptor Maskull Lasserre’s Resonance, an upright piano and a stool partially carved out of a limestone boulder, in the outdoor plaza.
“It’s important for governments to back public art with policies that encourage funding,” says Christine Tremblay, executive director of the Ottawa East Art Council who spearheaded the Shenkman’s creation.
“The art is for the people. Orleans residents walk by the Shenkman, skateboarders launch from the concrete stage under Resonance, and you often see a mom and child resting on the stool.”
What the artists say
Creating public art isn’t for every artist. The process is collaborative and involves compromises.
“It means learning about budgets, engineering, construction, safety measures and insurance,” said Mr. Newson, manager of the City of Vancouver’s public art program. “There are more meetings than artists anticipate, and many egos at the table.”
But there are different ways of engaging artists, noted Ms. Perdue, Toronto’s public art co-ordinator. “The artist may contribute the ideas, but the actual work can be fabricated by a company.”
Mr. Gillick came up with the ideas for the text art on Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, and they were manufactured by Westbank Project. “It was better to work with a company that knew how to get things done in Vancouver,” said Mr. Gillick, who’s based in New York, “than to ship something in. You’re up against a nightmare schedule. If you get the timing wrong, you’re in big trouble.”
Some artists appreciate the wide exposure public art gives them. “You’re out there, connecting with lots of people,” said Vancouver-based Mr. Coupland, whose giant Scrabble board, A History of the Fur Trade in Canada, is the focal point in Toronto’s RBC Centre’s main lobby. “Public art is for everyone to see.”
“An artist can’t get a much higher profile,” added Adrian Göllner, whose work is in the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.
“At best, your work becomes a landmark,” he added, referring to Harbinger, his barrel-shaped light installation on the roof of the Met Tower, the 43-story condominium at 21 Carlton St. in Toronto.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” said Maskull Lasserre, creator of Resonance, the outdoor work at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans, Ont. “A work in a gallery is seen by people who go there to see art. But when you plunk a work down in a public space, it’s an opportunity to slip something new into people’s lives. They aren’t primed for art and they’re fully susceptible to the experience.”