The modern history of public art in Toronto began in 1984, the year the Canadian Airman’s Memorial was unveiled at University and Dundas. Better known as Gumby Goes to Heaven, the large bronze sculpture was so awful, so banal and, frankly, so unintentionally hilarious, hundreds, mostly artists, showed up to demonstrate against it.

The piece had been donated by the late financier Henry Jackman, and without public input, installed at one of the city’s most important intersections. Queen Elizabeth — poor thing — inaugurated the work. Soon after, perhaps to save the monarch from future embarrassment, the Toronto public art commission was formed.

Since then, public art has popped up throughout the downtown core and become a whole lot less controversial, not that we all love what we see. As often as not, the real issue is who pays for it. As long as it’s developers and philanthropists who foot the bill, few really care what they’re paying for. But when public money’s involved, it’s a different matter. The best example came in 1966 when the city was caught up in a bitter dispute about whether to spend $150,000 on Henry Moore’s sculpture, the Archer. Then mayor, Phil Givens, championed the work, but city council voted against it. Read more