Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue

March 11, 2021 § Leave a comment

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu.

“Two Circles” by Micah Lexier, Two circles of identical size, identically positioned on either end of the lobby. One circle is solid black, the other a thin, black outline. Bay Adelaide Centre, Toronto. Photo by Tom Arban.

In the second interview in the series, Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue, Yan Wu, Public Art curator for the City of Markham, and art writer Rosemary Heather, talk with Perdue about her career, the changes she has seen over the years, what tools planners have for the provision of public art, what it’s like to work with private developers, and whether she has a favourite amongst the hundreds of Toronto’s public artworks.

Jane Perdue has worked as the City of Toronto’s Public Art Coordinator for the City Planning Division for almost three decades. As an independent consultant, Perdue developed a Public Art Policy Framework for the City of Markham (then Town of Markham) in 2003, predating the public art program that was formalized in 2013. Perdue has also worked with other municipalities in Ontario and Canada on developing public art policies and public art master plans.


RH: How long have you been in the field of public art and what are the major shifts you have seen over the years?

I was hired by the City of Toronto in 1991, so I’ve been with the City for almost 30 years full-time as City Planning’s Public Art Coordinator. I studied film history and art studies and after I graduated from York University my background in public art really started when I was hired at A Space, the artist run centre. I was hired by AA Bronson of General Idea at A Space. I had some idea about General Idea, but I did not realize that I had such a wonderful opportunity. I worked with them for four years. We did a number of satellite projects. Some of them were on the TTC. Ben Mark Holzberg created a project called Rolling Landscape, using Cibachrome in the ad space inside subway cars and also installations in the bus shelters. So that was really innovative, it was around 1980-81. A Space also sponsored a performance at Nathan Phillips Square, with Marina and Ulay, and that was a fabulous opportunity for me to help with that. It was a 24-hour performance of Marina Abramovic and Ulay staring at each other. Then I was appointed to the Public Art Commission in 1985 and was on the Commission for four years as a volunteer to help advise the City. I came to the City with a visual art and film background but I became an accredited planner about 12-13 years ago, because I realized how interesting planning was and I wanted to understand better how planning worked. For my first assignment, it was urgent, I had to help write a report for something that didn’t happen for another 25 years and I had trouble for a while understanding that but that was also a lesson realized: you plan for an idea and it may take a decade or two to actually be fulfilled. As far as changes, at the beginning we would be speaking with the architect with the developers and urban designers and so on and it was a very conservative approach and it was usually sometimes they are already had an artwork in mind that they thought would just be perfect for the site and they wanted to know where they could site the plinth. So it was really about an independent sculpture—and there is nothing wrong with that—but the change has been over the years is about looking at the various opportunities for how public art may play a role in defining a character or identity or terminus, or locating people to an area as a draw. The public art might be part of the community planning guidelines and the urban design guidelines objectives, so the understanding has expanded in that way.

RH: A lot of public art today is associated with condo development. Can you describe what public art looked like before there was so much development happening in the city?

When I started, it was a recession, so there wasn’t a lot going on. There were a lot of policies that were put in place. Our official plan came in, I think it was 1994, and before that we had hired a woman—Patricia Fuller—who is very well known in the States as a public art consultant. She helped us to do what we called City Plan 91, and we had a whole chapter on public art. We were very new at it as far as implementing policies and programs. Before I was hired, Ken Greenberg, who is very well known in Toronto, was running the Urban Design section and worked with a woman—Mary Lynn Reimer —and they looked at policies and programs in the United States, because those started in around 1960, 1959. We were looking at examples that might fit for Toronto. That’s why there was a public art commission in 1985. We didn’t have a lot of programming then but that was the beginning of it, looking at the processes and what would work. Since then, yes there’s been a lot of condominiums that have been built, but that’s the market. That’s not our policies, that’s what the market has offered. But we do have public art in offices and in other institutions for sure, and there’s a number of examples that are across the city and it’s not just in the downtown core. Development certainly is happening the most in that area, but also in North York, East York and the West District, former Etobicoke.


Aerial view of sculptor Richard Serra’s controversial piece “Tilted Arc”, prior to its removal, at Federal Plaza, New York, May 10, 1985. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images).

RH: You’ve been on the scene a long time, and you were working with American public art consultants. How did the controversy around Richard Serra’s public work Tilted Arc affect you?

I’m not sure it affected us but we heard about it and realized what it really came down to was moral rights and copyright. Who owns the sculpture and who can remove it? I mean, how appalling of this developer to actually remove the artwork. So rights of artists were very important to us, so we have that in our contracts with the developers. It’s a hard one to get your head around saying “Well, I own the art but I don’t own the idea.” We saw that as a landmark case. We also had our own controversy in Toronto, with Michael Snow and his geese sculpture in the Eaton Centre. The marketing people wanted to put little ribbons around the geese for Christmas, and then they were thinking about Easter, that might be fun. Michael took them to court and said “No, you can’t do that.” That was also lessons learned for all of us, about the importance of respecting an artwork. On the other hand, there are two Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man in Frankfurt and Seattle. It moves and, seasonally, it gets different hats. But Jonathan likes that. It’s playful and he supported it. But someone else might not think that’s a fun idea. People crawl up it and put a hat on it. And that’s public engagement. The Eaton Centre one was about marketing but this was not about public engagement.


YW: Part of the reason we commissioned this conversation is to look at different working models and how different the municipalities have public art programs and what we can learn from them. I’m very curious about the two streams of public art in the City of Toronto—one under Planning and one under Culture—and how they operate separately. What’s the difference? How do they interact with each other and facilitate each other?

Well, with the former City of Toronto—and this is going back before amalgamation—City Planning did all of it. City Planning commissioned capital projects, our own infrastructure projects—that’s when the public art program started—and then also the private developer program. This is when we had North York, East York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, Metropolitan Toronto. There were several different layers of governments and agencies. Metro Toronto had its own agency, and the other boroughs were beginning to have their own public art policies. With amalgamation, almost 20 years ago, the roles and responsibilities were divided up, because the City just became so big for one department to be able to manage or handle all of that. It wasn’t possible. So, the culture division is responsible for the art that is on City-owned lands. Planning is responsible for overseeing the private developer program. But from that, culture gets a lot of money from the developers. The developers have three options. One is to commission public art on site on their own property in the public realm, or they can donate the funds to the City and that would then go to the culture division. Culture is not going to commission on the developer’s property. They’re going to find a park or a public area in the vicinity of the development—ideally—and then commission the artwork. If it’s not a big enough sum, they will collect the money until there’s enough there to commission a work of art. Then the third option is a combination of the two. There might be some money that would go to the City and then some that would remain on-site. The culture division runs competitions. They are open, they are transparent, they usually happen in two stages, and they do a public call. With the install, the City oversees this, and hires consultants to help them, because it’s not a large department. City Planning oversees the method within which the developer will commission public art: what kind of competition they have, where will the art be, who is on the jury, who is making decisions, who are the artists, and so on. It’s a paper trail, in a way. They put together a public art plan. It comes to a group called the Toronto Public Art Commission, chaired by David Anselmi, which is a group of volunteers who advise the Council, and they also advise City Planning. When the plan is approved, we report it to the Council, and then they go ahead with the actual commissioning of the work. So there’s two different streams, but we work together very closely, and while the Culture division is responsible for works on capital infrastructure, they don’t always get it. It’s not always applied consistently. They actually get a lot of money through City Planning, that goes directly from the private sector. A significant amount is generated from the private sector that comes to the City.


YW: In that case, if it’s option one and the developer decides to run their own plan, on their own site, and the developer keeps ownership of the work, do they have the option to do direct commissions? In the context of municipalities, commissioning methods are limited by procurement policy or purchasing by-laws. Because of budget size, this usually requires a competitive procurement process, which makes directly working with certain artists not an option—either through direct commissions or curated projects, even though we know their work will work well in the context of the site.

Exactly. You have to be accountable. Everybody does. It doesn’t matter what kind of competition. At the end of the day everybody has to be able to say, “This is how it happened.”


YW: Even with a private developer, do they have to do this?

They don’t have to do it. But they bring forward a public art plan to the City. We review it. It goes to the Commission. We report on it to the Council, and if there’s changes, they will let us know. But the changes might be because an artist that they want to work with isn’t available. Or maybe a jury member isn’t available. But do they have to explain how they do it? Perhaps not, but they might want to. They might have a brochure or they have a plaque. And that’s for the public to enjoy as well. That’s such an important aspect of this as well. That’s really how it works. There’s a lot of accountability. Not to get too much into the bureaucracy, but let’s say they had committed a million dollars, they actually provide financial receipts. They let us know how the money was spent. We have a chart specifying how much you can spend on maintenance, on administration and how much should be held for the actual artwork. That’s what we’re interested in knowing and making sure that it’s there, that it’s not being used up by changing drawings or architecture—all of that. The other aspect you asked me about was: what kind of competition? We encourage the developers to have a competition. They could have a direct commission, and they have. Sometimes it’s worked. We just warned them, I guess you could say: “You know what that means? You’re working with one artist and what happens if it doesn’t work out? You need to have a memorandum of understanding. You need to work with the artists. Have legal agreements, that if you need to say, we can’t do this together, you can get there. I won’t name the artist, but there was a case—probably now about 10 years ago—where the artist sued the developer because the developer did not go ahead with that particular commission and commissioned another artist. And we had to be all involved in that. So they do have the option to do a direct commission, but for the most part it’s a limited competition and it’s probably five or six artists that they’re interested in. Some developers will do an open call, which is great. But you usually know which artists might apply. Or they could encourage artists to apply. So they’ll have a two stage or maybe three stage process: an open call to see what’s out there, just send in your credentials to get a short list together, and then invite those artists to produce proposals and be paid for it. That’s the other part of it that we look at with the developers, of course, how much are the artists getting, what are the fees? It’s very important to oversee that. We help the developer spend their money, in the right way.


YW: On this type of project, does the developer usually hire a third party to run the competition, or run the project as a whole for them?

Always. They will always hire a consultant. We have had a couple developers in the past who are art collectors—and again I won’t say who—but very prominent collectors, who say “I can run this competition”. And within a few days we get a phone call back asking “Who is it that we could hire”? Because it’s a lot of work. It’s administration, it’s understanding what artists are out there, understanding the implications of a contract for an artist—all of those things that happen behind-the-scenes that aren’t as much fun and interesting, but are obviously key to the success of the program. So that’s why we have in our chart a limit on how much a developer could spend on a consultant and running the competitions. If they don’t hire an art consultant, we know that the staff at the City are going to be doing a lot of work, and that’s not our role.


YW: Does the developer have the option to let the City run the project?

No. In the agreements with them, we outline what our expectations are. This includes administration, running competition, etc. Frankly, if a developer asked us to run their competition, we would say “No, we can’t do that. We don’t have the staff or the resources, and why would we be running a competition for something that then would be not on our land? That’s not part of our mandate.” Another city might say “We can help you.” And certainly, I’m not suggesting that they write a public art plan and we report to Council and hear back in three years. Not at all. It’s almost on a daily, weekly, monthly basis that we are hearing from the art consultants. If they run into problems and challenges and updates, we’re there to help them, for sure, but not to run the program.

RH: I had a conversation with the public art consultant Brad Golden and he was talking about how the competition in the market ramped up and that’s why the architecture in the city got more ambitious, let’s say, because there was so much building and they needed to differentiate themselves. That brings up the question: do the developers see that public art as a necessary evil or do they like it? Would they see it as a way to differentiate themselves in the market?

Yes, they do. And if they see it as a necessary evil, they won’t be doing it. Remember, this is an option for them. It’s voluntary until they agree to do it. It’s about density bonusing. It’s about allowing the City to be in a position to secure public benefits, and public art is one of them. It may not be on all projects that are eligible. It’s the developers option. If they want to enter into the field of public art and commission public art, they will say that. If they don’t want to, if they think it’s a necessary evil, as you put it, they’re not going to do it. And frankly, I don’t think it would be much fun for staff either. If they come in and say “we were told we had to do this, how do we get it over with, how do we do it, and so on”. Actually, sometimes it turns around and it’s more positive but for the most part, if they don’t want to do it, they won’t. But if we’ve secured a public art commitment initially, it could be different owners by then. So they may just decide to go for option two and just give the money to the City, and that’s a contribution as well. And I think when you say that some of the buildings, because of the market, are more interesting, and they’re more innovative and creative, absolutely. And so are the architects, and the urban designers and the planners for that project. A lot of them see public art as a real benefit, because it can add that character and signal that this building, this development, is different. Come stay here, come live here, come buy. Rent an office here, or whatever. I think public art not just in Toronto but in the Western world and much further has really taken this on. And it’s not new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. What public art is, with a plaza and so on. But it has evolved and I think that some developers are more open to it because they see the benefits they see how it has the potential to improve their development. They also get awards, they get acknowledged. There’s been a number of awards recently. Concord Adex got the Arts and Business award from the Toronto Arts Foundation at the Mayor’s lunch just a few weeks ago, which is fantastic. And that’s for all the public that they’ve done in the city. The Toronto Urban Design Awards for Micah Lexier at the Adelaide Centre won the top award, this is two years ago. So that gets their attention as well.


YW: How has Section 37, which allows the developer to add community benefits in exchange for increased density, played a role in the public art program?

Section 37 is part of the planning act and it has formalized the public art program. Whereas, before it came into play—and I think we’re talking probably about 15 years ago or so, in the planning act they included Section 37—and they allowed municipalities to secure public benefits as a trade-off to density and bonuses, so really formalizing that kind of engagement. Public art is mentioned, but it could be many public benefits. And it’s for municipalities to choose to use Section 37. A lot of municipalities don’t use it. They never have and that’s their choice. Before that, we had different kinds of agreements. Basically, they were called collateral agreements, formalizing a commitment from a developer to commission public art. Over the years, these agreements have become more fulsome. The public art provisions are pretty tight. We have a template that we provide to the lawyers and then the lawyers go back and forth and have a look at it and so on. So it’s a tool that we use. It’s not the only tool. We have Urban Design guidelines. We have public realm guidelines. We have secondary plans. We have tertiary plans. We have all kinds of different documents that help to engage, or help to forecast that there’s a potential for public art. And I I think in my introduction here I did mention but, I’m a planner as well as coming to the field with my background in the visual arts and film, because I find it so interesting. So I’m an accredited planner. I’m a combination of the two, which is fantastic, in that it helps me when I’m in conversation with other developers and planners. Because I understand that public art isn’t the first thing that they think about. It’s the first thing I think about. But it’s about trying to find that balance. How they would benefit. If public art can play that role, it’s fantastic.


RH: When I looked at the City’s map of public artworks, which is great, there are many little art works, but does Toronto need some kind of big huge iconic work, like the CN tower? Something that really brands the city, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago?

When you say there’s lots of little works, I mean, there are hundreds of works and some of them are little but I think a lot of them are very large, and really have impact. That map represents what Culture did and what the private developers have done and there are probably about 400 works on that map. It goes right back to the 1850s when donations came to the city and most of those are monuments and memorials and pretty traditional works. Something like Cloud Gate could be fantastic but I did hear Ken Lum’s keynote speech, and he wasn’t being critical of Cloud Gate, but he talked about the attention and how much money it takes to actually maintain that artwork, a million dollars a year, but that remember that Cloud Gate it started with a smaller budget and then it went up and up to about $25 million, and it’s fantastic. It’s a great tourism draw. I went to Millennium Park. because I want to see that and the Plensa that’s what you go to, but Chicago also has fantastic art everywhere else in the city, and architecture too. That’s a city that understands what private can do to improve the public realm. And that’s what Millennium Park is. I’m open to it. If there’s an idea for an iconic work of art. Where it would be, I don’t know. Who it would be by, I don’t know. But if we could ask the private sector to contribute to amassing monies to do this, I think that would be great. But if that means that’s all we’re going to get, then I think that might be a problem. I think you have to have a balance. In planning, if there’s an initiative—like the John Street Corridor or the Bloor Street streetscape—if there is an initiative that we say “This is real. We want to dedicate public art dollars to it” then that’s what we’ll do. And we’ll secure that from the private sector. It comes to the City. It’s held until there is the opportunity to actually do it.


YW: So about half of the works on the map are owned by the private sector?

Yes, and the City is working on expanding that inventory to incorporate existing public art websites from City Planning, Culture, and Transportation, and launching it with the Year of Public Art. This includes all of the street art programs. There are dozens and dozens of murals. That’s under Transportation, which is another really interesting program that the City does. That came about because of the graffiti that was happening. Because of the street art that wasn’t considered art—it was tagging and vandalizing private buildings. And there was an initiative to put together a committee that looked at the so-called graffiti art and an owner would come forward to the City and say, “I like it. I commissioned it. People want it,” and so it would remain. Otherwise, they were being told to remove it by the bylaw officers, by municipal licensing, and if they didn’t remove it, there would be a charge. So they would then sometimes resist and say “I like it.” We haven’t met for a long time, but I’m actually on that group that helped to evaluate whether it was art or not, which was a problem too, because that’s not for me to do, so we would say “Get some support from your neighbour or your local business association. Write a letter and tell them. That started because of all of the tagging. How can we clean up the street—maybe? And out of that came the StreetARToronto (StART) program, approaching some of these artists and saying “Do you want to do this officially, or not?” If you don’t want to do it officially then we won’t work with you. But do you want us to work with you and commission works that you can have that might be on a more permanent basis. We can pay you to do that. We can find walls and areas and you can work with the community and actually install these artworks. And that’s how that program started. That’s going back about a decade and it’s just fantastic—what’s been done and how it enlivens the city.


YW: One last question, you can choose not to answer. You have all these hundreds of works and commissions realized through you, what’s your favourite piece?

No. I can’t do that. I remember somebody else was asked that once and said it’s like asking me who’s your favourite child? We have so many backstories on projects that they might be more about how we got there to have something that’s magnificent, but I don’t think I can do that. When I do slide presentations, I do select ones that are probably the most prominent and maybe the most sophisticated in their presentation. That for me is then congratulating and celebrating whoever commissioned it and the artist, of course, but I do like the ones that people maybe don’t know about and maybe discover. There’s a lot of artworks in the City of Toronto that people don’t even know exists. Maybe you know, we have a sculpture installation by Evan Penny right at Bay and Wellington, right in the downtown core there’s an installation there that he did over 20, 25 year ago, and it’s fabulous. And then there are the big scale ones, like the James Turrell, it’s so fantastic to have one in Toronto. I remember the art consultant was saying that the construction crew were saying “What is this? It’s just light and colour. That’s not art.” It’s really more of not a trick but it’s just something that’s a little more subtle in some ways that I enjoy. But they’re all my children. They’re all my favourites.


Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu on October 21, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field. 

Why Toronto is trying to evict an arts organization on Queen West

March 10, 2020 § Leave a comment

The fate of the Toronto Media Arts Centre on Lisgar hangs in the balance as a civil dispute with the city drags on

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER MARCH 9, 2020

Just John and Dom Dias perform at TMAC for the opening of an art exhibition by Jordan Sook in June 2019. Photo: Jennie Robinson Faber

A years-long dispute between the city and a Queen West arts space could soon find a resolution.

Since 2015, the artist-run Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC) has been in a fight over its occupancy of a building on Lisgar south of Queen West. The 30,000-square-foot facility is home to four non-profit art organizations focused on media arts: Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) and Charles Street Video – early partners in the project – and video game arts organizations, Dames Making Games and Gamma Space.

TMAC wants legal title to the space. Without it, the organization can’t make full use of the location, which is staffed by volunteers. TMAC members were closely involved in the design of the facility – the build was financed through the city’s Section 37 provision, which allows developers to add density or height to a building in exchange for community benefits – and in 2015 the organization signed an agreement of purchase and sale.

However, within a year, city hall moved to cancel the agreement, citing a lack of confidence in TMAC management, in part due to infighting between the various organizations. (At the time, there were different organizations under the TMAC umbrella.)

In response, TMAC sued the city, and the parties agreed in 2018 that TMAC could take occupancy provided the organization met certain fundraising targets. Whether TMAC succeeded in meeting these targets is being challenged by the city, which asked TMAC to vacate the premises last March.

“It is the city’s position that statements on TMAC’s website regarding the funds it raised do not satisfy the clear targets it agreed to,” Pat Tobin, Toronto’s director of arts and culture services, wrote in a statement to NOW, adding that the organization has failed to demonstrate that it has “the financial capacity to successfully fit up, own and operate the facility over the long-term.”

In response to the city’s demand that TMAC leave the building, TMAC filed a motion against the city in June.

At stake is the future of the purpose-built space, home to a community of artists and makers. TMAC estimates more than 60,000 people have attended workshops and events at the centre since April 2018.

Complicating the situation is the building’s developer, Urbancorp, filing for bankruptcy in 2016, leaving the building unfinished and not up to code. Concrete floors are unpolished and accessibility considerations were never provided. TMAC’s 200-seat cinema space is half-finished, though potentially functional.

“Under the terms of our agreement with the bankruptcy trustee, TMAC can’t use the cinema,” says Lauren Howes, executive director of the CFMDC. “We know we are getting a space loaded with deficiencies, but the benefit TMAC brings to the community is clear.”

The idea to create a hub on West Queen West devoted to film, video, photography and interactive web art dates back to 1994 when a feasibility study for the project was commissioned by six Toronto non-profit arts organizations.

As originally envisioned, it would bring together production, exhibition and distribution services for media-based artists and create a home for a broad cross-section of creators, as well as enabling cost savings for the tenant organizations. Ownership would, in the words of the study, “anticipate the future needs of the organizations.” Today, the phrase reads like a grim foreshadowing of the ongoing fight for arts organizations to find – and hold on to – affordable real estate in 2020.

In late February, the two parties underwent a cross-examination. In civil disputes, judicial mediation provides a non-binding opinion on evidence given by the opposing parties. The finding can then be used as a basis upon which to negotiate a settlement, avoiding the expense of a trial.

Henry Faber, founder of Gamma Space, a co-working space for game and interactive media makers and president of the TMAC board, spoke on behalf of TMAC at the cross-examination.

“We maybe saw a glimmer of hope,” Faber told NOW. “My cross-examination took four hours. But I was asked no questions about TMAC’s ability to deliver benefit to the community.” Who benefits from TMAC’s existence is at the core of the organization’s appeal to the arts community for support in the dispute.

“I spent all day being grilled about the viability of TMAC and then came back to a vibrant event at the space,” Faber said, referring to an all-day symposium about the future of arts management in Toronto. It is one of more than 450 events TMAC has hosted since 2018.

Howes told NOW that TMAC has received over 250 detailed letters of support.

“These are impassioned letters. TMAC is a meaningful organization within the community,” she says. “What we have provided to the community is well beyond what even we envisioned,” she adds.

The city remains unconvinced.

In March 2019, TMAC announced it had secured over $2.5 million in sponsorship. Partners include the gaming giant Ubisoft, and local internet provider Beanfield Metroconnect.

But, according to the city, TMAC agreed in writing to abide by a decision made by an independent adjudicator about whether the more than $2.5 million in fundraising partnerships fulfill agreed-upon targets.

“The city has made repeated efforts to support TMAC in its fundraising efforts, including reducing the financial targets over time, providing extensions to deadlines and consenting to the monitor granting TMAC interim occupancy over part of the space,” says Tobin. “Despite these efforts, the city’s position remains that TMAC has still not raised the funds in the manner it agreed to in the minutes of settlement.

“For almost a year, the city has repeatedly asked TMAC to participate in this independent adjudication process on the basis it agreed to in these minutes of settlement,” he adds. “But TMAC has declined.”

TMAC disputes this assertion.

“We followed the steps outlined by the city [in the adjudication process], but the city instructed the adjudicator to disregard our fundraising, then halted the process entirely,” a spokesperson for TMAC said in a statement. “We filed our motion in June precisely because of the city’s interference with the independent adjudication process. We’ve heard nothing further… about proceeding with the review as agreed.”

Transcripts from last week’s cross-examination will be reviewed by a judicial mediator on April 15.

@rosemheather

The AGYU is opening a major new art gallery in North York

January 13, 2020 § Leave a comment

Still in the early planning stages, the $8 million standalone gallery will be located steps from the York University subway station

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 12, 2020

R.I.S.E., AGYU, Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca,
The agYU commissioned Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca’s 2018 video RISE, which was shot in the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension. Courtesy of Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

The Art Gallery of York University (agYU) wants to make North York a destination for art lovers.

Thanks to a $5-million donation from patrons Joan and Martin Goldfarb, York University is planning to build a standalone new home for its contemporary art gallery.

Still in early planning stages – the search for an architect has yet to begin – the new agYU location will be adjacent to the current gallery in York’s East Accolade building, just steps away from the York University subway stop. 

“The new gallery gives the agYU an opportunity to expand its art collection,” explains agYU director Jenifer Papararo, adding the school is pitching in $3 million toward the building. “The current collection is limited mostly due to limits in storage.”

Papararo, a Torontonian who recently returned to the city to lead the agYU after stints running galleries in Vancouver and Winnipeg, will head up the project. She hopes the new building will be open in two years.

It’s not confirmed yet whether agYU will continue to occupy the current gallery after the new one opens, she says. Details around the new location also have to be worked out. 

“Decisions have not been made yet about how the building sits in this location,” says Papararo.

“The gallery’s location on the subway [line] is huge,” says Toronto-based museum planner and consultant Gail Lord. “And the accessibility of North York to the rest of the province is very important.”

Lord sees the initiative as contributing to an ongoing democratization of the arts across the city. Recent developments include the city’s new public art strategy, which will get a big push in 2021, and annual art event Nuit Blanche’s forays into Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York.

She notes the new gallery will join the Ontario Science Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and the Meridian Arts Centre as North York venues with an arts focus.

“The data tells us the more art presented, the bigger the arts audiences,” she adds.

York University TTC subway station
A standalone art gallery at York University subway station would make the area more of a destination. Photo: Samuel Engelking

Before the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension opened in 2017, getting to York University was an arduous journey for students and gallery goers reliant on public transit.

The new subway stop meant the commons space situated just beyond the entrance has become more animated. An art gallery would only make it more of a destination.

“The new building could break out into this space,” Papararo says. “It has the potential to be a focal point of the campus.”

How might the new gallery fit in with the York’s large, brutalist concrete structures, which were built in the 1960s?

Newer buildings tend to stand out as experiments in new architectural styles, a sometimes risky gamble. The Bergeron Centre, home of the Lassonde School of Engineering, is one such example on the York campus, with its modish curves and showy glass facade. When asked if there’s an opportunity for the school to build an iconic architecture, Papararo’s response was measured.

“The architect’s vision shouldn’t fight the use,” she says.

It’s a consideration that has special relevance to an art gallery. The building should not overwhelm visitors’ ability to experience artwork. “It’s important to picture the body in front of the artwork,” Papararo says, “and the building should also be situating the viewer within the experience.”

Getting bodies in front of artwork is a challenge all galleries face.

Papararo’s predecessor was writer/curator Philip Monk, who helmed the agYU for 14 years. Along with senior curator Emelie Chhangur, he made community outreach an integral part of programming – not just token gestures toward inclusivity.

Under Chhangur, the agYU commissioned a short film by artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca and Scarborough collective R.I.S.E. that was shot in the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension. It screened at the Toronto Biennial of Art last fall and is currently exhibiting at the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.

The agYU’s current programming includes a collaboration with R.I.S.E. Edutainment, which kicked off with a series of arts-based workshops for youth at the Malvern public library. They will take place through June.

The agYU opened in 1988 and moved into its current 3,000-square-foot space in 2006. The gallery served as commissioner for Rodney Graham’s celebrated 1997 Venice Biennial and has had a strong publishing program. Especially under Monk, the agYU has focused on exhibitions that  document the history of the Toronto art scene. Major shows have included The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic, and DONKY@NINJA@WITCH by FASTWÜÜRMS.

The university’s Keele campus is also home to a Centre For Fine Arts, established through a donation from the Goldfarbs in 2001.

@rosemheather

Nine art exhibitions to be excited about in 2020

January 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

Look out for shows by Laurie Anderson, Michael Snow, Wendy Coburn, Tau Lewis and Nuit Blanche’s move into Etobicoke and North York

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 2, 2020

Art, OCAD, Wendy Coburn, Toronto, Slut Walk
Wendy Coburn’s UHAUL Suite, a giclee-print photograph from 2012. Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn/Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto

It’s fitting that a Michael Snow survey exhibition kicks off Toronto’s 2020 art season. The influential Toronto-born multimedia artist’s practice has been a baseline for contemporary art in the city for an incredible 70 years. A marvel of productivity – and longevity – Snow deserves much of the credit for the sheer eclecticism of formats and styles that comprise contemporary art today.

As artists like Snow made increasingly experimental and challenging work, the venues where art is shown also expanded. All-night art event Nuit Blanche, which will take place in North York and Etobicoke for the first time this year, is possible because artists have an ability to consider any venue as suitable for showing work. The annual event is part of a wider push to grow art audiences in the city, which includes a major emphasis on public art in 2021. In the meantime, Torontonians have plenty of mind-expanding options in the coming year. Here are our most-anticipated shows.

Laurie Anderson: To The Moon

Royal Ontario Museum, January 11-25

Like Snow, American avant-garde artist and composer Anderson is another influential name with a long track record of experimentation, to great success, across a range of art forms. This winter, she’s exhibiting a VR artwork made in collaboration with Taiwan’s Hsin-Chien Huang. The 15-minute experience is an immersive trip into outer space, and through the DNA of dinosaurs. Anderson is also performing a sold-out show at Koerner Hall, giving a lecture and screening her film Heart Of A Dog at Hot Docs Cinema during her visit to Toronto.

rom.on.ca

Listening To Snow: Works By Michael Snow

Art Museum, University of Toronto, January 18-March 21

The sheer scope of 91-year-old Snow’s practice allows galleries to experiment with the presentation of his work like this exhibition, which focuses on the artist’s use of sound. Sound installations, two recordings and a film will create a sonic experience within the space of the gallery. U of T’s Innis Hall will also screen three of Snow’s most celebrated films, including his landmark 1967 short, Wavelength. Snow will also give a solo piano performance in the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on March 21.

artmuseum.utoronto.ca

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa: Asymmetries

The Power Plant, January 25-May 10

Absurdist and mordant humour, often about the civil war his family fled when he was a child, infuses the work of this Guatemalan-Canadian artist. Something of a superstar internationally, this is his first major exhibition in Toronto. It will mostly include works from the past decade, as well as a newly commissioned work based on the cacaxte, a ladder-like tool used in Latin America for carrying objects on one’s back.

thepowerplant.org

Tau Lewis

Oakville Galleries, January 26-March 22

Currently on a tear through the international art world, Toronto-based Lewis is a self-taught prodigy. With a focus on “telling stories about Black identity,” Lewis creates gallery installations in which multiple figures and their accompanying landscapes and backdrops are sculpted from found textiles and other materials.

oakvillegalleries.com

Krista Belle Stewart’s 2019 installation Truth To Material.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist/Sean Fenzl

Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart

Museum of Contemporary Art, May 1-June 2

Part of Contact Photo Fest, this show presents the two artists’ work in dialogue. Kurdish-Turkish artist Bucak shows photos from an ongoing series, still lifes of found objects taken from border landscapes (including Syria-Turkey and U.S.-Mexico). Stewart, a member of the Syilx First Nation and now based in Berlin, presents work about the artist’s investigation into “Indianers” – the notorious German hobbyists who enact a fantasy of Indigeneity each summer.

museumofcontemporaryart.ca

Fable For Tomorrow: A Survey Of Works By Wendy Coburn

OCAD Onsite Gallery, May 13-October 3

This is a posthumous exhibition of work by the much-loved influential artist and OCAD University professor, who died in 2015. For those introduced to her work through the mind-blowing investigative video Slut Nation: Anatomy Of A Protest – documenting the world’s first SlutWalk protest in 2011 – this survey will provide an excellent chance for Toronto audiences to better understand Coburn’s wide-ranging art practice and activism.

ocadu.ca

Vector Festival

InterAccess and other venues, July 16-19

This festival, which showcases art about digital technology, takes place online and at venues across the city. For the eighth edition, the festival asks what happens after the gamification of everyday life – how do artists respond to tech’s ability to engineer our behaviour? The deadline for art and curatorial proposals responding to this theme is February 1.

vectorfestival.org

Nuit Blanche

Various venues, October 3

The annual all-night art event keeps getting bigger. Judging by the crowd sizes, its expansion to Scarborough (starting in 2018) has been a huge success. Next up: moves into North York and Etobicoke. The event has also appointed Dr. Julie Nagam as artistic director for the next two years. Nagam is planning a city-wide exhibition focused on Toronto’s ravines and waterways. By connecting exhibits via the city’s historical trade routes, visitors will enjoy an entirely different experience of the city.

toronto.ca

Kristiina Lahde: Follow A Curved Line To Completion And You Make A Circle

MKG127, November 21-December 19

A coolly inventive artist, Toronto’s Lahde makes delicate, geometric artworks using everyday items like wooden rulers, envelopes or paper clips. Her upcoming exhibition promises more of her precise minimalistic abstractions, with a focus on circular sculptural works, including circles discovered in found items and the “zeros clipped from advertising flyers.”

mkg127.com

@rosemheather

Look closer at the Toronto Man sculpture on St. Clair West

December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s polarizing public art work bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s globalized reality on its sturdy shoulders

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 17, 2019

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the city’s newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.

Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptor’s first commission in North America.

NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.

Where to find it

Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents “a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” It’s a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.

Why it stands out

Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, it’s not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture “big, but not too big.

“The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture,” he said. “It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.”

The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhol’s practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artist’s contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the technique’s medieval origins.

The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhol’s work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has “a Soviet messianic look in his eye.” Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.

But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Man’s feet are as important as the building he is holding.

Who exactly is Toronto Man? “This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody – he could be you,” says Balkenhol. “This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.”  

The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhol’s work suggests a more playful invitation.

That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.

“I don’t want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures,” he says. “I do make proposals but don’t tell a story myself up to the end.”

Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldn’t decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers’ hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the “sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some ‘luxury condos,’” he asks, while conceding “there’s also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.”

Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: “It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this ‘openness.’”

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

The bigger picture

In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.

The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.

More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.

Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.

@rosemheather

Toronto wants to make the year 2021 all about public art

December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

The city is revamping its public art strategy for the first time in 30 years, but Doug Ford’s developer-friendly Bill 108 is causing uncertainty

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 4, 2019

After a move to Scarborough, city-run art event Nuit Blanche will expand to North York and Etobicoke in 2020. Photo: Samuel Engelking.

Toronto has declared 2021 “the Year of Public Art,” but new legislation proposed by Doug Ford is already causing uncertainty.

Mayor John Tory announced the city will update its public art strategy for the first time in around 30 years.

“We want to grow Toronto’s reputation as a creative city,” he said during a press conference on November 18, adding that the inspiration for the 10-year strategy – which delivers on one of his 2018 campaign promises – was a 2017 study led by OCAD University president Sara Diamond and University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Daniel Silver.

“This is a rare example of academic recommendations being put into action,” said Diamond, an advisor on the new strategy, at the press conference.

The 2017 study called for an update to the city’s existing public art policy, which was drafted in the 1980s. The program’s costs will be determined through the city’s 2020 budget process, and the proposed strategy will be considered by the city’s Executive Committee on December 11.

Tory noted that since 2017 the city has delivered on its goal of investing $25 per capita in the arts.

The public art strategy took the OCAD study as its starting point and added to that an extensive process of city-led consultation with the arts community, stakeholder groups and an advisory committee.

According to the proposed strategy, the city will coordinate an overall vision for Toronto’s public art offerings and ensure art is evenly spread out across the city. The idea is to create more landmarks, like the dog fountain at Berczy Park, that can foster stronger neighborhood identities and a deeper sense of belonging.

Another recommendation is better integration between public art and city planning, including coordination of how pieces might work together in dialogue with one another. The study also advises the city to broaden its definition of public art to include temporary works – basically, public art pop-ups that might include performances or screen-based works.

At the press conference, the mayor talked about Toronto Man, the controversial sculpture on St. Clair West by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. “I felt joy to see the debate that this work has inspired,” he said.

He added that art plays a role in branding a city’s identity. “I visited Austin,” he said, “to try and understand how that city got its reputation as a creative hub.”

Fostering Toronto’s reputation as a similar hub is a goal that lies behind the new strategy.

However, incoming provincial legislation from Doug Ford’s arts-averse conservative government could complicate the strategy.

Late last year, the Tories cut the Ontario Arts Council budget cut by $5 million, and chopped more than $2 million from the Indigenous Culture Fund, effectively eliminating it.

Now the premier’s developer-friendly Bill 108 jeopardizes Toronto’s ability to obtain benefits such as public art from developers.

To date, “developers are responsible for over 300 public art projects getting built,” councillor Gary Crawford, one of the leads on the Year of Public Art’s advisory committee, noted during the press conference.

The city runs three public art programs, including the Percent for Public Art Program, which mandates that one per cent of a new development’s cost is budgeted for public art initiatives. New commissions are funded by developers on a per-project basis and administered by the city.

Bill 108 puts the future of the program in doubt.

The Percent for Public Art Program dates back to the mid 80s, but the last 15 years saw the majority of new projects built thanks to the explosion of condo developments. Though the rate of new condos developments is slowing, the first quarter of 2019 saw 242 condominium projects constructed, an all-time high for the city, according to Urban Toronto.

“The province has replaced development-related revenue and benefit tools with the community benefits charge,” a city spokesperson told NOW. “The impact on the city’s Percent for Public Art Program is unknown.”

However, others see less reliance on developers for public art funding as a good thing.

“If [Bill108] helps to uncouple public art from condo development, this would be a positive effect,” says Rebecca Carbin, a public art consultant who advised on the city’s strategy. “One goal of the strategy was to look at other sources of funding. Currently the city’s dependence on developers creates public art deserts.”

Ensuring that public art is evenly spread out across the city is one of the strategy’s goals. Carbin notes the majority of new major public art commissions are concentrated in the core. The suburbs are home to many street mural projects, but the exact number of these and other works is a question that will be answered by a newly announced public directory of projects.

But public art is more than sculptures and murals. “One-hundred-year monuments and one-night events” are also considered public art, says Carbin.

At the press conference, the mayor made clear his commitment to the latter format, announcing that annual all-night art event Nuit Blanche will expand to Etobicoke and North York in 2020. The previously downtown-centric initiative branched out to Scarborough over the last two years.

The Year of Public Art will also be supported by new funding opportunities for artists, administered through the Toronto Arts Council (TAC). There will be grants of up to $20,000 for Nuit Blanche projects and up to $50,000 for Year of Public Art projects.

Given that Percent for Public Art Program budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the TAC grants will cover only a portion of an ambitious art project. As such, major art institutions like the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Power Plant will partner to help raise funding.

While new money to make art is always welcome, how artists will  continue to afford to live in the city was not discussed at the mayor’s press conference.

Giving funds to public art initiatives is an easy concession developers can make. This allows them to expand the terms of a building project in the face of opposition. Working with artists helps to burnish their image, and Toronto condos are increasingly home to some impressively ambitious projects like Balkenhol’s sculpture or Israeli artist Ron Arad’s monumental work at Yonge and Bloor, Safe Hands.

But many people who make art may not be able to afford a unit in these buildings. A November 2019 report says that the average rent in Toronto is now $2,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. As a next step, Mayor Tory could declare 2020 as the Year of Affordable Housing.

@rosemheather

The best Toronto art shows in fall 2019

September 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

Including the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art, Hito Steyerl at the AGO, Hajra Waheed at the Power Plant, Nuit Blanche and more

BY SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

An Embassy of Imagination and PA System’s Sinaaqpagiaqtuut/The Long-Cut procession began in Cape Dorset, Nunavut and continues at the Toronto Biennial of Art. Photo: Alexa Hatanaka

The upcoming art season is packed with interesting shows, but the biggest hype is around the newly hatched Toronto Biennial of Art, launching at multiple locations on September 21.

A staple in cities internationally (there are over 300 biennials globally), Toronto is a latecomer to the format of a large-scale international art show presented every other year. The curatorial team is led by Candice Hopkins, who was one of the curators for the Canadian effort at this year’s Venice Biennial, the granddaddy of the format (founded in 1895).

Complementing the Biennial is the 14th edition of Nuit Blanche. The always popular all-night event encompasses City Hall, Don Mills and Scarborough’s Civic and Town Centres (added last year), while offering an expanded program at Fort York that extends to the edge of Liberty Village.

Crowds who frequent Nuit Blanche will know what to do at the Biennial: venture out into the city to see it anew as it gets reframed and repurposed by artists’ works. Here is a list of our most-anticipated exhibitions for further art-going in the coming months.

Deanna Bowen, God Of Gods: A Canadian Play
At Art Museum at the University of Toronto (7 Hart House)
September 4-November 30

Black Canadian artist Bowen is renowned for using archival research to tell stories left out of official histories. For Hart House’s centennial celebrations, she reimagines Carroll Aikins’s play, originally staged there in 1922, which used Indigenous motifs to look at the horrors of war. Bowen has created a film that examines Aikins’s work through dialogue with Indigenous writers and artists.

Jay Isaac, Midnight Repairs / Ron Giii, Geometry Street
At Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen West)
September 6-October 5

These simultaneous shows of painting and drawing are by a mid-career and senior artist respectively. Isaac presents a suite of witty black-and-white paintings with urban themes. Much loved artist Giii is self-taught and known for drawings featuring a solitary figure on the page. Recently he surprised fans by branching out with the sparse geometric works presented in this show.

Lois Andison
Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow)
September 7-October 5

Over the course of 30-odd years, Toronto artist Andison has refined her practice, which focuses on kinetic sculpture and installation. Whereas earlier work has an outright figurative emphasis, Andison more recently is making smart, minimalistic kinetic works that have no less relevance to the body as it is changed by an encounter with artworks.

Joani Tremblay
Zalucky Contemporary (3044 Dundas West)
September 13-October 12

Based in Montreal, Tremblay has built up a thriving international painting career by making effortlessly cool-looking still life abstractions. For her second show with gallerist Juliana Zalucky, the artist is showing a series of works based on her visit to Arcosanti, an experimental eco-architectural community in Arizona.

Undomesticated, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Sandra Brewster, Erika DeFreitas, Lucy Howe, Nicolas Fleming and others
Koffler Gallery (180 Shaw)
September 18-November 17

This sprawling group show sheds light on how domestic lives are in an uneasy relationship with the natural world. Lucy Howe’s melting couches and other deformed furniture sculptures are typical of the ways artists are adept at making everyday things look unfamiliar. Nicolas Fleming adds an extra dimension of strange to this show through a rough-hewn immersive environment that frames the overall exhibition.

Toronto Biennial of Art, Maria Thereza Alves, Judy Chicago, Dana Claxton, Shezad Dawood, Naufus Ramírez Figueroa, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Curtis Talwst Santiago and others
259 Lake Shore East and other locations
September 21-December 1

This milestone art event for the city features a stellar international lineup of artists and an extensive slate of public programs. All events are free, spanning numerous venues – including Riverdale Park and a film program presented at the Cinesphere – along with the show’s massive main venue on Lake Shore East. How we live “in relation” (and also out of sync) is the show’s overarching theme. On view is a procession featuring visiting youth artists from Cape Dorset, Nunavut as well as their banners, costumes and sculptures.

Hajra Waheed, Hold Everything Dear
The Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West)
September 21-January 5

The widely shown multidisciplinary Montreal artist (who is also part of the Biennial) has created an installation that includes 100 small works on paper. Through the intimacy of handmade details, Waheed investigates complex themes like geopolitics and surveillance. These preoccupations, derived in part from a childhood spent in a gated compound in Saudi Arabia, speak to how the complexity of the contemporary world gets filtered through personal experience.

Nuit Blanche, Daniel Arsham, Esmaa Mohamoud, Ghost Atelier, Javid Jah, Simin Keramati, Kent Monkman, Sophia Oppel, Ebony G. Patterson and others
Nathan Phillips Square, Scarborough Civic Centre and other locations
October 5

Given the massive crowd that enjoyed the Raptors’ victory parade, it’s fitting that the spirit of that event continues at Nuit Blanche. Artists Bryan Espiritu and Esmaa Mohamoud unveil their sculpture commemorating the team’s 25th anniversary. Other highlights include Daniel Arsham’s luminous monochrome Zen Garden at City Hall, and Drake collaborator Director X, who offers a sequel to his landmark work about environmental destruction from Nuit Blanche in 2016. Presented at the Ontario Science Centre, the installation is on view until January 5.

Hito Steyerl’s three-channel video installation HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016) goes on display at the AGO on October 24.

Hito Steyerl, This Is The Future
Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West)
October 24-February 23

The AGO hosts celebrated German artist, filmmaker and writer’s first solo show in Canada. Steyerl is known for looking at the production and circulation of images as a way to tell a story about wider issues of global politics, technology and economics. Three of her large-scale works are featured, including HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016), a standout at the Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017. Steyerl chats with critic Brian Droitcour on October 23.

Maryse Larivière, Under the Cave of Winds
Gallery 44 (401 Richmond #120)
November 1-December 14

The always inventive Larivière has a multi-faceted practice that includes sculpture, collage, performance and writing. For this exhibition, she presents a black-and-white 16mm film featuring a female protagonist held captive at a remote island location. A follow-up to a novel she wrote with the same theme, Larivière sees such scenarios as an analogy for her role as an artist.

@rosemheather

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/best-toronto-art-shows-fall-2019/

In memoriam: Katharine Mulherin, 1964-2019

July 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

The artist, curator and trailblazing Queen West gallerist created the world she wanted to live in

Katharine Mulherin appeared on the cover of NOW’s Contact Photography Fest issue on April 26, 2001.

JULY 22, 2019

The death of gallerist Katharine Mulherin is a hard blow for Toronto’s art community. Beloved and highly respected, Mulherin was central to building the vibrant art ecosystem the city enjoys today. Struggling with depression in recent years, Mulherin took her own life last week at age 54, her son Jasper Mulherin confirmed in a Facebook post. The loss has been widely mourned on social media – and at an informal gathering of friends on July 16 at the site of one of her former galleries at Queen and Dovercourt. Over the years she had many.

Mulherin created the world she wanted to live in. A habitual gallery-maker, she founded a stream of them, first in the late 90s in Toronto, then in New York and Los Angeles. Making spaces was at the heart of her practice. She also worked and showed as an artist, studying art first in New Brunswick, where she was born, and then in Quebec City. Her move to Toronto in 1988 was accompanied by a shift to curating. She graduated from the criticism and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1998, a time when the profession was just becoming formalized as a career.

Things were different when Mulherin was starting out. In a 2001 cover-story interview with NOW, she said there was a simple secret to running three galleries simultaneously while also being single mother to a small child: “Cheap rent.” More than a wisecrack, this was a strategy. Work with what you got – and live behind the store, or above it, which Mulherin did at a number of locations, along with her young son, Jasper. She opened BUSgallery in 1998, then quickly went on to create 1080BUS, also on Queen West and, at the invitation of OCAD, the School BUS project space.

In the NOW interview Mulherin cited an abundance of younger artists she wanted to show as the reason for her growing empire. This was the emerging Toronto scene she played a key role in nurturing.

Countless artists benefited from Mulherin’s discerning curatorial eye, with shows at her gallery leading to recognition elsewhere. A random sampling includes Kris Knight, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Elaine Stocki and Balint Zsako, who calls Mulherin “magnetic.” Her “mix of wit, intelligence and enthusiasm made her like nobody else in Toronto,” he says.

“Katharine invented communities, programs and collectors,” notes painter Margaux Williamson, who showed with Mulherin in Toronto and New York. “The stakes were high, but they were not typical, so there was so much more room to move.”

Art collector Paul Bain remembers Mulherin as “kind, down-to-earth and open,” noting that’s not always the case in the art world. Bain bought his first artwork from Mulherin, who made it easy for people to collect. “Working with her was like a process of discovering things together,” he recalls. “Like a partnership.”

Over 20 years, Mulherin created many spaces, including Board of Directors, KMLA, Katharine Mulherin’s Sideshow, No Show Exhibits, Mulherin Pollard Projects, Mulherin New York, No Foundation, New Multiples and Mulherin Toronto. The range of initiatives spoke to her entrepreneurial drive and an ad hoc approach, with the general temper of the times, budgets and affordability dictating the terms of each project.

Given the global scale of the real estate affordability problem, the term “gentrification” might now seem like an outdated notion. Regardless, Mulherin’s gallery practice ran on the rhythms of gentrification. She was intimately acquainted with the process, moving into overlooked neighbourhoods like West Queen West. “Before the Drake and the taco shops,” Bain notes.

On Queen West, Mulherin would find a clientele in the area’s new condo dwellers, who would go on to take over and transform the neighborhood, making it much less affordable. But art always exists in this uneasy symbiosis between patrons and artists. All credit goes to Mulherin for the ingenuity she brought to this balancing act for so long.

The artist Annie MacDonell had her first exhibition with Mulherin after graduating from Ryerson University in 2000. She went on to show with her for almost 15 years. “I always thought of her as someone who was unstoppable, as someone who would keep on reinventing herself and the world around her for a long time to come,” she says. “That’s part of what makes it so hard to lose her.”

Mulherin is survived by her sons Jasper and Satchel, her husband Daniel “Paco” Paquette, sisters Jennifer and Erin and brother Shawn. A celebration of her life will take place at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) on August 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm.

GoFundMe page to cover immediate and ongoing expenses for her family has also been set up.

@rosemheather

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/in-memoriam-katharine-mulherin/

What a seance for extinct local birds can teach us about climate action

February 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

During a visit to Toronto, Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa summons the greater prairie-chicken and passenger pigeon to provoke a change in mindset

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER FEBRUARY 19, 2019


Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa Concrete Poem (2011 - present).
A calligraphic bird, one of five digital prints from Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s Concrete Poem Documentation Of Bird Séances (2011 to present).Courtesy of the artist

Seances are boring in the way meditating is boring. You have to relax and let yourself sink into the moment. This requires letting go of things, including everyday worries and the non-stop, tyrannical pull of our electronic devices.

Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, visiting the city for the exhibition How To Breath Forever at OCAD’s Onsite Gallery, himself used the b-word when talking about his experience with seances.

The internationally shown and very busy artist (he will also be participating in the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art this fall) introduced the event by talking about his own history with this type of spiritualism, which was in vogue over a century ago. In Canada, such enthusiasts famously included William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister for the first half of the 20th century, who used mediums to get advice from his dead mother.

The soft-spoken Ramírez-Figueroa talked about being an art student at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University and attending seances with local spiritualist practitioners. “This was a way for me to have some communion with other Latin Americans because my school was pretty white,” he says.

He did this again when going to art school in Chicago. He experiments with the form in his art practice, but gives it a different focus. At the seance he conducted on a chilly Wednesday evening in Toronto, the goal was to contact not people, but extinct species of birds from the local area.

Wearing white toques to keep out bad spirits, 18 people held hands around a large table and tried their luck at contacting the beyond. Since spirits presumably stay close to the area where they once lived, the artist researched a number of extinct birds the seance might summon. Were the greater prairie-chicken, the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon haunting our gathering? It’s hard to say.

The former two birds were declared extirpated (gone from the area but still living elsewhere on earth) from Ontario within the last decade or so, while the passenger pigeon was notoriously hunted to extinction over 100 years ago.

Whether their spirits visited the Onsite Gallery on this particular occasion was somewhat beside the point, as Ramírez-Figueroa made clear in conversation after the event. The product of a non-religious upbringing, the artist saw his own spiritual investigations as mostly a kind of rebellion.

Calling the seance an exercise, he said, “I don’t think I’m guiding it too much but it does become a kind of guided visualization.” He cited the tradition of hippie idealism in British Columbia, where he lived from ages 12 to 26, as influencing this part of his practice. The grandeur of the landscape in B.C. has a spiritual power, though his interest is more in how we typically fail to connect with the natural world.

“You can live close to nature and ignore it at the same time,” he noted.

While at Emily Carr, for example, he said he “lived near the ocean but never looked at it.” Seances are a form of group projection, and Ramírez-Figueroa feels that humans tend to project things onto nature instead of seeing it for what it is.

For those at the seance who had never given much thought to extinct species in Toronto, it was a chance to contemplate what gets lost in the incessant busyness of contemporary life. There is a cost to never getting bored. “This is the reality we are all facing: mass extinction,” Ramírez-Figueroa says. “And we don’t even notice.”

So maybe we do need a medium, as opposed to constant electronic communication, to get back in touch with ourselves and our urgent predicament.

Ramírez-Figueroa is also preparing to make a work about extinct species in Lithuania for an upcoming biennial in that country. He feels there is a higher level of concern around looming environmental catastrophe there than in Canada. Perhaps part of the problem is that Canadians are fooled by their own PR. He talked about the dominance of Canadian gold mining in Guatemala.

“It’s a really small country and the damage it does is substantial,” he explained.

Upwards of 75 per cent of mining companies globally are based in Canada. The industry is massively destructive, but Canadians are only minimally aware of this. We’re happy to go on seeing ourselves as the good guy. Closer to home, oil sands workers are required to sign waivers preventing them from speaking about any form of environmental destruction they witness as a result of this now largely unprofitable form of resource extraction.

There is a lesson in the fragile stirrings that occurred during the seance. In the gentlest terms, Ramírez-Figueroa’s seances with extinct species are a form of collective action. The exercise suggests we need a new form of collective belief to avert humanity’s extinction.

Instead we are participating in a mass delusion of denial.

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, “Seance for Extinct Species of Birds,” part of HOW TO BREATHE FOREVER at Onsite Gallery (199 Richmond West). ocadu.ca. January 16 – April 14, 2019.

@rosemheather

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11 art exhibitions to be excited about in 2019

January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment

Look out for the Toronto Biennial of Art and exhibitions featuring work by Brian Jungen, Chantal Akerman, Carrie Mae Weems and Daniel Arsham
Untitled, a 2017 photograph by Carrie Mae Weems.
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


If last year is anything to go by, 2019 promises more social media exodus and a world slightly less obsessed with connected devices. Art galleries offer a good alternative. Instead of the light emitting from the mobile or computer screen, light therapy as art is on offer. And come September, Toronto gets the art biennial it has long been waiting for, featuring local and international artists at venues adjacent to Lake Ontario.

VAJIKO CHACHKHIANI: THEY KEPT SHADOWS QUIET

Scrap Metal Gallery, October 11, 2018-March 30, 2019

The first solo show in North America by the young Georgian artist is the most ambitious exhibition staged to date by this private gallery. It features a number of works, including a specially built “inverted” immigration checkpoints. Using two way mirrors in reverse direction, visitors can surveil the occupants of the booths, which are manned by actors every Saturday from 1-4 pm for the duration of the show.

SANAZ MAZINANI: LIGHT TIMES

Stephen Bulger Gallery, January 12-February 23

Known for her large-scale mosaic works embedded with political content, Mazinani returns to her hometown for this back-to-basics study of photography. Camera-less photos (i.e., light exposed to photosensitive paper) form the basis of this show – but Mazinani’s larger agenda is revealing the manipulations, framing and cropping that create photographic “truth.”

TRUE TO THE EYES: THE HOWARD AND CAROLE TANENBAUM PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION

Ryerson Image Centre, January 23-April 7

A presentation of over 200 works from the Toronto philanthropists’ private collection. The sheer range and eclecticism of the photos on view – including Brassaï, vernacular works, Diane Arbus and Edward Burtynsky – offers insight into how genres within the medium have evolved. A useful point of reference for photography’s expanded digital life today.

Inverse Squares Yellow on Black, an abstract painting by Swedish-born artist Jaan Poldaas.
Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid / Courtesy Birch Contemporary and estate of Jaan Poldaas


JAAN POLDAAS: A COLOURFUL LIFE

Birch Contemporary, February 7-March 2

This is a memorial exhibition for the Swedish-born Toronto-based artist who died in October. Poldaas made vibrant, hard-edged abstract paintings, working within set rules he imposed on his practice such as using primary colours and the colour grey in differing shades. This framework allowed him to discover constant variation in composition throughout his career.

APOLONIJA ŠUŠTERŠIČ:
LIGHT THERAPY &
CHANTAL AKERMAN

MOCA, November 28-April 30/ MOCA, February 14-April 14 

Here are two good reasons to visit MOCA’s new location. Slovenian artist Šušteršič presents a light therapy room as part of the museum’s interest in exploring the role galleries play in supporting well-being. Visitors who become MOCA members can also book it for private sessions. Filmmaker Akerman, who died in 2015, was one of Europe’s foremost auteurs of the last 50 years. While many of her films have screened in Toronto, MOCA is hosting the first museum presentation of her installation work.

CARRIE MAE WEEMS: HEAVE

Art Museum at University of Toronto, CONTACT Photography Festival and three public sites, May 3-July 13

Part of this year’s Contact Photography Festival, this show marks the first solo exhibition in Canada by this important African-American artist. Weems is known for her photo-based installations that incorporate film, daguerreotypes, textiles and period-specific dress. Her tableaux reflect on how power functions in society, in part by making viewers aware of the constructed nature of photography.

Brian Jungen’s Warrior 1 sculpture from 2017 is made from Nike Air Jordans and leather.
Photo: Jason Wyche / Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

BRIAN JUNGEN

Art Gallery of Ontario, June 20-August 25

A solo exhibition by the celebrated West Coast artist touches down at the AGO this summer. Jungen is known for remaking everyday items, like Nike shoes or plastic lawn chairs, into powerful sculptural works. The artist’s always inventive refashionings often reference his Indigenous heritage. His use of mass-produced materials also critiques the conventions of museum display and the value of the objects collected therein.

KATE NEWBY

Cooper Cole Gallery, September TBA

The New Zealand-born artist’s debut solo show will feature beguiling works that are part sculpture, part installation. Working with ceramics, bricks, glass and found materials like pebbles and other detritus, she often uses the floor and other overlooked parts of the gallery to subtly shift visitor experience – as well as the concept of what can be art.

TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART

Various venues on Lake Ontario, opens September 21

Biennials are the lingua franca of the international art world and Toronto is long overdue to host its own. This 90-day event is helmed by Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, two smart, experienced curators who have announced a theme focused on the history embedded in the city’s waterfront – the site of settlement, trade and Indigenous histories. Featured artists include Althea Thauberger, Shezad Dawood and Syrus Marcus Ware.

NUIT BLANCHE

Various venues, October 5

The city’s all-night public art event again includes venues in Scarborough and adds first-time locations Fort York and the Garrison Common. Nathan Phillips Square will host an installation by Daniel Arsham. Few details are available, but given he works with meta-architecture firm Snarkitecture, it’s a good bet the New York artist’s piece will be big and involve the colour white. The deadline for artists to submit proposals for the Open Call section is February 4. 11 art exhibitions to be excited about in 2019

NOW Magazine: 11 art exhibitions to be excited about in 2019
@rosemheather 

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