From the Ground Up: Happiness is a Warm Biennial
The forum “From the Ground Up: A biennial platform for international contemporary art in Toronto,” organized by the Power Plant and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, was a welcome return to the Toronto Queen Street art scene of the 1980s when public forums for contemporary art were regular events. Last weekend, 150-or-so committed souls came out on a blustery Saturday morning (with more arriving later in the day) to see where they and their city might end up with the proposition of establishing a biennial for Toronto.
After a genial welcome from hosting director David Liss of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Power Plant director Gregory Burke laid out a commendable introduction to the history and rationales of recent biennials. This set the scene for a daylong exploration of the doubts and possibilities involved in the notion; it acknowledged the now-tired glut of international biennials as well as the advantageous professional context that such an event would bring, including raising the city’s profile within the international art circuit.
That negligible profile is a persistent note of anxiety in an art scene once well known internationally for its leadership in artist-run culture and new media art development. From that high point in the 1970s and 80s, Toronto has increasingly morphed into a drop zone for art-star exhibition programming and collecting. To arrive or depart from the recently revamped Pearson airport is a working lesson in this shifting art identity. The bland array of mostly international art projects there ably represents the city’s now largely colonized official art culture. In trying to be Everywhere, Toronto has shown a striving talent for turning itself into Nowhere, a Nowhere uniquely shaped by what seems a pride in signalling an ability to read the New York Times arts section.
The first panel, titled “Histories and Opportunities” and moderated by critic and curator Peggy Gale, frequently circled this identity anxiety. Former curator Jessica Bradley, now of Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, told a telling anecdote about opening a new issue of Frieze magazine last fall only to discover Canada excised from its international advertising listings. She also expressed dismay at what she said was a local tendency to believe the “provincial fallacy” that importance always lies elsewhere. Following up, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery curator Barbara Fischer gave a lesson on the distinctions between “traumatic” and “modernizing” founding models for contemporary biennials. For her, the important step in shaping a Toronto biennial is to answer two questions: “who is Toronto?” and “what is Toronto?” Art Gallery of Ontario curator Gerald McMaster concurred that “Toronto has a need to have its own artistic identity and we should build on who we are.” He recalled his experience curating the Canada Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale, where “Canada is second or even third tier.” The very funny Philip Monk, director of the Art Gallery of York University, held up a poster (one of the AGYU’s Jeremy Deller multiples) with some words to focus the central question for the day. It read, “What Would Neil Young Do?” He went on to lament Toronto as “a sick scene with a lack of interest in local content.” Lisa Steele, chair of visual studies at the University of Toronto, began her remarks by saying that for the event, she would be a hopeful Pollyanna. She remarked on her experience building the former Transtech biennial of video and new media art for the city and quoted Moscow Bienniale commissioner Joseph Backstein, who said of Moscow that “they need a biennale to be part of civil society.”
Over the course of the day, the Toronto discussion gradually arrived at a similar view. There was a slow warming from an expectational deep freeze where a future Toronto biennial might meet the world with a sad, passé irrelevance to a palpable excitement about the constructive potential of a large-scale contemporary art event for the city—be it a biennial, triennial or something else. From the floor, some reservations were voiced about the cost consequences of such a project to existing art support systems. On the second panel, Heather Haynes, executive director of Toronto Free Gallery, made a presentation based on a canvas of her colleagues from artist-run galleries and spoke of their uniform agreement about the need for transparency in proceeding with any plans or funding for such a project. Haema Sivanesan, executive director of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre and a recent transplant to Toronto from Australia, mentioned the inscrutability of the Toronto art scene on her arrival and her subsequent pleasure in discovering its diversity. An internationalist by virtue of her professional experience, she stressed the need for local emphasis in any biennial plans. Barry Lord, a former editor of the magazine ArtsCanada, spoke from the floor to remind panellists and audience that “outside the room in different parts of the country there are large Canadian audiences looking to discover Canadian art.”
On a final panel of institutional directors that included Liss, Burke and Sara Diamond of the Ontario College of Art and Design, AGO director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum distinguished himself by offering no firm words of support for a biennial, adding that the AGO was already working on a series of high-profile international projects in Toronto. He did, however, offer the gallery as a venue for any follow-up meeting. From the floor was a welcomed idea of staging a biennial on the Toronto Islands. Also from the floor, Corrado Paina, executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Toronto, suggested looking to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds as a viable venue.
With the Pam Am games scheduled for Toronto in 2015 and the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation in 2017, the timing is good for contemplating the formation of a large-scale art event in Toronto that can help mark both events and leave a legacy of cultural infrastructure. At this early moment, either more news will follow—or not.