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Toronto Public Art: Exploring Downtown Parks, Sculpture and Murals

Article and Photography by Donna Chong

Photography by Susan Drysdale, and Jeff Chatten / Feature image: “Water Guardians” sculpture at Canary District by Susan Drysdale

Toronto public art is at once beautiful and thought provoking and sometimes controversial. Often tied to development it tends to appear in areas with new buildings. Our writer Donna Chong explores some new and classic favourite public art works, between the AGO, City Hall, the Financial district and Canary District. Read on for background on TO public art and a mini tour of each location.

If you walked past a giant white head perched on the front entrance of an office building downtown, you would stop, look, walk around it and be kind of amazed. But did you know there are at least 400 hundred sculptures and public art that can be found everywhere in our city (insert link to the City of Toronto’s map of public art). Some are very famous like the Toronto sign found at City Hall and others are newer and less well known like the giant head called Dreaming found at 120 Adelaide St. W.

Some are whimsical and fun like Michael Snow’s the Audience showing enthusiastic fans at the Skydome while others like Luminous Veil, have a very critical and lifesaving purpose, to prevent suicides at the Prince Edward Viaduct. Many people love to go downtown to the TD Centre to photograph the CN Tower between the two Mies van der Rohe buildings but have you ever stopped to wonder about the group of cows sitting inside the courtyard and how they got there?

Public art is art that is visually and physically accessible to the public, installed in a public space or outside and procured, created and maintained by a public process and often publicly funded although it can also be privately funded. Public art can include sculptures, statues, murals, digital media, projections and light installations, and architectural features and other physical aspects of the cityscape.

Two Forms by Henry Moore at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) / Photo by Donna Chong 

Sometimes controversial, public art can be the stuff that elections are lost over. Take Henry Moore’s The Archer for instance. It’s become so ingrained as part of Nathan Phillip Square but back in 1965, it was considered an expensive and bold piece of public art. The $120,000 price tag ($750,000 in today’s terms) was expensive and many protested over the high cost and did not appreciate the abstract form and curves of the Archer. Philip Givens, mayor of the time, lost the election over the Archer. He was a visionary who loved the sculpture as part of his dream of turning Toronto into a showplace of culture and fine art. In the end, Phil Givens was right all along and the Archer has become one of the city’s most beloved and recognized landmarks.

Controversy also arose around Henry Moore’s other famous sculpture Two Forms when it was moved several years ago from its prominent place on busy Dundas St. near the entrance of the AGO to its more secluded Grange park location behind the AGO. Many people, myself included, miss it in its former location as it was more accessible and there was more interaction and engagement with the sculptures. Kids and adults climbed them and sat on them so much so that parts of the bronze sculptures became more worn down and polished. The sculptures became part of the space and context around them connecting people to their experience of seeing the Henry Moore sculptures inside the beautiful gallery of the AGO.

Make Good Mural on the wall of Studio 835 by artist Jimmy Chiale / Photo by Susan Drysdale

Another City of Toronto innovative art program being funded and run publicly today is StreetARToronto (StART) which was begun in 2012 as part of the city’s Graffiti Management Plan to reduce vandalism and replace it with vibrant, colourful, community-engaged street art. It has been amazingly successful showcasing local, talented and creative artists. 700 murals have already been completed. There are 6 different programs within StART including the wonderful Outside the Box program with artists painting on traffic signal boxes. 350 signal boxes have already been hand painted or wrapped since 2013. One of the more wonderfully, humourous ones is the raccoon with a camera near the Gooderham Flatiron building painted by talented artist Jeff Blackburn.

In Canada, private philanthropy predates public funding of the arts. While corporate sponsorships of the arts can be controversial, partnerships between corporations and the arts stretches back in history. Debate aside about the golden handshake between arts and business, there are numerous cultural events and artwork pieces that have resulted and benefitted not only the artists but the public as well.

It really doesn’t matter to most people whether public art is government funded or privately commissioned nor does it affect someone’s enjoyment of art. While you’re out exploring and enjoying the art, ask yourself some questions: why has it been placed where it is? How does the location relate to the art? What does it mean to you? How are you able to engage with the art? Touch it. How does it feel? Get out, get exploring, get shooting and go check out the beautiful artwork around you. And, best of all, it’s free.

Berczy Park Dog Fountain by architect Claude Cormier / Photo by Jeff Chatten

Financial District to St. Lawrence Neighbourhood

The Pasture by Joe Fafard is a fun, humorous, whimsical installation of 7 cows lying in a pasture. Kids love to climb over them and touch them. Next time when you’re shooting downtown around the TD Centre, stop and give the cows a moo.

Tembo, Mother Elephant and her 2 babies by artist Derrick Hudson, is across Bay St. behind Commerce Court. It seems really out of place amongst the concrete towers but maybe that’s the point: to remind us of the natural world of animals.

Allan Lambert Galleria, Brookfield place. Sometimes called the crystal cathedral of commerce, it is designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It is a beautiful vaulted parabolic ceiling. On a sunny day, the light here is amazing. The holiday light installation draws photographers here and is a popular Instagram location.

Dreaming is a new installation created by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. It is a huge woman’s head made of white marble dust and polyester resin. Walk around it. It looks different depending on where you are standing. It is located at 120 Adelaide St. W. It’s best viewed at night.

Pi by artist Evan Penny is lesser known but worth a stop. A man’s head is cut into 4 pieces at a 90-degree angle. It is a little hidden away on the north east side of Wellington St. W., in the southern TD complex in a small courtyard.

Trompe L’oeil by Derek Michael Besant is a giant illusory mural suggesting windows and drapes with a wonderful 3D depth at the Gooderham Building aka Flatiron Building

Berczy Park Dog Fountain by architect Claude Cormier is a wonderful, whimsical two-tiered water fountain that’s gone to the dogs with 27 cast iron dogs, one scared cat and a lone bone.

Pi at TD Centre by artist Evan Penny / Photo by Donna Chong

Distillery District and Canary District

Garden of Future Follies by Hadley + Maxwell is a sculpture garden that brings together elements from over 80 existing public sculptures from around the city as decomposed fragments suggesting instability. These fragments are on the ground and intended to be touched and explored by children and adults.

Water Guardians by Canadian artists Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins features 3 alien heads with wavy bodies watching over a waterpark. It looks great at night with the water fountains on.

Untitled (Toronto Lamp Posts) by Tadeshi Kawamata is a mass of streetlights done in the style of a bundle of Mikado sticks.

No Shoes by Mark di Suvero is a large sculpture that assembles steel beams and wooden logs.

Peace Sign by Mathew Rosenblatt was created as a direction reaction to what was going on in the United States as opposed to what’s happening in our city.

Still Dancing by Dennis Oppenheim is a colourful roll-coaster depicting Toronto’s boozy history. There is a 38’ foot like chimney structure which encompasses the transformative drama inherent in the distillery process.

“It” is a giant 3-legged alien Spider created by Michael Christian.

Love Sign is a very instagrammable big red heart sculpture.

Love Locks as the name implies has the word Love spelled out with love locks attached. The locks are sold nearby. It’s also a popular instagram location.

Garden of Future Follies by Hadley + Maxwell / Photo by Susan Drysdale


Toronto Public Art Map



Writing and photography by @donnachong21

Curation and editing by @mikesimpson.ms

Photography by @drysdaleandco

Photography by @beyondrealitymedia

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