A Note on Process: Public Art

A panel discussion with Amy Lam, Rinaldo Walcott, and Jesse McKee, moderated by Heather Rigg and Annie Wong

Thursday November 25, 12pm - 1:30pm EST 2021 / Online  

Prior to the pandemic, Toronto Mayor John Tory proclaimed 2021 as the “Year of Public Art,” ushering in a ten year funding commitment to support public art. As the Year of Public Art commenced, this summer the City responded to the housing crisis by deploying police officers to violently evict encampments occupied by the unhoused community in various public parks. During this time Gallery TPW began producing The Parkette Projects, guest curated by Shani K Parsons, which received funding from the City's initiative to present commissioned work by six artists in parkettes across Toronto. Since then,* the staff at TPW have been discussing the ethical entanglements of participating in a municipal-led art initiative that holds an adjacent agenda of catalyzing gentrification with displays of paramilitary force, while supporting the impactful and thoughtful artistic interventions realized through The Parkette Projects. This panel formed during the process of navigating this quandary with the questions: what strategies can artists and artist-run-centres employ to respond to the political realities that intersect with our work? How can art reclaim public space when it is weaponized as property of the state? 

A Note on Process: Public Art brings together artist Amy Lam, 221A Head of Strategy Jesse McKee, and scholar Rinaldo Walcott to explore public space in the triangulation of policing, gentrification, and counterpower.   

Amy Lam will discuss her The Parkette Projects commission Unofficial Commemorative Bench. In Glasgow St Parkette, Lam installed two unofficial bench plaques that commemorate the efforts of the local community who fought (unsuccessfully) against the developers of CampusOne, a twenty-four storey, privately-owned, student residence tower, situated just north of the parkette. This development was also responsible for the renovation of Glasgow St Parkette, where Lam’s plaques are currently installed. 

Jesse McKee will discuss how the Vancouver-based 221A shifted from a gallery-focused exhibition model to “an institution capable of context-rich research that leads towards the development of emergent cultural, social and ecological infrastructures.” 221A’s initiatives include operating non-market artists’ housing in partnership with the City of Vancouver, Semi-Public 半公開, an outdoor art and design venue at the intersection of the DTES, Chinatown and Hogan’s Alley, as well as business planning the Vancouver Cultural Land Trust, and developing its digital strategy, Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks, which is modeling ways we can ‘recommon’ land, data and objects by working toward a digitally cooperative culture.

Rinaldo Walcott will discuss his publication, On Property, where he traces the historical trajectory from slave ownership to private property today. An anti-colonial approach to land use based on the ideas of the common for Walcott, “bring with it a different kind of ethical order and an abolitionist consciousness that demands a different relationship to property as the foundation for transformation” (87).

Panelist bios

Amy Lam is an artist and writer. She has shown projects internationally, both solo and as part of the art collective Life of a Craphead. She is a member of Friends of Chinatown Toronto, a grassroots group fighting against displacement and for racial justice in Toronto’s West Chinatown. Her poetry chapbook The Four Onions (2021) is available from Yolkless Press.

Jesse McKee is a leader in the Culture Industries, a Curator of Contemporary Art and Design, and he is the Head of Strategy at 221A. 221A works with artists and designers to research and develop social, cultural and ecological infrastructure. There, he leads the Organization’s advancement, communications, research, and programming. The organization develops and operates 14 000 m2 of cultural-use commercial and residential real-estate across a portfolio of properties that are sub-tenanted according to a cost-recovery operating model. 221A’s artistic program hosts long-term Fellowships for artists and designers, as well as producing public realm art and design projects, and develops education and learning programs, which work with communities to improve the public amenities and reduce barriers at the organization’s cultural infrastructures and beyond. From 2019-24, McKee is the lead investigator on 221A’s Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks Digital Strategy, which is developing a digitally cooperative culture by “recommoning” land, data and objects.


Rinaldo Walcott is the Director of Women and Gender Studies Institute and an Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education both at University of Toronto. His research is in the area of Black Diaspora Cultural Studies, gender and sexuality.

Further context

Part of our process navigating these questions was first to seek responses from the community. We connected with Indu Vashist, Executive Director of the artist-run-centre SAVAC and a supporter of ESN who, through our conversations, inspired this panel. TPW and Parsons also consulted with artistic practitioners involved in the Encampment Support Network. Our impetus was to learn how to meaningfully support the unhoused community beyond our solidarity statement. Learning what was needed from ESN Moss Park, we allocated $3,000 of our programming funds to support their work.

*this copy was edited with feedback from the community to provide clarity to the event and our affiliations. The original copy included the line, "As supporters of the Encampment Support Network." We have edited out this mention to clarify that while we are supporters, we are not affiliated with ESN nor do they endorse this event.