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Old School, Cool School

"Old School, Cool School" by Leah Sandals, Winter 2010, pp. 96-101

It’s a perfect spring Sunday in Toronto—17 degrees, with sunshine and a mild breeze. Trinity Bellwoods Park, Queen West’s de facto backyard, is full of playground-clambering youngsters, pasty-skinned picnickers and Bugaboo-pushing couples. Clearly, it’s a day for outdoor R and R—a time to forget the salt and slush of winter, and to anticipate the lazier, hazier days of summer to come.

But just a few blocks away, people are lining up to get into—of all things—a school. Granted, it’s a looker: a stately, three-storey, red-brick-and-sandstone behemoth, with expanses of gently rippled vintage glass windows. But it seems faint competition for a little déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Why are so many people—kids and adults—eager to go to school on a day like this? It could be the paper airplanes flying out of a second-storey window, launched by smiling, fold-happy hordes. It could be the eerie tones emanating from a basement bathroom, where a soprano’s song sends light beams twisting. It could be the topsy-turvy classroom where horizontal lines spill from a blackboard, ricocheting in a thousand directions. Or it could be any number of other lovely surprises—a sick-room cupboard lined with primary-coloured crayon drawings, or (on the other end of the sensory spectrum) a small, Gollum-like figure frozen mid-step in a janitorial closet.

The answer is all of the above, but most of all it comes back to the person who has brought these wonders together: a wiry, brown-eyed woman with silver-streaked hair—clad for the moment in headmistress gear—who campily addresses a crowd in the school’s grand, 15-foot-high foyer. She’s the curator and producer of “Art School (Dismissed),” an exhibition of 52 projects that have taken over this long-closed public school for three days—and she’s got a few lessons for exhibition-makers across Canada.

Heather Nicol has worked as an artist, educator and curator for 27 years. Most of those years were spent in New York, where she kept a studio near PS1 (itself a former school), taught teachers at the Museum of Modern Art, led tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and worked with the nonprofit organization Studio in a School, while showing at SculptureCenter, Art in General and other venues. In September 2001, the World Trade Center attacks (which took place two blocks from her children’s school) and the dissolution of her marriage prompted Nicol to return to her hometown, Ottawa. Soon after, she decided to resettle long-term with her kids in Toronto. After moving into a Victorian semi in Little Portugal in 2004, Nicol got busy organizing what Jen Budney, writing for these pages, called “an act of ‘extreme curating.’” The project, titled “makingROOM,” was a two-day, 60-artist exhibition that took place in December 2006 in a 30,000-square-foot former sweatshop. Its inclusive mix of contemporary art and musical performances—by young artists and old—attracted 2,000 attendees and generated lots of excitement.

Following the coming-out party of “makingROOM,” Nicol looked for other terrific, underused spaces suitable for a regionally focused exhibition. “There’s a lot of bench strength in this town,” she insists. “A lot of good artists are making good work. But we don’t always get the chance to look at each other, especially in dramatic spaces.” Before long, she hit on Shaw Street School, a distinguished 1915 building just a few blocks from her home. The school had closed in 2000 due to Mike Harris-era maximum-square-foot-per-student regulations. Barring its occasional use as a film set, the building has sat mostly empty ever since.

“I was really interested in the school,” says Nicol, who walks by it often. “It’s such a great building. The idea was to have people respond to the site and/or to the premise of education, as applicable.”

Though Nicol’s inspiration for “Art School (Dismissed)” came easy, the site did not. It took two years, from 2007 to 2009, for her to convince Toronto District School Board (TDSB) representatives of the project’s legitimacy, and to secure dates—four days for setup, three for the ticketed show. Rent was charged by the square foot and by the hour, resulting in a contract inches thick. The TDSB gave Nicol a $3,000 reduction for hosting free student tours; nevertheless, the weeklong rental still came out to $10,000. Each planning visit required a $160 permit, which had to be applied for 21 days in advance; each nail hammered, a detailed work order and unionized handyman. This tightened timelines: Nicol signed contracts in November 2009, did her first artist visits in December and finalized her roster in January 2010, four months before the opening.

It helped that Nicol is passionate about a lot of things—among them, the importance of highlighting artists who teach. “When you work as an art educator, people peg you. And if you tell them you’re an educator who works with kids, they really don’t give a shit! It’s such an unsexy, unhip thing to do, and it speaks to all the prejudices we have in the art world.

“Of course, teachers of all stripes get it. ‘Oh, you teach, and if you teach, you don’t do.’ But no! These people are influencing the next generation. They’re juggling teaching with exhibition and performance schedules. But there’s a prejudice.”

That wasn’t the only form of snobbery Nicol wanted to take on. As with “makingROOM,” she wanted to include dance, music and theatre alongside more contemporary visual art works. “Sometimes, [educational and art] institutions start thinking in terms of teachable units and subject areas, and one of my tendencies is to break down those barriers. Just because art institutions dabble in dance or sound, it’s not like we own it! I wanted faculty to meet up, to be like, ‘nobody owns this—we’re all students, we’re all just mucking about.’”

Inside the school ’s institutional-green hallway, a boy wearing a skateboard helmet runs up to an old trophy case, gapes, and yells, “Hey Dinky, c’mere!” A shorter boy scampers over—“Yeah, I know. Dead guys!” “Whoa! Cool.” This wide-eyed pair is commenting on The Humours, a characteristically dark work by Catherine Heard that seems to consist of two mummified children. After a few more admiring moments, Skateboard-Helmet turns and runs deeper into the exhibition. “I wanna see what’s in that room!”

Nearby, in Shaw Street’s former preschool, the band Rambunctious— consisting of nine horns, one drummer and party-band influences “from New Orleans to Kansas City, Harlem to Belgrade”—launches into Dixieland-flavoured jazz. Its front man, nattily attired in cream pants, pinstriped shirt and straw fedora, asks how audience members feel about being back in school. “Sad!” yells one grown-up, smiling. “Like detention!” smirks another. Later, between flugelhorn blows, song-title suggestions are requested. A white-haired man in wraparound sunglasses jumps up and shouts “Standing in the corner!” His raised right hand points to where two walls meet. As he sits down, he murmurs “Grade Five.”

This sense of childhood and adulthood twisting together, of nostalgia and nowness, pervades the show. Lyn Carter coats a standard school chair in black fabric that oozes an inky, shame-filled Rorschach across an empty classroom floor. In Escape, Monica Tap collages small paper scraps over classroom walls to reproduce storybook illustrations at a ten-foot scale. Tara Cooper’s sports trophies, which accompany an interview with two dodgeball-loving tweens, are emblazoned with Roland Barthes’ zinger “Sport is the entire trajectory separating a combat from a riot.” Alexander Irving’s hallway plaques look like directions to the principal’s office but offer borrowed bits of Zen wisdom, like “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And in the principal’s office itself, there’s both seriousness (notes on utopia and civic duty by Pamila Matharu’s Grade Ten students) and silliness (a video that shows Johanna Householder lip-synching the lines of witchy, Hollywood-movie headmistresses). Altogether, it is clear that “Art School (Dismissed)” hasn’t just given children the chance to act as critics and art audiences; it’s also given some of the country’s top artists the chance to become youngsters again.

Old School, Cool School

“To walk into that school was to actually enter into my history, to enter into an extraordinarily strong past experience,” says artist Ian Carr-Harris, who attended a public school very similar to Shaw Street School in Ottawa during the 1940s and 50s. “In those days, before you went to Grade One, the idea of an institution was non-existent. So walking into Shaw Street School was walking back into the history of being introduced to the institutions under which we are formed as adults.”

Accordingly, Carr-Harris and Yvonne Lammerich’s Copy one of the following… evokes early learning experiences; two standard desks face a blackboard where three quotations are inscribed in Carr-Harris’s oft-used handwriting-primer script. The amplified sound of pen on paper fills the room, integrating Lammerich’s practice of bridging word and sound. When viewers sit to copy one of the quotations onto coloured writing stock, their own amplified mark-making merges with the general ambient noise. Everything—the sound, the bright and pulpy substrate, the smooth blackboard script, the pinning of “assignments” to a bulletin board—takes viewers back to elementary school.

But it’s not just architecture that has summoned up childhood feelings for the duo this weekend; they also praise the event’s light, playful and camaraderie-filled mood. “That’s something,” Lammerich observes, “that’s regrettably missing, to a great extent, in our experience of art. But Heather did it. She found this fantastic space and she just released it to the artists. She let us play again.”

Camaraderie—in the sense of a class’s collective activity, or a college’s group studio—also comes across in Jay Wilson’s remarkable, 13-foot-tall tower of toothpicks (yes, toothpicks), which nearly reaches the ceiling of a hallway. With its title JayAlbertNandiniDrewMarkEmmaJesseCynthiaManojMattAngelaShelleyHowardKathleenChrisHeatherBrentKatherineLauraGwenNeilMalloryLil anMathieuEdithMartynaMoira, the piece evokes the attendance lists and student name tags that still haunt some Shaw Street classrooms, suggesting a Grade Three class’s collective, reaching spirit, or alternatively its inverted tornado of tantrum. Actually, the title lists all the colleagues, students and friends who helped Wilson make the sculpture, a community and a process that he cherishes. “Hours in the studio would fly by,” he says. “And we’d have really great conversations.” To him, the toothpicks are also “such a studenty thing—they’ve got that macaroni-and-spray-paint quality. So it felt like a classroom project, but, you know, epic.” Indeed, if ever there was a statement about a group of individuals—be they teachers, ten-year-olds or tiny objects—becoming more than the sum of their parts, this is it.

In addition to conjuring the past, “Art School (Dismissed)” provided a look at the future. In summer 2012, Artscape—a Toronto not-for-profit that specializes in developing arts-oriented spaces—plans to reopen the school as a 70,000-square-foot cultural centre. Rooms will range from large organization-sized spaces to individual artist studios. 40 per cent of the space will be below-market, non-residential condos, and the rest will be below-market rental workspaces. With public access on all floors, Artscape envisions “daily exhibitions and nightly events, screenings, gallery openings and performances centered around a bustling café.” Diversity will also be prioritized and space reserved for non-arts groups.

While the plan sounds great, that doesn’t mean it’ll be affordable. Below-market price points range from $138,353 (plus $292 in monthly condo fees) for a 429-square-foot second-floor studio to $513,420 (plus $1,083 in monthly condo fees) for a 3,138-square-foot, third-floor studio— steep prices for most artists and arts groups.

Financial feasibility may also be a future testing ground for Nicol. Both “makingROOM” (self-funded by admission fees) and “Art School (Dismissed)” (funded by two Ontario Arts Council grants and admission fees) have barely broken even, the latter coming out just $1,000 in the black—essentially, Nicol’s curatorial fee for several years of work. And Nicol is still frustrated that she could only scrape together a $150 fee for each Shaw Street artist— “that’s nothing!” she yelps. She suspects that her focus on short-term spaces is part of the problem; few funders deal with such fluid targets. “Working in this way is very exciting, but very draining and financially tenuous,” she says. “I’m not sure if working at this scale is something I’ll do again.”

It’s Toronto that could be the poorer if Nicol calls it quits. CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum, Kitchener Area) executive director Gordon Hatt echoes many when he says that “Art School (Dismissed)” beats the Biennale de Montréal’s École Bourget exhibitions because Nicol asked artists to respond to space rather than to plunk existing work within it. Speaking of biennials—a recurring, frustrated dream for some Torontonians—Nicol keeps getting told, “It won’t happen until you do it, Heather!” So who knows? Nicol thinks shifting to a non-profit organization structure (rather than an individual curator structure) might bring more funding stability. And there’s always that mysterious x factor: “My family says, ‘As soon as you see some awesome garbage dump, you’ll want to do something on consumption and disposal!’” She laughs, and admits she’s got her eye on the massive water-treatment plant in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood.

Things are winding down on Shaw Street. The school casts a lengthening shadow over the road. In a darkened terrazzo stairwell, stragglers lean against mahogany banisters to absorb Nina Levitt’s Elemental, a film that alternates vintage photos with texts detailing school-time memories—often from prominent art-scene personalities. The Art Gallery of Ontario CEO Matthew Teitelbaum recalls a first kiss, sweetly delivered by a kindergarten classmate; the former Power Plant curator Helena Reckitt recounts mischief-making during assembly. Some of the texts are so disarming that they’ll likely become a new kind of “school memory” for these viewers after they leave tonight.

But the show isn’t quite over yet. A neighbourhood resident is headed home to grab her kids—aged 11 and 13—and bring them back to see the exhibition before it closes. A teacher visiting from Vancouver is gathering texts and materials to take back to the art specialist at her school. Though it’s late in the day, it feels like a few things could be beginning. It helps that all the clocks are frozen at 8:31—the time it was when the school board pulled the plug a decade ago. This strange, suspended time and space suggests how exhibitions might look if education—and the people and places that carry it out—mattered more. The payoff, as many have seen, needn’t be dry or predictable, academic or arcane; with moxie (and a little money) it could shine like a springtime sunbeam.

All images reproduced in this article were shot by photographer Christopher Wahl. To see more and to learn about projects similar to “Art School (Dismissed),” go to canadianart.ca/nicol

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