Artists, public spaces and communities

Professor Will Kwan

The world is an urban place, and it’s only going to become more so. Cities are magnets for people seeking opportunities for employment and creative pursuits.

What issues arise when people come together in urban environments? What role do artists play? And how do we ensure that everyone is included? We posed these questions to Margaret Kohn, professor of political science and acting director of the Centre for Ethics, and Will Kwan, associate professor and program director, Studio program, in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media, who also teaches master’s students in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design on the St. George campus.

Margaret Kohn: One of the challenges for policy-makers and planners is to figure out how we can enable the circulation of people to leisure activities, to work, and to engage in the activities they want to take part in.

Will Kwan: As cities sprawl, there are fewer hubs for people to congregate in, and participate in civic life. Another issue that arises is gentrification, and artists are notorious for being part of that. I’m wondering, in your research, what you’re finding out about artists and what we do to neighbourhoods.

MK: What concerns me are the projects that privilege cultural development over a more holistic approach. For instance, a neighbourhood might be enthusiastic about supporting below-market-rate housing for artists because that can have the effect of raising property values. But building public housing for immigrant families doesn’t have that same commercial benefit and can receive less priority.

WK: The majority of artists don’t make a lot of money. They eventually get priced out of those areas as well. There is a hierarchy in cultural industries: web designers, architects and university professors might be part of a larger creative class that participates in that gentrifi process because they are able to adapt to rising rents and property values more easily than artists. I’m looking for a live/work space myself, and I can’t actually find this kind of space. Just condo developments that reflect a bohemian kind of aesthetic.

MK: The famous Bohemian Embassy on Queen West?

WK: There was no bohemian community there to begin with! This idea of a bohemian, creative lifestyle has been detached from actual practitioners, from actual makers and people who are building an artistic community.

MK: Public spaces don’t have to be well known to play an important role. Dufferin Grove Park is in my neighbourhood. It’s known for community involvement. People there have started a number of volunteer-based programs. Some generate small amounts of revenue, which then fund programming. These initiatives are driven by community needs at a low cost, with norms of accessibility and the community informing what they choose to do. That is really wonderful and it makes the neighbourhood what it is.

WK: Organizations like Artscape in Toronto are trying to create below- market spaces for artists. There is a shortage of affordable workspace for artists here because a lot of the industrial spaces have disappeared. I just came back from Hong Kong where rapid migration of small manufacturing industries moving up to Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta means there is suddenly industrial space that artists are now moving into all over the city.

MK: One aspect of the relationship between art and the city that we haven’t talked about is street art. It’s this wonderful kind of free art experience where the city itself sort of turns into a work of art.

WK: Street art has a distinct place in contemporary art. It’s popular and circulates easily in the media and does not necessarily result in a high-valueobject. There is a distinction between what someone like Banksy does and what we consider mainstream contemporary art, which is associated with theory and exclusivity.

MK: So what do you think about something like Nuit Blanche, which is curated? It isn’t exactly about street art, but it is bringing art into the street through conventional artistic institutions.

WK: Nuit Blanche is great for one reason: my students go, and they see that what they’re studying has such a presence in the city. There’s also public art. That includes everything from commissions to collaborative and participatory community art projects that try to build longer-term engagement.

MK: So there’s a role to be played for different types of public art, and public spaces too. I was talking to one of the architects who was involved in redesigning Nathan Phillips Square. He was incredibly sensitive about how to use design elements, public furniture and art to create a sense of democracy and community. The design and arts community is doing very cutting-edge work right now about how to revitalize public space and how to bring out its potential.

WK: There is a range of public spaces. We have to be imaginative about them.