Portrait of a portrait artist - maybe Toronto's last

Patrick James says bureaucratic red tape and bad locations have all but killed Toronto’s portrait artist scene.

Red tape, bad locations have all but killed Toronto’s portrait artist scene, Patrick James says

Patrick James says he's the last public portrait artist left in Toronto, and blames extensive red tape at city hall for the decline of his trade. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

Patrick James remembers when portrait artists like him used to line Yonge Street outside of the Eaton Centre.

Sitting on stools with their pencils and markers, the artists thrived by drawing funny portraits of tourists for a few bucks.

"Back in the day, in the early 90s, there would be about 30 of us here. We were an iconic kind of feature for downtown Toronto," James said in an interview.

But the area around Yonge and Dundas changed. Eaton Centre renovations ate up part of the sidewalk on the west side of Yonge. The Yonge-Dundas Square revitalization came with strict rules for vendors and buskers.

"What city hall did was they moved the artists to other locations around Toronto and the familiar sight of artists disappeared," James said.

Patrick James drawing a portrait in downtown Toronto. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

James says moving off Yonge was the first blow — and since then an increasingly complicated and expensive municipal permit process for the artists has gradually killed the scene.

James, who splits his time between Ripley's Aquarium, Harbourfront and private gigs, believes he's the last artist in Toronto dedicated to live portrait drawing in public spaces.

"They became fed up and gave up," he said.

Permit costs $529

Portrait artists are regulated by the city of Toronto as street vendors.

They require an annual permit, which costs $529.03, including GST.

According to city regulations, since portrait artists, unlike buskers or chalk artists, set up a "workstation," they also require "comprehensive liability insurance."

James says this can cost between $500 and $1,000 annually. Those costs are all the more onerous because most artists only work during the summer or when the weather is nice.

Some of Patrick James' s artwork. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

In terms of location, portrait artists can only work in select locations chosen by the city.

A city spokesperson was not available to answer CBC Toronto's questions about the regulations.

"In Europe and Quebec City or Montreal there's a big difference in respect for the artists in those locations, and well thought out planning and policies for artists to work properly," James said.

Artist wants change

City hall is in the middle of a comprehensive review of its non-food street vending regulations.

Last April, Ward 17 Coun. Cesar Palacio asked the Licensing and Standards Committee to exempt portrait artists from the permit fee and insurance requirements, and allow them to work wherever they choose while the review is underway.

That move would have allowed artists to take advantage of the busy summer season and maybe breathe some life back into the scene. But it was referred back to city staff for study.

James says he has been complaining to city hall for more than year, but has struggled to get assistance from city staff or councillors.

He's now started a campaign to to get city hall to come up with more artist-friendly regulations that will make it cheaper and easier to get permits and allow them to work in better locations.

He wants artists to get involved in his campaign and consult with city staff, but it hasn't been easy.

He says he's tried to rally some of the ones he used to work with on Yonge Street, without much luck.

"They're not coming back," he said.

About the Author

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.