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Beautiful City Billboard Fee

delete_vienna.jpgHow much of the world around us is covered in advertising? It's nearly impossible to escape brand logos (I see about 10 in front of me at my desk, without turning my head). Is there some way to use advertising space for a civic purpose?

The Canadian art group Them.ca thinks so. They've proposed the "Beautiful City Billboard Fee" for the city of Toronto, requiring that all billboard advertisements pay a special tax, based on the size of the sign. Funds derived from this tax would be disbursed to artists for the creation of public art.

This is clever on a few levels. The proposed fee is small enough that it won't cut significantly into advertising (that is, it won't put anyone out of business), but with the number of billboards in the city, will still generate six million dollars each year. At the same time, with the fees going directly to public art instead of to the city's general coffers, there will be limited incentive on the part of the city to allow for a greater number of billboards. The proposal has broad community support (over two-thirds of Toronto residents polled are in favor), and is in line with a number of other proposals and initiatives Toronto is considering.

Writer David Bollier (from whom I heard about this project) links the BCBA to a piece of public art in Vienna called "Delete!"

For a period of two weeks in June, Viennese shopkeepers agreed to let Christoph Steinbrener & Rainer Dempf put monochrome yellow fluorescent foil on all advertising signs, slogans, pictograms, company names and logos on Neubaugasse, a popular street for shopping. (Only signs needed for public safety were uncovered.)

The result (reproduced above; a larger image is at the artists' site) is a clever-yet-sobering demonstration of just how much of our public space is taken up by commercial messages. Some reactions from Viennese (including graffiti saying "I need consumer information! Argh!") can be found at Moblogging Vienna.


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Comments (17)

Bombay could use a lot of this. Thanks!


So could New York City. You would probably be blinded by the yellow.

Never had a problem with "yellow". I've fashioned my sensibilities on Arthur Dent.

Paul Steinhauer:

"Beautiful City" and "billboard" do not belong in the subject. Trees, sky, and architecture are beautiful not billboards.

Eliminating, not taxing billboards goes with "Beautiful City." Several juridictions in the USA ban billboards. Toronto could join them.


How public spirited of these artists to find a way to compel us to give them money. Why didn't they suggest giving the money to the poor, or refunding it to the hard-taxed Torontonians. Another bunch of beggars looking for a handout.

Thanks Peter! I am the coordinator of this project, glad you think of us as beggars....

A)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]

B) It will not be a 'handout.' The artists will be working for any remuneration they receive - and the projects will be to benefit local communities.

C) Toronto outdoor advertisers are hardly, 'hard-taxed.' In fact, there are illegal billboards all over the place and even for a variance, they pay a minimal fee.

My home state, Maine, banned billboards. So did Vermont. Life is better as a result. Maine has a "Percent for Art" program that budgets a small percentage of the construction cost of public buildings for art installations. Good use of money.


Devon -

I apologize if I insulted you, and of course do not mean the comment in a personal sense. I did indeed mispeak; beggary is requesting contributions from people, and suggests you haven't worked for it. The practice of compelling contributions through conscious effort would actually be extortion, not beggary.

Whatever the quality of life of a Torontonian artist, they can always "sellout" and become a "suit" for more cash. The implication is that being an artist is so enjoyable, relative to an office drone job, that artists are happy to accept lower wages in return for a happier life, else they would change careers.

The implication is that if a person chooses to be an artist, and wishes to be a wealthier artist, they should endeavor to create experiences and works that people enjoy so much that they voluntarily contribute their resources. What your group is doing is whipping up the mob against "the man" in order to extort money which, at the end of the day, will come from the pockets of consumers (the "hard working") who do not have the luxury of choosing the spiritually enriching life of an artist.

If I lack sympathy it is because many of us have to work jobs we do not enjoy, in order to fulfill family responsibilities. It rankles that your group, which has chosen the muse over the buck, would then demand I make up the difference. It is, simply put, immoral.

Interesting, first we are beggars - now extortionists. I fail to see the threat of harm - less action here? Are all people requesting taxes for public goods are extortionist in your view? Have you tried this great book, they call it 'the d i c t i o n a r y ?'

Although aspects of your views on art production are interesting -- limiting motivation to just enjoyment and wage is narrow and unworkable in the real world. Depicting the job of an artist as enharently spiritualy enriching, easy etc. is a little silly... you see the stats; most of them are working second, non-art jobs to make ends meet.

Your view of what art is troubling and somewhat bizarre: Unfortunately - it is hard to for individuals to pay for something which is explicitly free and for the public's benefit, i.e. public art. Additionally - if the arts are just to submit to economic demand then you are likely to polarize access and many important and timely messages will never get to reach people.

I find it unfortunate that many people work jobs they don't enjoy...I think the last stats put it around 43% of people are in that position...sorry but I think this goes a little deeper for you.

66% of Torontonians supporting this is hardly us whipping up the mob - it is a ton of people who have had enough visual pollution and want something done to make our cities more beautiful.

Peter St. Onge:


You've made some very good points here, and I completely agree with your idea that promotion of public arts is important, and may not be sufficiently provided if left solely to person-to-person economic transactions.

I think the question is whether arts promotion should be voluntary (through donations) or compulsary (through taxation). I think you've put your finger on the disagreement; yes I do believe nearly every group requesting taxes is extortionary. The reason is that taxes are obligatory, at the threat of prison. So when considering whether it is just to request public funds, one should ask whether they would be comfortable imprisoning people who do not wish to contribute. By this standard, public health (vaccinations, sewers, etc) are public goods, upkeep of the judicial system is a public good, but promotion of public art, in my opinion, is not sufficient cause to threaten imprisonment in a free society, which is ultimately what you are proposing by resorting to taxes.

If this project were non-compulsary, and you were seeking to raise contributions (cf the Nature Conservatory), I would wish you all the luck in the world. It is doubtless important to raise exposure to art, and artists are a vital part of our society. So while I agree wholeheartedly with your goals, I disagree strongly with the compulsary way you propose to fund it.

As for the 66%, appeals to "soak the rich" have high support across the world, and they are absolutely mob incitement. A special tax levied on artists, perhaps motivated by a populist backlash to avant-garde art (cf Serrano or Mapplethorpe), would, I expect, feel like mob incitement to you, no matter the level of support. This is why Canada has a Constitution; just because 66% believe something does not make it moral.

Thank you for this exchange. You've made some great points, and, while I sincerely hope you will consider capitalizing on your publicity to put your energy into a voluntary appeals campaign rather than a coercive tax-funded one, I wish you all the best in your mission to bring art to the people.


Oh come on... pushing it to that is a little silly... In total the cost to the billboard industry (not twisting it to an individual level) will only be 6 million in Toronto - Hardly worth going to prison over. However, if Mr. Patterson and a couple Viacom Execs. want to do that as some sort of hippy thing then I promise to visit them in the clink.

One reason why a fee like this makes sense is because it is to balance out some of the harm the industry causes to the landscape. Even if you do not think that public art (or culture?) can be a common good then you can understand this, no?


ps. I think public space and the beauty of our cities can fall into the category of a common good.

Peter St. Onge:


Your second post showed such sophistication I assumed I could speak to you on the level of principles (ie that forced contributions are immoral), so I'm very disappointed in the demagoguery in your last post. Once you're over your apparent glee at the notion of Viacom execs with families in prisons, perhaps you'll ask why you enjoy the notion of people being hurt and why you wish to force people to do things. You have shown your true colors.

Peter St. Onge:

PS If you're interested in understanding some of these issues in detail, I'd highly recommend Frederique Bastiat's "The Law". It's short, and I do hope you'll read it or at least look him up.


Oh get off it. You sling insults around like no tomorrow and I make one joke and you think I am inept in debate and cruel...I never said anything about sending your families to prison?

There is nothing immoral about getting people to help fix the damage that they cause to the beauty of the city.

Jack Sam:

I just visited Toronto for the first time two weeks ago and I was dizzied to see all the billboards there as compared to Vancouver.

What I was thinking at the time was how much solar energy could be captured by these billboards. There was a woman from a university in Alberta that presented some research at my school with a certain media that she developed that is photovoltaic friendly.

One would print out graphics with this media and put it onto the billboard as usual, but this media allows the backing of the billboard to have solar panels that would work even while covered.

I don't know how that affects artists and their funding to create public art, but it does address the notion of industries who have harmed the urban landscape being able to pay the city back through collecting renewable energy.

I apologize that the name of this PhD holder escapes me.

PS I saw some chalk writing on Bloor/Yonge by Victor the street chalking guy. I wish I saw some of his drawings.


Wow what a great idea!


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