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The gender parity problem in Toronto's public art

With so many men memorialized in bronze, it's time for the city to get with the times, some say.

Only five of Toronto’s 25 city-owned sculptures honour women.

Liz Beddall/Metro and Torstar News service file

Only five of Toronto’s 25 city-owned sculptures honour women.

Some are pointing out a serious gender gap in the city’s public art collection as Toronto gears up to mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday.

Put simply, Toronto’s public sculpture collection really puts the “bro” in bronze.

According to a list of city-owned sculptures reviewed by Metro, only five of Toronto’s 25 memorials depict women. The list does not include commemorative sculptures owned by other organizations – including those at Queen’s Park or the University of Toronto — but with a few exceptions, those too are dedicated to men. 

The lack of gender parity in public art doesn’t surprise Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. And, she said, it’s a problem.

“It speaks to the continual erasure of women’s histories,” she said. “The value of women’s contributions to community, city and nation-building is often undervalued because we’re not given the same opportunities as men.”

The city’s first foray into the female physique appears to have been a bust of Margaret Fairley, a writer and activist, erected in a park that bears her name in the Annex in 1973. Other bronzed women in the city include early Ukrainian feminist Lesya Ukrainka and paired statues of sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. Author Gwendolyn MacEwen is the most recent to be honoured, added to the roster in 2006.

Going forward, Wong-Tam wants the city to consider public art projects through “an equity lens” and recognize contributions made by those who don’t necessarily look like Winston Churchill.

“Before we make a decision to commemorate someone we should ask who has already been commemorated,” she said.

It’s not just gender, said Alison Norman, an adjunct history professor at the University of Toronto and a research advisor to the provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

“It’s a race imbalance, too,” she said. “We need more monuments to indigenous people and people of colour.”

Sally Han, manager of cultural partnerships for Toronto, acknowledged women are under-represented. But, any effort to change that will be slow, she said, because “that whole style of figurative sculpture isn’t really done anymore.”

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