“Art is a means of communicating things that are gritty and difficult to talk about,” says Alexis Kane Speer. “Art in public spaces is really important for communicating different stories and starting a dialogue for getting people to think critically about the spaces we travel.”
Speer is the executive director at STEPS, an informal collective of artists, planners, and community organizers. Now in its tenth year of operation, STEPS (Sustainable Thinking Expression on Public Space) is a registered charity that uses art to bring people together in public spaces.
From the beginning, STEPS saw an appetite for public art from the community, Speer says. Starting with a focus in the GTA, their reach has since expanded to five provinces.
STEPS finds potential projects by responding to community needs or outreach, understanding the type of project that makes sense, then using their roster of over 200 artists.
STEPS facilitates projects such as murals, sculptures, participatory public art activations, cultural service art and workshops.
In the 2017 revitalization of the Roncesvalles pedestrian bridge for example, what was formerly a slab of plain concrete crossing over the Gardiner and Lakeshore Blvd. West to the waterfront is now teeming with bright colours and abstract designs inspired by the great lakes thanks to STEPS and artist Justus Roe.
Speers and STEPS look to engage as much as possible with underrepresented artists. “More than 70 per cent of artists STEPS has worked with in the last three or four years have been Black, Indigenous, racialized, LBGTQ, or disabled,” she says.
“We see public art as a way that we can help amplify perspectives,” Speer says, “and claim space for them.”
Beyond public art, STEPS has an artist capacity-building program, a business improvement area (BIA) program, and cultural planning services.
Speer also points to a current project to develop a toolkit to measure the impact of public art on the local economy and business districts.
The plan for STEPS in the future is to keep expanding nationally, especially in mid-sized cities that may not have a public art organization or culture plan.