Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Banking on an Incentive for Art

You may never have heard of Banksy before. To put it simply, he's a British street artist of mystery - the people who know who he is aren't talking, you see - responsible for guerrilla artworks that have appeared on the sides of buildings across the United Kingdom and abroad since the 1990s, though it's only in the last ten years he's come to a greater prominence. Whoever he is, Banksy was in Toronto this past weekend as part of the launch of the new "street art disaster" movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, and while he was here some local buildings became his latest canvases - the first time his art has hit Toronto's streets. I've not seen them myself, but Torontoist did report on them with photographs.

It may be that I won't be able to see them in person. Subsequent to the initial announcements of the art's appearance, Torontoist noted in an update yesterday that they have begun to be painted over, presumably by the owners of whatever property they were painted on. I understand that this is perfectly within the rights of the property owners, but to me, it seems kind of short-sighted; like there could be a better way of going about this. I was thinking for a while yesterday, and by the end I had a new plank for my mayoral platform.

The idea of urban beautification is something that I've been at least trying to mention since I started running for mayor - one of my first posts on the subject dealt with it, and I also briefly discussed it in my interview with CP24, which will presumably be hitting the internet Real Soon Now (you know, after they sort through the sheer weight of outtakes produced because I kept stumbling over my own words). Here, we've had a stab at bringing life to otherwise empty concrete, and not all of it meets with a paintbrush slathered in white or grey. For example, I don't know whether or not it's an "official" mural, but this painting on the back of one of the industrial buildings just north of Lawrence East station on the Scarborough RT is, in my opinion, one of the true highlights of the route.

Trust me, it's even better when the sun is out and there's not a barbed-wire fence in front of it.

What I'm suggesting is an expansion of the current system. The City of Toronto already runs its Economic Development Mural Program, intended to help "local businesses and communities create an attractive and positive identity for their commercial areas." It offers funding of up to $5,000 for the installation of a mural, but it's also commercially-focused: eligibility is restricted to Business Improvement Areas, business associations, and "community groups that include strong business participation."

My concept is something that runs in parallel with this - call it a "Mural Incentive Program" for now. Under this program, a property owner could apply to place a mural on the side of their building - commercial, residential, or industrial, as long as the zoning laws don't take issue with it - and while the City wouldn't provide any funding to install it, the completed and maintained mural could instead be counted as a property tax deduction. Tax credits, in my experience, are a crackerjack way to encourage the sort of things you want to encourage.

It's the details of this plan that would have to be hammered out. City Council is a governing agency, not a panel of art critics, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with the government deciding what is and what is not "correct" art - but on the other hand, there has to be some kind of approval process for this system, in order to ensure it's not abused. Here, maybe, we could take it to the people of Toronto themselves and crowdsource the approval. It could be, then, that when a property owner takes a mural design to the Mural Incentive Program for approval, that design is put up on a website where Torontonians can vote on whether or not the design should pass muster - and if it does, they're on their way.

It's a minor thing, I know. It's not something that will shake the foundations of the city. Sometimes, though, the incremental changes are among the most important.

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