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The Beautiful City Billboard Fee (BCBF) proposes that the companies investing in billboard advertising be held accountable to the public for their access to - and impact on - public space.


This initiative would require that an annual permit fee be paid by the operators of third-party outdoor advertising. Proceeds would be used to commission public art to benefit and beautify communities. Other objectives include creation of employment for artists and diversifying access to, and thus promoting community ownership of -- public space. The funds could be collected by the new billboard bylaw and distributed via a partnership between arts councils and local community centres. According to Pollara, only 11% of Canadians are against such a fee (+/-2.4% 19/20). The BCBF will help provide the means to renew and celebrate urban communities through creative expression.





2a) Beautification of Toronto;

2b) Creation of employment for systemically under-employed artists;

2c) Diversify access to visual communication in public spaces;

2d) Promoting Corporate Citizenship; and

2e) Enhance public ownership and thus community efficacy in common spaces.





3a) Beautification:

Although some municipalities have instituted complete bans on billboards [1] this proposal seeks to balance out some of the harm they cause to beauty of the city. [2] The GTA is sometimes referred to as a “soulless economic hub”. Projects towards widespread beautification of the city would certainly help promote the perception of Toronto as an aesthetically pleasing city and set a ground-breaking international standard for such issues.  The BCBF would primarily be to the benefit of local citizens. As a secondary effect, it would serve to strengthen our tourism industry and to help secure a true place for Toronto as an innovative cultural capital.


3b) Creation of Employment for Artists:

While the creative process itself can be enjoyable to artists, it is also hard work. However, artists, as cultural innovators, are among the most well educated [3], yet least remunerated, labour force in Canada. They place in the bottom-half of all occupational categories identified: Sculptors, painters and other visual artists earn an average of just over $18,000 annually [4].  Additionally, 50% of artists hold multiple jobs [5]. Comparatively, Canadian visual artists make 41% less than the average income of all occupations [6].


The problem of systemic underemployment may get worse as the number of people identified as artists is growing at a rate of three times that of all other occupations [7]. Hypothetically, at a charge of $6.00 per sq. foot of billboard space per year, five 15’x25’ billboards could subsidize one small art piece costing $10 000.00 (as well as $1250.00 for administrative and maintenance expenses.)  At a macro level, the estimated 5000 [8] billboards in Toronto would generate six million dollars for public art per year.


3c) Diversifying Visual Communication in Public Spaces:

Access to visual communication in public spaces needs to reflect the creativity and multiplicity that exists in Toronto – less of this and we risk alienating our population from their environment. Public art enriches and contributes to our communities [9]. It improves our quality of life; it can tell us of our past, mirrors our present and foreshadows our possible future. Additionally, when produced locally, public art contributes to ‘place making’ and provides a venue for intercultural activity. 


Billboard advertising is typically the polar opposite, in its motives, medium and methods. Billboards are predominantly used to achieve corporate objectives, and frequently contain anti-social and misogynistic messages [10]. These messages may threaten the conscious of the community by reinforcing facile notions of humanness [11]. Public art will serve to balance out some of these messages by introducing new and different ideas made by those residing in the community –- expressions which may promote pro-social, spiritual or local awareness. When we speak of diversity here, we do not refer only to visual minorities, but rather variety in the type and capacity of people and organizations that contribute to vibrant and democratic public spaces. It is not enough to have minorities or plus-sized models depicted in the billboard advertisements. What is needed is a diversity of voices with agency to create and communicate their own artistic messages. Most critically, communicate for cultural reasons rather than (and autonomous from the) commercial messages. 


3d) Promoting Corporate Citizenship

With the understanding that the majority of Torontonians find billboards ugly and want fewer of them, [2] outdoor operators must take measures to insure that their client’s messages are not degraded (or outright ruined) by their medium. The current practice of over-saturation can only serve to exasperate this effect. Typically, we are more accepting of advertising in other forums such as magazines, as it subsidizes useful or enjoyable content for the consumer of the message. Very little has been done to achieve this end with regards to billboards. Rather than sporadic goodwill exercises or generating increased viewership via negative controversy [10] the BCBF will help billboard operators be accountable for the damage they cause and assist them in moving towards responsible corporate citizenship.


Although it might seem unfavourable to some to have a mandatory rather than a voluntary fee – it will be better for all parties involved to have the BCBF administered across the board by fair and specialized government bodies. This will remove the chance of free riders (e.g. some companies supporting the arts, and other companies who do not -- benefiting from any positive attention on billboard advertising as a whole.) Additionally, government involvement ensures the art created will be relatively autonomous from corporate censorship (overt or soft) and remain true to the local context. This approach would thus enable full participation from the arts community.


Additionally, the fine or 'pure’ arts are a source that many other commercial industries draw from for innovation. Digging this ‘well’ deeper through supporting artists in turn fosters wider development of our city’s cultural resources. The fee structure being proposed is also generous towards the billboard advertisers as it would allow for billboard clients and operators to build more genuine, long term relationships with local communities: representatives of billboard operators and/or advertising firms could be invited to sit on the local peer review boards. Alternatively, the support of outdoor operators could be acknowledged on a small, tasteful and permanent plaque near each installation or mural. Credit could also be given to the companies on a city website (see 5.e).


3e) Promoting Community Ownership of Public Spaces

Billboards undermine the perception of public ownership, while localized art projects can enhance collective efficacy [16]. Thus, the BCBF works as a remedial act – enabling and spurring residents to add to their communities in a decentralized, positive format. Powerful symbolic capital can also be found by enacting this project, consequently proving that our shared spaces cannot be treated poorly for the benefit of private interests.





The BCBF could use the existing municipal infrastructure for tracking and collecting permits for third party outdoor signage into an annual payment structure. Alternatively, (with a more limited reach, but arguably somewhat easier to enact) the existing variance process and an increased annual fee could be used on billboards licensed in this way. A third option would involve instituting the fee as fine for outdoor advertisers who currently break outdoor signage laws. The BCBF proposal also calls for stricter rules and increased municipal resources devoted to deal with outdoor advertisers choosing to operate outside of the law at the expense of our city. It is also recommended that the BCBF is waived for billboards allotted to registered charities.





The billboard fee should include a small administrative charge so that the funds can be distributed fairly by existing government and para-public institutions. Municipal agencies could include the Toronto Arts Council (TAC), the Culture Division, the Clean and Beautiful Secretariat the Public Art Advisory Committee, the Planning Department / Urban Design, Parks and Recreation and individual community centres. Ideally, the partnership created would have both administrative and artistic expertise, as well as contact with the local areas in order to distribute the funds effectively.


In order to coincide with the overall objectives of the BCBF, the disbursement plan should be structured so that the art produced reflects and engages the communities where the pieces are situated. However, in the commissioning processes, the wishes of the artist should be considered paramount; the policy of holding artistic autonomy as the ideal presents the best method for achieving high quality work. It also makes the best use of the unique and highly perceptive skills possessed by artists, skills that can be rendered impotent, if not abused, during some types of community engagement processes. 


Additionally, distribution should take into account financial need and where the revenue was originally gathered. This is because richer neighbourhoods often have the capacity to properly protect and enact stricter rules on aesthetic design. Poorer neighbourhoods can become a spread of advertisements for commuters. The BCBF also endorses CARFAC guidelines in minimum artist remuneration.


A possible (but in no means final) disbursement process is outlined below:


5a) Per year, each localized community centre is allotted a certain percent of the billboard revenue for public art based on need, catchment area and population density (‘Need’ defined as economic health.)


5b) Individual community centres and the above mentioned municipal agencies could collaborate to disseminate grant information and applications to prospective artists and arts organizations.


5c) On an annual basis, the artist’s proposals would be received for the catchment area of each community centre. Portfolio based submissions, where no concept is yet articulated could also be completed for evolutionary, higher quality and/or long-term artist-centric residencies. At the community centre, a decision making process would occur via a small committee or jury. This group could be composed of, but not limited to: locally situated artists, social workers, city representatives, advertisers, BIAs (Business Improvement Areas), etc. With the objective to represent each locale, the composition of this jury must be formulated to create buy-in from the community and protect the projects against undue censorship.  As an option, community centres could vote to defer the funds, or even merge funding with other nearby community centres. The super-ordinate goal is to select artists who are singular, exceptional and critical.


5d) Once the most favoured application to produce public art (or portfolio, in the case of residences) was chosen (or ranked) by the local jury it would then passed up to the respective municipal agencies. In such a way, administrative, cultural sensitivities, accountability, building standards, conservation and capacity issues can be supplemented and evaluated if required. At this point the municipal departments and arms length bodies would be positioned to focus on assisting in realizing the chosen idea and building capacity.


5e) For feedback, promotional and reporting purposes, each new public work would be documented and published on a website where the public could note condition, view funders and post comments. A small percentage of the billboard fee should also be set aside for ongoing maintenance. Additionally, community centres with deferred funds could be publicly listed to generate artist proposals. Initially, each listed work may act as an introductory statement for the neighbourhood and/or community centre and in time it is likely that pieces with more depth would be produced.





The BCBF will beautify Toronto, create jobs for artists, promote community ownership and diversify communication in public space.





The following individuals were consulted in the creation of this document for their specialization in a variety of fields. They, nor their organizations express endorsement of or disagreement with the concept or methodology and explicitly should not be reported as so.


Informal Interviews and Information 2002-2005:

- Dr. Agnes G. Meinhard, Director, Centre for Voluntary Sector Studies, Professor of Organizational Behaviour Ryerson.

- Dr. Andrea Phillips, Second Director, Curatorial Dept. Goldsmiths UK.

- Dr. Andrew Hunter, Ph.D.Chair, Department of Philosophy, Ryerson University

- Andrew Potter, Writer/Academic, U of T.

- Councillor Cliff Jenkins, Councillor, City of Toronto.

- Daniel Rechtshaffen, Barrister & Solicitor.

- Dan Bergeron, Artistic Director, Pound Magazine.

- Dave Meslin, Coordinator, Toronto Public Space Committee.

- Dr. Harry Swain, ex. Deputy Minister, Trimbelle Limited.

- Heinz Kuck, Graffiti Eradication Program, Toronto Police.

- Janna Graham, Community Arts Manager, Art Gallery of Ontario

- Jason Laszlo, Assistant to Joe Pantalone Deputy Mayor of Toronto.

- Karin Eaton, Executive Director, Mural Routes.

- Kate Henderson, Intellectual Property and Trademark Lawyer.

- Larry King, Policy Planner, City of Toronto.

- Lilita Tannis, Executive Director, UrbanArts Toronto.

- Mark Lovewell, Director of Arts and Contemporary Studies, Economics Professor, Ryerson University

- Matt Blackett, Creative Director of Spacing magazine, member of City Beautiful Roundtable

- May Wong, VP, Toronto Community Foundation.

- Dr. Mike Burke, Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration Ryerson University

- Dr. Patrizia Albanese, Professor of Qualitative Research, Ryerson University.

- Rita Davies, Culture Division, City of Toronto.

- Scott Sullivan, Municipal Licensing & Standards, City of Toronto.

- Steve Mann, Professor, University of Toronto.

- Suzanne Hawkes, Senior Strategic Counsel, Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society

- Suzanne Mccormick, Community Advocate.

- Terry Nicholson, Culture Division, City of Toronto.


Writing, Editing & Research Assistance:

- Devon Ostrom, MA Curating, (Principal Author).

- Robin Sokoloski, Community Arts Director,

- Jessica Webster B.A. Hons., MSLS (Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability)

- Stephanie D. Perham, B.A. Political Science, International Relations, SD Perham & Assc.

- Julia Che, Lotus Leaf Communications

- Clara Venice Cameron, Philosophy Student U of T, Musician.

- Stacey Sinclair, Toronto Arts Coalition.






[1] Cities Banning Billboards: Such as in Oakville (Source:


[2] 60% of Torontonians think that their city would be more beautiful with fewer billboards, only 10% Disagree (+/8% 19/20,  Pollara 2005).  Note on Why Billboards are Ugly: Because they are designed to stick out and be seen with little consideration of their surroundings, the use of repetition, the incorporation of shock and base messages, the mass-produced nature of the medium, the poor condition of many billboards...etc.


[3] Compensation of Artists vs. Education: “The percentage of artists with a university degree, certificate or diploma (41%) is double the rate in the overall labour force (22%).” (Source: Statistics Canada, 2001 Census Data, Reported in "Statistical insights on the arts," Vol. 3 No. 1© Hill Strategies Research Inc., Sept. 2004)


[4] Under-Compensation of Artists: (Source: Statistics Canada, 2001 Census Data, Reported in "Statistical insights on the arts," Vol. 3 No. 1© Hill Strategies Research Inc., Sept. 2004) Additionally: "In five arts occupations, median earnings are about $10,000. This means that a typical artisan, craftsperson, dancer, musician, singer, other performer, painter, sculptor or other visual artist earns only about $10,000." (Source: )


[5] Underemployment of Artists: “50% of cultural workers hold multiple jobs. Some artists (e.g. the musician who also works full time as a taxi driver)” (Source: "Statistical insights on the arts," Vol. 3 No. 1© Hill Strategies Research Inc., Sept. 2004)


[6] Under-Compensation of Artists: (Source: Statistics Canada, 2001 Census Data, Reported in "Statistical insights on the arts," Vol. 3 No. 1© Hill Strategies Research Inc., Sept. 2004)


[7] Notes & Under-Compensation of Artists: (Source: “More artists in Canada, but still making less than most: study.” CBC Arts, Oct. 2004.)


[8] Number of Toronto Billboards: Estimate through Spacing from the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau at an average size of 10’x20’.


[9] Effects of the Art: "Low income neighbourhoods with higher cultural participation are four times more likely than average to have low delinquency rates. Neighbourhoods with an active arts scene are nearly three times more likely to see their poverty rates decline and their population increase." (Source: Stern & Seifert, “Social Impact of the Arts Project” University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Work, Ongoing)


[10] Misogynistic / Antisocial Billboards: Such as are contained the recent Molson’s campaign. (Source: "Strange Brew, Taste Police," Toronto Life, July 2005.) Additionally you can see images of illegal billboards on the DVP and the above mentioned billboard here: (scroll to the bottom) Or, view check out the 'resources, images and articles' section at


[11] Marketing Techniques: Marketers have long since realized that the population consciously blocks out billboards, they are however stored in the subconscious in good to poor detail. That is until the customer reaches the point of sale.


[12] Notes on Vandalism: Some think that by taxing billboards in this way all vandalism will be reduced. This is because the moral reasoning process vandals use often cites billboards as a form of corporate vandalism or sanctioned litter thus excusing their own individual and marginal transgression.


[14] Illegal Billboards: For example, see the billboard on the purposefully scenic DVP here: (scroll to the bottom)


[15] Billboard Clutter: Lowered impact due to “Billboard clutter” is a generally accepted problem among advertisers. (Source: Beckman & Rigby Foundations of Marketing, Harcourt Canada, 2001.[p. 505])


[16] The Effects of Public Art: Preliminary results of research conducted in Kingston Maximum Security Prison showed that a mural and democratic design process increased the inmate-patients: Community efficacy, quality of life as well as positive social behaviour. They also went on to create three murals of their own after the project was complete (Source: Ostrom, R.T.C.  Mural Project – Executive Summary, 2003, please see:  and or/ )

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