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North By Northeast art project aims to transform Toronto one alley at a time

Art is transformative. It is one of the only mediums with the capacity to shift the narrative of a city street, to transform a dark and desolate alley into a destination of beauty, a passageway that not only promotes foot traffic, but also enhances the safety of the entire area. Nothing has to be torn down. Nothing has to be built up. Give anything a coat of paint and you can change the story. 

That's exactly what is happening now and throughout the next week as dozens of artists from Toronto, Montreal, Detroit and New York descend upon the downtown core, spray paint in hand, to create 31 new large-scale murals throughout the city.

As part of North by Northeast's new art festival, which runs parallel to its music, film, comedy and interactive conference components, the murals will stretch from Church Street to Lansdowne, from Bloor down to the water. 

"With all the construction for Pan Am Games, you're bombarded with all the dust, scaffolding and traffic rerouting. I think people are getting really bummed out about it, but it's such an exciting moment in our history," says NXNE's art festival director Jacquelyn West. "This is unprecedented. We're the fastest growing city in North America by a 20 per cent margin. We are the city of the future. Artists are coming and showing us what it can be if we stand up and say what we wanted instead of letting it happen around us."

Creating the future of Toronto

The art portion of NXNE offers a glimpse into this future. At the headquarters at King and Peter, the public can walk into an animated architectural rendering that will help them imagine what the city can be. 

"As an art festival, we wanted to create something that wasn't just wallpaper, that was transformative and placemaking, that was defining Toronto," West says.  "We're 200 years younger than New York, 600 years younger than London. We thought this was a great moment to communicate to the world what's happening in Toronto, but also invite these major players from the North East."

West credits much of NXNE's early success this year to festival director Christopher Roberts, who came to NXNE by way of VICE last year. He and the leadership team have been working to make NXNE as economically strong as Austin's South by Southwest.

"Right now where North By Northeast generates about $55 million in economic stimulus for the city of Toronto, SXSW is about $210 million for Austin, so there's a gap to bridge. Chris really sees it that we can create a festival of momentum that is geared toward a real youth market and inspire them in a different way," West says. 

The bulk of the mural project will run along Graffiti Alley, a series of murals and alleyway art that runs west from Niagara to Tecumseth, between Queen Street and Richmond.  Nineteen new murals will go up here. These murals are supported by the City of Toronto, whose StreetARToronto (StART) program aims to combat graffiti through beautification. In partnership with Toronto Police Service, 14 Division and with support from Ward 19 Councillor Mike Layton, the new murals will help take back an area that is beginning to become over run by tagging. 

Beautifying Yonge and Dundas

Another project is underway at the O'Keefe Lane Overpass not too far from Dundas Square. It features the work of local artists Patrick Thompson (Evok) and Alexa Hatanaka (Lexr), who are responsible for many other murals throughout the city. Their work can be found in the Ossington Lane behind UNION, on the Esplanades near the Distillery District, from Parliament to Mimico and beyond.  

"Beautifying cities through street art is a very quick and relatively simple way of speeding up the transition from cities being a place where people go to work, shop, and watch a ballgame, to places where people live, interact, and improve upon," the artists said in an email. They were working on a project up in Nunavut at the time of the interview, but have since returned to Toronto to work on their mural. 

None of these mural projects would be possible without the help of the Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) who are responsible, essentially, for getting the businesses on board, a challenge that can be demanding. The BIAs need to make sure the murals will be around for a while, and they work diligently with the building owners to ensure the properties won't be sold or renovated. NXNE worked with the Downtown Yonge BIA and the West Queen West BIA to coordinate the murals. 

The Downtown Yonge BIA sees the mural project as part of a larger laneway strategy and as a catalyst for change. With 1.5 km of laneways in their area, for them this is only the beginning. 

"We've got to start treating our laneways similar to sidewalks and roadways," says Mark Garner, the executive director at the Downtown Yonge BIA. "They need to be clean, safe, accessible and obviously you want them programmed. You can put unique art in, you can have different lighting installations; they can be used for various different festivals and events. We've got to get innovative in the way we look at our laneways."

He likens these early iterations to those of Sydney and Vancouver, New York and New Orleans, places where alleyways play an active role in the lush of streets and city life. 

"Think about when Yonge Street's really busy… to be able to take a shortcut through a laneway that has active murals and programming and music being played, or access to restaurants or even a patio in the laneway," Garner says. 

The O'Keefe mural is a partnership between NXNE, the Downtown Yonge BIA, Hermann & Audrey (the firm facilitating the art programming), and Mirvish Productions. The mural will play tribute to the Mirvish Theatre. "It's not a snapshot in time, it's going to be relevant for a long time," says Leigh Sherkin, Downtown Yonge BIA's planning and development manager, who is spearheading the alleyway revitalization project. "It honours the history of the theatre, while capturing what it's like now." 

Sherwin Williams donated some of the paint for O'Keefe, but what it really came down to was getting help from creative youth. West worked with the LiveGood Project, a program administered by Goodwill that runs in conjunction with the youth employment strategy to pair young creative types under 30 with employment in the arts. The program reimburses employers for the majority of the wages. Through a strategic partnership, West was able to secure eight participants to help her pull off the festival. 

"The only reason this is possible is because of that manpower," she says. These creative youths helped with everything from graphic design to organizing the logistics of the murals. "We couldn't have done it without them."

The murals are currently in progress and will run the duration of the festival, which wraps up on June 22nd. They are accessible to the public for free. For a full list of the 31 murals going up throughout the city and a list of the complete art programming, visit nxne.com.

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. 
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