Director/Chief Curator, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia
One of the pressing tensions between Toronto and the rest of the country has to do with the fact that information—and owning the means of disseminating information—is power. Where there’s resentment, it’s really about that. Many people from all across the country pay attention to art across the country. But there’s often the perception that the Toronto-based media forgets that Toronto isn’t Canada—that it’s just one part of it.
I think that our love-and-hate affair might also be about Toronto’s responsibility as the largest metropolitan area in the country. Toronto has the population mass and the monetary resources to act within the world, yet Toronto institutions and magazines operate very locally. It’s been over a decade since any show at the Art Gallery of Ontario really shook me. It might be going back to the  Gerhard Richter show; that’s when the AGO, and by extension Toronto and Canada, were shaking things up on the world stage.
As you could see in the European shindigs this summer, the entire world is involved in a dialogue that we in Canada do not seem to be fully participating in. Montreal has been doing relatively well of late with trying to engage the world and do important exhibitions from outside of Canada, informing its artists about what’s going on. But that seems to be less consistent in Toronto. It seems a bit inward-looking, when the whole country needs centres that are able to have tremendous reach and clout. On the other hand, other regions get a lot more credit for things that are already happening in Toronto. It’s good to recognize Calgary’s gallery scene, but Toronto’s galleries have far outnumbered those for a long time. And they don’t get much recognition.
Also, Toronto’s success as a city has put unbelievable pressures on the art scene—financial pressure. What’s an artist to do? The people who gave Toronto its energy by being around—a lot of them have moved to the hinterlands. That puts an awful lot of pressure on people who are there. And it puts pressure on the playfulness of the community.
Director/Curator, Western Front
VANCOUVER, British Columbia
What’s come out of my discussions with founders of the Front is that there was a great deal of exchange between Vancouver and Toronto in the 1970s. I think there’s a nostalgia for that era to take place again, to have that kind of dialogue.
For example, Hank Bull and Patrick Ready’s HP Dinner Show, the longest running radio art program in Vancouver, was started in the 1970s partly due to the influence of General Idea. That was very formative, having people from Toronto visit for long periods of time. It influenced the way artists here thought of themselves. Personally, for me, growing up in the West, Toronto was a bit of a myth. I’ve
been excited by the renovations of spaces and thinking about how that is going to change the cultural landscape. I’m also inspired by the professionalism of organizations, both historical ones like Art Metropole and Vtape and newer ones like imagineNATIVE, for which I’m curating this year.
Still, when I see shows that come out of Toronto, I’ve sometimes been disappointed, like when every artist in a show’s from Toronto. I’d like to see these artists contextualized with different practices or international artists.
I think collaborations are one great way to spark that, and artist exchanges. There’s so much going on in both cities, so more dialogue would be fantastic.
Galerie René Blouin
I think Toronto is part of everybody’s fantasies. It’s the most active community in terms of the art scene in Canada. And people in Montreal will hate me for saying this, but Toronto has its act together. Since the moment I set foot there as a professional arts person in 1972, I always thought Toronto was more together than Montreal.
How? Well, if you think about it, you have very, very good artists and quite an elaborate system of distribution, you have strong collectors, a slate of public galleries, you have important art schools and so on and so forth and so it’s normal that Torontonians demand a lot from their own community, because it’s quite well developed. It’s sophisticated; you ask more in those circumstances than if you work in the boonies.
Also, Toronto is more daring than it used to be. The Ontario College of Art and Design’s new building—I don’t think it would have happened in Toronto before. As people have travelled over the past 20 years, it’s gotten more and more rich and cosmopolitan and exciting.
If there is any room for improvement it is that there hasn’t been a major contemporary-art show at the Art Gallery of Ontario for a long time. Considering the place of contemporary art in Toronto, the AGO doesn’t reflect the dynamism of the community. Maybe they don’t know how to sell it or how to promote it. Or maybe it will change once the renovation is complete. I hope so.
There’s not a day I don’t talk to someone from Toronto, so it’s part of daily life. Mind you, I love living here, where I have access to the best of both English and French cultures easily. But if I had opened a gallery in Toronto I’m sure I would have had better years. Honestly!
Senior Curator, Walter Phillips Gallery and the Banff International Curatorial Institute
In the last two to five years I’ve found Toronto more interesting than it used to be. I like it more. Maybe it could just be me that is changing! But there’s a sense of much more activity going on. When you’re in Toronto now, there’s always a talk from an international artist or local artist, there’s always an event, like an opening of a community show or a group show in the park or someone is renting a house and pretending to be unearthing stuff there. It’s interesting stuff, very event-oriented almost, more than exhibition-oriented.
It also seems to me that people and the city are investing in their institutions; there’s all this major construction going on. I notice this especially because I live near Calgary, and there’s no commitment to any institution there. In Calgary there’s money, you sense it, but there’s no investment in public institutions or public life. It’s all private.
There are problematic aspects to both these things. If you are emphasizing events then you’re lacking the stuff that will remain, you’re lacking the research, you’re lacking a continuing sense of what’s going on. Also, even though there seems to be investment in institutions, I haven’t seen any significant contemporary-art exhibitions from them recently, nor publishing or scholarly research.
Toronto doesn’t look at its own history, and it needs to. There’s great video artists and great painters living in Toronto but through the institutions it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Not that we want a unified voice about what Toronto is, but there’s no unified voice looking at its own practice.
This reluctance could be a Canadian thing, but it’s different in Vancouver and Montreal. The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal has a regular series of exhibitions by young Montreal or Quebec artists. They’re not always good shows, but there’s an attempt at that history building. And that’s important, so that people have something to build on in 25 years. Just think about why American art is so important—it’s because they’ve been writing about it!
Artist / Vice Chair, CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area)
In Southern Ontario, we both benefit and suffer from proximity to Toronto. We’re just far enough away that we’re not in Toronto, but we’re close enough that we’re lumped in from a distance. So we’re in this netherspace. All the artists here who have careers or who are trying to have careers have to maintain some sort of presence in Toronto. It’s good because you’re close, you can get in when you need to, but you’re not in the hub. And unfortunately it is the hub.
Some strange things come out of that. I know artists here, for instance, who have collectors who also live here, but the collectors don’t know the artists live in their community because they go to Toronto to buy the work. That’s where buyers are going because that’s where they think good art is made.
At the same time, there’s recognition that comes with selling work in Toronto, like the recognition Canadian artists get when they sell abroad. You can be showing and making work here with little recognition but as soon as you get success in Toronto then you’re recognized here.
It’s taken me ten years to feel like I know people in Toronto. I think Toronto’s “slow to warm up.” My wife’s a psychologist and that’s a phrase they use to describe some children’s reactions to new situations or people. It means taking time to react and assess and think and see what they are going to do, maybe even being a little wary.
Still, I’m always amazed how much friggin’ great work comes out of Toronto and Ontario. And how much great art is in this country in general. It’s astounding. When I go to galleries in New York I just see crap in comparison.
We need to recognize the amazing stuff that’s happening here and create an environment to let other people see that. But we all need to invest the money municipally and otherwise to make that happen.
Canada Research Chair in Critical Theory in the Interpretation of Culture, Mount Allison University
SACKVILLE, New Brunswick
To me, the art world is a small world and even though Toronto is a big centre, it’s still part of that small world. You still have categories of emerging and established artists and you still get the sense of people examining the local or responding to international influences. You still get it all.
I guess what I encounter there as someone who is interested in the dynamic of cultural landscape and art is that, much like New York, it has unique neighbourhoods and districts; it’s still a human-scaled place and it’s supported the emergence of many different kinds of galleries, where many artists have space for exhibitions. There’s no one thing happening; it’s diverse.
It’s also a condensed area with intense energy, always a really great incubator for new practice because you get people who gravitate to urban centres and produce new work through collaboration. The collaborative ability you find in a centre like Toronto is a really potent thing for the art world.
Still, people are always moving in and out of Toronto, and art is too; it may not be Toronto where the next big thing is coming from. Great shows happen in Lethbridge and Corner Brook and London and Toronto, all part of a cycle of representation. Toronto is one moment in the larger art scene.
Though there’s a mix of places to show, Toronto seems overwhelmed by commercial galleries. I say this even though I exhibit my work at a commercial gallery there, Tatar Gallery, and my friends are represented by different commercial galleries.
It seems like a lot of artists in Toronto just stay in that circle of galleries. They don’t hit the cross-Canada gallery system. I’ve done residencies and shows from Victoria to St. John’s and I keep on running into artists from the smaller cities. I see a few Torontonians, but there’s so many artists in Toronto I feel like I should be seeing more of them.
Personally I like Toronto because of the people there that I know. But I couldn’t see my career going very well there. In Toronto it’s a huge issue having enough money and space and time to make your work. In that way it can seem inefficient for artists to work in larger centres, even if that’s where the parties and connections are.
I moved to a place that was comfortable for me—where I had a lot of space and freedom to make big changes in the way I produce. In Halifax I was able to make one or two pieces in my studio, but in Woodrow I have enough space to work on ten or 11 pieces at once. Instead of creating one piece I can create an environment. Instead of being a part of group shows I can do solo shows in big spaces—a major difference. I don’t know if that’s a perfect way to go about it, but it works for me.
I lived in Toronto for a long time. My mother lives there; I went to high school and university there. And for the past seven years the gallery has been at the Toronto International Art Fair. So I’ve seen Toronto change from a big small town to a bigger small town. I love it but it can also be a frustrating place. For example, when I look at my colleagues in Toronto, there isn’t anyone who’s representing international art at a high level commercially. I find it amazing that in the country’s largest city we don’t have a Lisson Gallery. What’s that about: is the market not there?
On the positive side, the art fair is an important venue; it’s small, but it offers a lot of places to go in terms of creating an audience and infrastructure for art. It helps us think about the country and place what we do on an international level. But we have to do more: ambitious programming that is balanced, that talks about regional, national and international issues in contemporary art. And programming that says stuff that happens here is just as good as what goes on elsewhere.
It always amazes me that when the art fair is on there seems to be a lack of coordination between the institutions of the city. There’s no thought put into the fact that there’s this major event drawing people to the city for art. So why not take six to eight weeks of programming and do something cool? It would be great, and attract other dealers. If the AGO does a show of an international artist during the fair, for example, there then might be a reason for that artist’s dealer to be attracted to the show.
I must reiterate that we love the city and there’s so much interesting stuff going on. We have artists and clients and other good connections there. Maybe the international level shows and Toronto history-building is all there already and we’re not seeing it. Whatever it is, it’s certainly full of potential, a potential being realized in the current transformation of the AGO.
Director, Plug In ICA
The thing about Toronto is…there really is no problem. I don’t want to sound ignorant or Pollyannaish about issues of representation, awareness or artists’ struggles to survive, but rather it’s just that those issues are small in Canada compared to many other places internationally.
Overall Toronto’s a great place; there are so many diverse and interesting and wonderful artists and organizations. We’re lucky in Canada that the largest city is a cultural one, and that nationally speaking we have so many great mechanisms for staying in touch. It’s not perfect but a very diverse and supportive culture nationally, much more so than in the United States, for example. So if artists or activities are overlooked, it’s not because of Toronto, it’s part of being anywhere. There are always people who are being overlooked.
Speaking from Winnipeg, I feel like people here have done a great job of getting out there and being known. And when I go to Toronto there’s a great deal of interest in what’s happening in the West. I do not feel any overwhelming issue of regional disadvantage. The most radical and interesting things often come from outside the centre, and I don’t think Toronto exercises a particular weight over cultural production or the distribution or attribution of credibility in Canada. It’s just another city. So I don’t really see the arrogance or snobbery that people sometimes make jokes about.
Other cities, of course, have their strengths. Vancouver has done a great job of nurturing consecutive generations of artists who are internationally known. But Toronto, with its range of institutions and colleges and commercial galleries, still stands up with any major city internationally.
Director/Curator, Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Alberta College of Art and Design
Certainly Toronto’s a very dynamic place to be for contemporary art and there is a growing body of collectors, ranging from Ydessa Hendeles to Partners in Art, that really make a difference. Ydessa Hendeles’s collection and level of presentation, in particular, are unparalleled. That should be a benchmark and guiding light for other well-informed collectors. There should be seven Ydessa Hendeles–level foundations that are presenting incredible spaces for great art to be shown, whether it’s regional or international in scope. The resources are there.
Yet Toronto is not the first place that the global art world thinks of when they think of Canadian art. Vancouver is on the map, Winnipeg is on the map, Montreal can be on the map, but it’s certainly not Toronto. We need more of our commercial galleries in international art fairs. We need the presence of Toronto curators on the curatorial committees for some of the 200- plus biennials around the world.
There has to be more support for Toronto curators on the international stage. At the federal level, the grants to do work and make connections with colleagues have been curtailed. And look at the AGO; I recall Jessica Bradley, when she was a curator there, not having adequate travel monies. Budgets reflect the feeling that institutions should serve local producers and local audiences. But there needs to be a richer plate of activities.
On the positive side, I think Nuit Blanche has shown there’s an audience for contemporary art in a big way, as well as for a biennial or some kind of invitational that brings the world to Toronto. Also, the post-secondary institutions are really working: York University’s new gallery space, the University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery with Barbara Fischer at the helm, Ryerson in the photography arena. These are guiding lights, curatorially and otherwise.
AND LORRI MILLAN
We’re both from Toronto. We left in the late 1980s because we couldn’t afford the rent, and we left intentionally for a cheaper city where we could be full-time artists.
Attitudes have changed. When we first left Toronto people thought it was career suicide. Now Toronto—or at least the people we know in Toronto—understand that location isn’t everything.
The influence of the art market is much more marked in Toronto. There’s next to no commercial scene in Winnipeg, so there’s little potential wealth associated with art. But you can be a happy, functioning artist here. You can have a studio and a part-time job, or even live on grants. There’s a thriving community to be a part of, and it’s not competitive the way Toronto sometimes feels.
It does seem to affect the work made. And we would posit that there’s been a lot of success in Winnipeg lately because the work looked different and felt different and perhaps did so because it was being made outside of a marketplace.
On the positive end, in Toronto, well, there’s the food! And the volume of work. The sheer size of the Toronto art community means it’s incredibly diverse, which reflects its population. And you have access to travelling exhibitions and the performing arts.
If we lived in Toronto we could hang out with lesbian socialist feminist artists all the time. But here we’re forced to hang out with people of all descriptions all the time, all of whom would offer to help if we mounted, say, a lesbian feminist opera with some ballet thrown in. So there are benefits to each environment.
Director/Executive Producer, Let’s All Hate Toronto
WEST BOLTON, Quebec
There’s something terrific about Toronto’s art scene, which is that phenomenon on Thursday nights where Queen Street West fills up with people. I used to do it on rollerblades, skating from opening to opening eating cheese and drinking wine. It’s so wonderful and there’s no equivalent I know of in Canadian cities. Nuit Blanche is the same. The wonder isn’t the exhibits, though there are some great exhibits. It is really the people who come out who make it special. Because there are places the size of Toronto where people don’t show up.
After ten years in Toronto, I recently moved to the Eastern Townships for two reasons. One is that if you’re not an urban professional, you are always fighting a Sisyphean battle to live. Another is that I work in documentary film, and, having seen a lot of documentaries, I feel like we’ve got ten or 20 years of normal life left before major crisis sets in. I don’t want to be sitting in a tiny enclosed apartment in downtown Toronto when that happens.
When I left Toronto, I was mixed up because I could see there’s a massive trend towards improving Toronto that is sincere, cogent and real. It’s on the verge of something good. At the same time, we made the film Let’s All Hate Toronto because Toronto needs to face its demons. It’s been fed a heavy diet of bullshit.
One thing people should understand is that Torontocentric media bias is structural. It’s not that people at the CBC wake up and decide to ignore the periphery…it’s just that all their reporters are in Toronto. So for structural reasons it’s hard for Toronto to represent the country. And then the rest of the country hates Toronto. What Canadians are really upset about is Toronto’s pretense of representativeness. I don’t believe that people really hate Torontonians themselves.