Cooper Cole Gallery recently unveiled its inaugural exhibition, “Road to Ruin,” at its new, renovated location at Dupont and Dufferin Streets. The gallery’s move is the latest in a steady northward migration out of the west end Queen West/Ossington/Dundas art zone, where the gallery evolved from its beginnings as street-art focused Show and Tell Gallery.
Nicholas Brown talks to founder/director Simon Cole about his international ambitions, the Internet’s role as a promotional tool and his departure from storefront hub to parlaying his outsider status in an isolated location.
Nicholas Brown: From day one, you’ve positioned yourself online every bit as much as you did at your large storefront space on Dundas Street West. Can you trace the gallery’s evolution?
Simon Cole: I started Show and Tell Gallery in 2007 as an online venture out of my apartment in Kensington Market. Every month I would do a one-night opening, document the work and put it up on the site. That lasted for a year and there was such an interest that I eventually realized I needed a space with regular hours. My first location on Dundas and Ossington Streets was a very traditional storefront with big windows. I just got bored of it. The new space is still a storefront, but not in the same way, and part of it is that this block isn’t as retail-focused.
NB: There are a number of galleries that have moved or are moving further north, but you’ve really gone out on your own at Dupont and Dufferin Streets. Did you consider moving positioning yourself nearer to stalwart galleries, like the burgeoning gallery district on Saint Helens Avenue?
SC: Coming from an unconventional background, I’ve never felt like I needed to put myself next to veterans like Jessica Bradley or Susan Hobbs to be relevant. Even with Show and Tell, I was showing street art, stuff that no one was showing in Toronto, or even Canada, and there’s a market for it now that I don’t think existed before. So much of my business is international that it doesn’t matter where I happen to be located. Dundas was great at first because people would come through the doors and there was a feeling of community, but with the changing neighbourhood there’s a lot of distraction.
I had the thought of moving two or three years before it happened. I kept seeing this space come up on Craigslist—it was a silkscreen studio at the time. I think they had a hell of a time renting it, so the real-estate agent was thrilled when I approached them. It probably helped that I had an established business in the Portuguese community—this building is in a Portuguese community centre.
NB: Was distance from the casual viewer and the Dundas “scene” part of the impetus for the move?
SC: At the time I started, nearby Queen Street West was still an arts district. Fast forward, with rumours of MOCCA closing, a lot of other galleries moving out of the neighbourhood and with the nightlife and restaurants moving in, I was ready to make a change. By the time I left, there were 10 bars and restaurants on my block alone. In 2008 it still felt like no man’s land, but over the last three years I’ve had issues with how the neighbourhood was changing.
NB: With “Road to Ruin” there’s an overall aesthetic of decay, references to violence, illicit sex. What do your new neighbours think?
SC: They’re fucking freaking out. It’s funny, I have security cameras pointed at the windows and I get emails if there’s any activity outside. It’s always people staring inside, like, “What is this stuff?”
“Road to Ruin” is the name of my favourite Ramones album and it’s kind of a cheeky phrase in the context of the move. There’s an underlying level of uncertainty or angst overall, with bratty, punk associations. And including someone like Gee Vaucher (best known for her work with anarcho-punk band Crass) is paying homage to that. A number of the works, in the context of this exhibition, deal with societal vices. So Jeremy Jansen’s and Ryan Foerster’s contributions could speak to urban environmental concerns, Brie Ruais’s Corner Push in the vault has this aggressive production—she takes her body weight in clay and pushes it up the corner of the wall. Marlie Mul’s incorporates smoking, Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s piece could be read as commentary on domestic abuse, Martin Soto Climent’s could speak to alcoholism and addiction.
It was important to show artists I represent, but also artists who have never shown in Canada, like Martin Soto Climent and Marlie Mul. Those artists are doing so well internationally at the moment. The Canadian audience has to see them.
NB: Being off the beaten path, what new opportunities does your location offer? The space is idiosyncratic, certainly more photogenic. Do better installation photos justify reduced foot traffic?
SC: Unfortunately, Toronto is not a top-tier art city in the global market. A lot of my clients are not based in Toronto, so they only see online and through photos. I also work with a lot of emerging artists who I’ll show, and then three years later they’re blowing up. Collectors research them and come across me. I want to make sure whatever I’m doing in the space is being presented as well as possible. The website acts as the gallery’s business card.
I didn’t want a big warehouse space. I don’t think there’s enough of a market for me to show an exhibition of 20 paintings in a massive space because I won’t necessarily sell them all, at least not locally. Why push young artists to fill a giant room when the likelihood is the work won’t all sell immediately? Especially working with photographers, there’s such a cost to producing the work. I do a lot of my business at art fairs, so why put a huge operating cost on my local business when I don’t see the sales necessarily coming here?
NB: At the same time, Toronto is your base, and you’ve developed a dedicated local following and a sizable roster of local artists. What role does a dealer play in relation to a local audience, and what about viewers who don’t represent your collector base?
SC: I think the dealer’s role is that of promotion, marketing: getting eyes on it. I certainly have a following of people who come to my shows and follow them online but have never bought anything and might not be in a financial position to do so. But they’re fans of the gallery, and they help promote it. And that’s so important for artists like Georgia Dickie, who is in her mid-20s. I post an Instagram and she might get 100 likes and maybe one of those likes is a dealer in another country who bookmarks it, comes back and offers her an exhibition. And that ripples back: with a represented artist, I control inventory in the sense that we want to know where all the works are at any given time and who owns what. Let’s say in 10 years she gets a major museum show and we want to call some of that work back. That’s the role of a gallery—it’s management. It’s not just about selling, it’s about promoting and managing artists.
NB: Is that every dealer’s responsibility?
SC: It depends on what your motives are. There are different types of gallerists. There are people who want to make money and people who want to promote their artists and encourage the growth of their careers. I think it’s the case if you want to be a relevant gallery in the international dialogue, and because of the Internet it isn’t a Canadian scene, it’s the art scene. If you want to exist on the same playing field as galleries in New York or Berlin, you’d better make sure you’re represented, and it looks good, because you get inquiries from all over the world. I’ve sold art to South Africa, I’ve sold art to India, I’ve sold art to Asia. That’s not happening because those people are walking in off Dundas Street West.
NB: What’s coming up?
SC: I’m opening another group show in two weeks that’s much more lighthearted than this, paintings and sculpture. More of what you would expect of a summer group show. That will have Mark DeLong, Tiziana La Melia, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Jay Isaac, Alfred Boman (this will be his first time showing in Canada, he lives in Sweden), and Zoe Barcza (who’s actually from Toronto but has never exhibited here, she lives in Sweden). I’m really excited about it.
And then in the fall I’m showing JPW3 and Davida Nemeroff, a two-person exhibition. Davida is Canadian and hasn’t shown here in a while. She represents JPW3 at Night Gallery, which she runs in Los Angeles, but this is the first time they’ll collaborate as artists. Many of the artists I work with have galleries or do curatorial projects on the side. It’s just like a dialogue in a community. And just like, from doing international fairs, stuff like that, I want to see that grow. It’s cool being in this larger thing and being the Canadian guy for a lot of these people.