Toronto’s scene, a lil’ check in
By Aaron Harbour
Running Journal.fyi, an art blog for the most part like all the other blogs out there with a slight lean towards things happening in the Bay Area, I receive submissions from all over the US and all over the world. But, as the blog is young relatively, it had to start somewhere, so to get it going I reached out to galleries I saw on other blogs and to ones I’d encountered as one of the directors of the Et al. galleries.
Et al. interacts with peer spaces under a number of different circumstances, for instance, sometimes we work with another gallery to consign work from an artist they represent or they do the same to us, or maybe we’ve been a fan of them from afar, and we stop and see their space in person should we be in whatever city they are in.
Frequently we’ve gotten to know spaces while out and about doing art fairs. When you are at an art fair as a small gallery you are necessarily in close proximity to other gallerists who share your concerns, stresses, heartbreaks, and sometimes successes. Nearly a year ago now I went out to do a fair for Et al. in Toronto. I was familiar with a few Toronto-based spaces and we even collaborated with one, Cooper Cole, on a show in San Francisco. I got to see Cooper Cole’s gallery space in person; there was an excellent pair of shows up – Kandis Williams in the main space and Azza El Siddique in the basement. El Siddique was new to me; her work pushes at the edges of ceramics, with unfired works that melt under dripping water onto steel structures that blossom with rust.
The fair itself was, well, hit and miss, with mostly misses – not the kind of fair our gallery likes to do as we’d rather be one of the worst gallery in an awesome fair than one of the better ones (our version of better, our peer group’s specific version of contemporary etc.) in a so-so fair and this was that, with lots of hotel art, red dots on the wall, and few stand out pieces or practices. That latter bit matters more than it should to me maybe (says my bank account) as the focus at these things for most dealers (a class in which I begrudgingly belong) is primarily on selling work, but one of the plusses of doing these things is seeing a ton of work in person that I’ve only seen online. For instance, Franz Kaka’s booth had a few incredible embroideries by Kára Hosnedlová that were even better in person than on an art blog, but moments like this were few and far between at the fair.
In the center of a small booth Projet Pangee (based in Quebec) was a large work by El Siddique. I hadn’t heard of this gallery; I introduced myself to them, and to the fine folks at Franz Kaka and I told them about Journal. Since then I’ve received submissions to Journal from these spaces but also by a stream of other, new project spaces reaching out from Toronto. In the Bay Area we seem to be at a big of a standstill as far as new project spaces or small commercial galleries. There are good things happening here and there at Interface, Cloaca, Cushion Works, Right Window, Slash (/), 2727 California, Ctrl Shift, Bass and Reiner, Massman Gallery, and a few I’m forgetting. I’m impressed with the quality of Toronto’s scene, and the smart exhibitions I’m seeing coming out of these spaces that mix the local with the broader scene successfully.
A long-winded introduction, I know, but I thought it might be nice ask these folks some questions about their spaces and their scene. So I did.
1. Why Toronto? Why live there, why is your gallery there? Seems a bit cold…
SIBLING [Kate Kolberg & Holden Kelly + Becca Fleming] (S): I wouldn’t deny that Toronto can be cold BUT it’s very hot in the summertime and we do have very nice spring and fall seasons! Toronto because, of our three owners, two of us (myself - Kate Kolberg & Holden Kelly) were born and raised here, and then never managed to kick it. The third (Becca Fleming) moved to Toronto from Vancouver for school around five years ago. Toronto also because, in Canada we have fewer people and fewer cities than in the States, and there are certain obstacles associated with the main alternatives of Vancouver and Montreal (for example: location and language respectively).
COOPER COLE [Simon Cole] (CC): Toronto is home. It's a great city in a lot of ways, it is extremely multicultural and is a nice place to live, lots of parks and great food, music, and film. Come visit! I grew up here, and saw a need for younger voices to shape the future of the art scene as it seemed stagnant in many ways. It's a growing city and I see a lot of potential. Unfortunately rent is high here but there is a great community of artists and I feel like there is room to grow.
Casandra Casandra [Christian Julien Siroyt and Elsa Delage] (Cas): We met here. Christian is from a town a few hours southwest of Toronto, and he has roots in the city. Toronto is the biggest center for art in the province, and all of Canada, really. The city is strategically located and in dialogue with the scenes in Montréal and New York. Elsa moved here from France in 2016. She was attracted by the dynamism of the scene, and unlike most French expatriates in Canada, she opted for the exoticism of anglo-Canada. The community here is strong, supportive, and diverse. Over the past few years, a number of independent art spaces have closed, but even more have opened. We found this resilience encouraging.
Franz Kaka (FK): Weather-wise things could be better, but the winters here are actually considered mild compared to some other parts of Canada. Moving to the city was a two-step process for me. It began when I moved to Southern Ontario to go to grad school, and I started to make connections in the city through that experience. The community here was very open and welcoming and it seemed to be bigger than the opportunities that were available at the time. Aside from that, it’s Canada’s largest city and financial centre, so those two things basically present opportunities and challenges in equal measure.
Crutch (C): The Canadian landscape in general offers a few accessible avenues for non-profit contemporary art funding, and Toronto itself plays such an active part in the Canadian arts that it has it’s own Toronto-specific funding. Those are the logistics of why someone might be interested in starting up an art practice here, there’s three tiers of granting bodies that fund the arts, which you can access at every stage of your career. I personally moved to Toronto from Portland, OR, to pursue a graduate program in art criticism and curatorial practice at OCAD. To have an engaged curatorial practice I wanted to caretake a space and get into conversations with the artists whose work I found moving. After my MFA, I started another program researching curatorial studies at York University, working on a doctoral dissertation on the pedagogical value of contemporary art spaces as public infrastructure.
Egret Egress (EE): The question many people ask themselves daily. Why live in such an expensive city? How can you justify scraping by and overworking yourself in order to live in a city you don't have the time or energy to fully experience or invest yourself in? Because somehow it feels like the only possible place to live in the Canada... conditioned to believe in the system.. self flagellation of sorts. Not daring enough to open a space in Regina.
2. Maybe describe how the decision to start a space came about.
(S): Sibling is an evolution of an earlier gallery we had called Little Sister. Little Sister was originally born of a storefront window-space operated by Holden Kelly, but when the store closed, we [Holden, Jack Lambert, and myself, Kate Kolberg] opted to find a new space and build a branch off of that identity rather than start from scratch. Why we decided to undertake this project was rooted in a desire to engage, support, and extend a wide-ranging arts community we exist somewhere within, but in a more substantial frame. Little Sister was developed really just as a physical supplement to a curiosity of learning what people were working on (often in its early stages), while generating a space to encourage its continuation and maturity.
After two years in the garage, we found the new space that was to become Sibling, but at the same time Jack was also preparing to move to England. At this point we invited Becca Fleming to join us in the formation of the new endeavour -- thus the spaces are under similar, but different ownership. At Sibling, our drive for why we continue to do it remains relatively the same, with the addition of getting to show artists a little further into their careers.
(CC): It was kind out of necessity slash boredom. I liked art and started a gallery in my apartment showing my friends who were artists. It kind of just grew from there with the strong support of a local and international community.
(Cas): We both have backgrounds as curators and were working in galleries when we started to look for our own space. This was driven by a desire to collaborate and work together in something we both love. It's logical. We have mutual interests, but also distinctly individual inclinations, so it's exciting to combine them.
Art in Canada is often very Canadian... we want to show Canadian artists, but in dialogue with others from around the world. That's our focus.
(FK): After moving to the city I became involved with a space called G Gallery that was affiliated with the university I did my MFA at, but the opacity of its funding was a real frustration and this ultimately got in the way of the project ever extending beyond its immediate community. But, there was something about the exhibitions at G that felt really vital, so when it closed I started looking for exhibition spaces where I might be able to extend that gesture, but without the institutional headaches.
(C): I was inspired by spaces from my younger years, which I frequented in my teens. The one that comes to mind immediately was called Appendix, which operated out of a garage. It was endearingly informal, inviting, and their programming was inspiringly innovative, especially given the resources they were working with. I think looking back, more than anything, I wanted to offer to others what those spaces offered/meant to me as a teenager.
(EE): After spending time in other parts of the world with expansive networks of project spaces and community driven art events, we decided to do something small in the back of our garage studio space. The idea was to try to create a casual exhibition space that doesn't have to follow the conventions of consistent programming and can constantly evolve as we learn and change.
3. If you've been around more than a year or two, how have you seen the scene grow, change, shrink etc over the time you've been a part of it?
(S): We are now in our third year, and in the course of this time we’ve seen an influx of spaces opening. That said, it seems to happen in cycles in Toronto, before us there were spaces like Roberta Pelan and AC Repair Co that have since closed. In the time since we’ve been around we’ve watched Egret Egress, Cassandra Cassandra, Carl Louie, Mama, and Crutch open. I think there is a definite spirit in Toronto to independently manifest the culture you want to be part of, especially if you can’t find it elsewhere (people get restless), but it is also a very expensive city with limited affordable real estate and a slow art market to boot… Not that this is by any means our main consideration, however, it is just to say that these spaces can be difficult to maintain for a long time unless you are crafty.
(CC): I have operated a gallery in some capacity for just over 10 years now, Cooper Cole since 2012. I have noticed that the audience is becoming much more aware of the global contemporary art scene and it is (slowly) becoming a less regional, more diverse, and sophisticated conversation. There is still a limited collector base here but I think that is slowly changing too, its nice to see younger people financially supporting the arts in that way here.
(FK): It’s subtle, but I think Toronto has actually changed dramatically in the the past 5 or 6 years. A lot of that change has coincided with an increase in the ability to circulate images, so being outside a known centre is probably easier now than it might have been in the past. But there were also two pretty well-established commercial spaces that closed in 2015 & 2016, and I think that was a real shock to the established order here. This coincided with these really incredible galleries operating at the edges of that system. Spaces like Tomorrow (2011-13), 8-11 (2014-18), and Roberta Pelan (2016-17) were really significant in introducing new models that were more accessible in terms of opening a space. They were also great at connecting with communities outside of the city, which is something we’ve tried to prioritize at Franz Kaka as well.
(C): Crutch is ten months old, but before opening up Crutch, I was the co-founder and director of Bunker 2, another alternative contemporary art space in Toronto (which was founded in 2014.) Since then, a number of special spaces in Toronto have closed their doors. The resources required to maintain rigorous, flexible, artist-responsive, emotionally engaged programming, are not nothing. We’re trying to be generous with our time and efforts as directors, curators, artists, writers, etc, while trying to take care of ourselves as individuals with tangible needs. I think that negotiation is probably as old as time.
4. Are their challenges specific to starting and maintaining a project in Canada?
(S): I think I’ve accidentally already alluded to most of them throughout — lower population, high cost of transportation between cities, cold weather (hibernation months).
(CC): Lack of serious collectors is the main problem. Don't get me wrong there are some great collectors here but not in mass.
(Cas): It was not easy to find a space. Rental prices are high in Toronto, so you need to be inventive to make it work. Other Toronto galleries, Towards and Franz Kaka, have been operating under a shared-space model for a few years. By splitting rent and rotating their exhibition schedules, they found a way to exist comfortably, and successfully. We decided to do the same, partnering with the London, Ontario-based gallery Carl Louie, who relocated to Toronto.
As for maintaining the project, we've only run our inaugural show, so time will tell. The project is self-funded, so we're keeping costs low and doing as much as possible ourselves. International granting bodies, not just Canadian ones, have so far been very helpful too.
(FK): Each city in Canada has its own unique challenges, but as far as Toronto goes affordable real estate is a scarcity and it creates what can be an unsurmountable hurdle to starting or maintaining a space. The model that we’ve come up with, sharing our space with Towards gallery and alternating exhibitions each month, has made things manageable in a way that we’ve built some history, and the future looks promising going forward. One of the most heartening experiences related to running the gallery was seeing this same shared model adopted by Carl Louie and Cassandra Cassandra when they opened in the city. We have to be creative with how we find and use space here, but it also produces novel solutions.
(C:) I’ve worked in Lithuania, Germany, Belorussia, and the United States, as well as Canada, and I can’t help but compare my varied experiences when thinking about this question. In Canada, there is no clear break or divide between the commercial and the publicly subsidized. There’s a certain tension between paying for your contemporary art space out of pocket, while wanting to maintain a certain rigour in programming that does not lend itself well to commodification. This experience feels unique to the Canadian landscape because of the availability of grant funding on a project by project basis, and yet, because that funding is not guaranteed, spaces are run out of pocket. This is a dance that sometimes doesn’t feel graceful.
(EE): Toronto specifically is a difficult place to do almost anything involving paying rent. Canada has an interesting history with art and artists. A lot of artists leave the country if given the opportunity. Sometimes there are some artists who seem to be showing at every other gallery, the scene can feel small in that manner. There's a pressure to show non-Canadian work, which is counter intuitive for sure. I think think the market is quite small for a liberal capitalist country of this size.
5. Do you have any advice for prospective gallery owners?
(S): My advice would be to just do it, but with care and a good awareness of how much time it is really going to take from you. To work with a team, and preferably one you trust and are friends with. To consider the artists you are working with beyond the scope of their practice — as in, are they someone you like as a person and want to see do well, because if so then it’s always worth it. Also, I guess that it does get easier over time.
(CC): Settle up and buckle down, you are in for a wild ride. :)
(FK): I guess it depends what you want but, I would encourage someone interested to just find a way to open that won’t over-expose you financially, and figure it out as you go. Try to limit any unnecessary expenses and always be looking forward. We’ve made a lot of mistakes so far, some pretty expensive, but those are (hopefully) what keep us from making the same mistakes in the future.
(C): Not exactly advice but I am compelled to say one thing: contemporary art spaces are so special, people come to them with a generosity that borders on something mystical. Anything you envision and propose (as the programmer, curator) happens, it just is. Starting a contemporary art space is akin to world-building. Isn’t that reason alone? Don’t we need that now, just as much as ever?
(EE): Don't smoke weed at your own openings!
6. Did you start this with a long-term plan?
(S): No end game, just a desire to see a particular space / platform realized.
(CC): Haha, not really but now I'm in too deep. I hope that I have helped mark the Canadian and global art world in a way and I look forward to continuing to push Canadian artists abroad and introduce international artists to a local audience.
(Cas): It's a medium-term plan. We just opened, and are excited about our upcoming schedule. We've started collaborating with artists we love and will continue to do so. People have expressed a lot of excitement in response to our exhibition, and as long as the support continues to grow we'll devote time and energy to the project.
(FK): I wouldn’t say I had a long-term plan, but I had some clear goals that I wanted to actively pursue. It’s always been a priority to move the conversations happening in our community outside of Canada, and it took a little while, but are getting some opportunities to do so now. We started to do fairs outside of Canada and through that are meeting other, sympathetic galleries that we’re excited to collaborate with. It was great to bring HaeAhn Paul Kwon Kajander’s work to New York as a part of Gallery Galerie Galería at Jack Barrett, and we’ll be presenting Laurie Kang’s work through NADA House on Governors Island there as well. We also have projects upcoming in LA and in Europe this fall and winter that I am really looking forward to. With that, the goals and long-term plans are starting to reinvent themselves, but it’s all been very organic and intuitive in how that’s taking shape.
(EE): Of course not!