Katharine Mulherin, a beloved member and leader of the Toronto art community, has left us much too soon. As we begin the hard work of reconciling ourselves to this loss, and fathoming her absence, Canadian Art and Momus have partnered to publish a chorus of tributes from artists, gallerists and friends. Her sincerity, cool, independence and care ring out through these short memorials, from those who knew and loved her well.
Dean Baldwin, artist
I was raised by a single mom, and when I first met Katharine Mulherin, she was one; we got along in an instant, immediate accomplices in some undefined crime. It’s been 20-some years…
We last met at my studio in Montreal. She was bound for New Brunswick with a layover between bus connections (she always took the bus! Setting up for the Armory in NYC: “yeah, I’m just getting on the bus now, see you in 14 hours!”). In the studio we drank seven espressos and talked over top of one another for three hours, laughing loud and heckling. She knew how to really laugh, with abandonment. She chain-smoked cigarettes leaning out the window the entire time.
She gave me my first exhibition in 2003. Never saw the work beforehand. Full of trust and more than happy to flirt with failure, she gave us all collective permission to let it come down, as it did at times, a glorious stinking mess.
I once suggested for an art fair, “Let’s take up 75% of your booth with a used grand piano full of rum bottles, old limes and sticky maraschino jars…maybe some fruit flies. It won’t make any money, but it’ll be more fun than the VIP section and we’ll have a helluva good time.” She agreed, then sold the work to an incredible collection before the weekend was out.
Her rare (or Gen-X?) ability to not care TOO much was both so uncool and counter-professional that she flipped the odometer back to zero. To be the coolest, most at ease at any event, quietly rewriting the rules of our engagement, with a scuffed and lopsided misfit truth. All of us were drawn to that sincerity.
Paul Petro, gallerist
My introduction to Katharine came with the opening of her outpost BUS Gallery in Parkdale in 1998 and her solo exhibitions at Zsa Zsa Gallery. At the time my gallery was at Queen and Duncan at the east end of the strip. By 1999 she had opened her spaces at Queen and Dovercourt, one dedicated to her gallery stable and the others for rentals by artists. One of these rentals went to Jay Isaac and he mounted his first solo exhibition in Toronto. I received a notice in the mail for the show and called Katharine immediately to reserve the invitation image. This would be my first Jay Isaac acquisition and my first from her gallery. Around the same time, I acquired one of her photographs. With these experiences I came to appreciate and relate to Katharine’s many hats, as an artist, a curator and a gallery owner.
When I purchased my building at Queen and Ossington, in the fall of 2001, I switched from Saturday afternoon openings to Friday evenings, synching up with other gallery openings, and enjoyed a steadily increasing and community-building camaraderie with Katharine and other neighbouring galleries on West Queen West. I was getting a handle on her particular mix of emerging and mid-career artists, student thesis exhibitions and rental shows, always admiring her energy and stamina. And I admired her candour as we would tell it like it is, gallery to gallery, during our chance encounters on the street. I’ll miss the reliability of her honesty and how our talk could cut to the chase on so many subjects. Most of all, I’ll miss her commitment and the hope it inspired.
Allyson Mitchell, artist
Katharine Mulherin gave me my first exhibition before I ever knew that I could be an artist. In the mid-1990s I lived close to her 1080 BUS Gallery in Parkdale, and it was the kind of neighbourhood space that opened up the idea of what a commercial gallery could be. Her project spaces were the first where I saw art produced through atypical practices by artists without pedigree—not identifying with a discipline, a movement or a stable. Katharine hoped to support and build community by working from this standpoint. She wanted to hang out with the cool kids but she was the queen of cool. She showed artists who would have been left out of the commercial context, and she did so easily and freely. Katharine was there to give not to take; she had my best interest at heart and rather than looking to profit, she was looking to create an environment. She would take her cuts for the work that sold, but her cuts weren’t deep—they were fair in all the right ways. She was the artist’s dealer. I had five life-changing exhibitions with her. I trusted her because of her track record as a champion of women’s work, weird outsider art and art that the commercial scene had turned its back on. In the past 15 years, Katharine modelled the potential for Canadian art as she showed us how to move from our provincial home in Toronto and spread to LA and NY on a wing and a prayer. She showed real art and took chances. I loved her. She was the real deal, and she will be missed.
Davida Nemeroff, artist and gallerist
Anyone who has ever run a gallery knows how incredibly difficult it is. Katharine Mulherin ran multiple gallery spaces in multiple cities for multiple years. My relationship with Katharine was profound, but it wasn’t unique: like so many others, she gave me my first art show in Toronto. However, instead of continuing my art practice, I became a gallerist. It was when I came to Los Angeles in 2009 to work for Katharine, at her outpost KMLA, that I decided to start a space of my own. This was largely influenced by seeing Katharine run her operation on her own terms, family in tow. She taught me that an art space can support a community, that creativity and talent is bigger than any one person, and that instinct and risk is the best approach. Through working for her I saw that humanity can still be found amid the merciless art world. Now, 10 years into running a gallery of my own, I have an even greater appreciation of Katharine’s gifts. She had one of the best eyes in the business, and she also had the humour, grit and strength to go with it. Her love for her family and her friends was always reflected in the art she showed. Thank you, Katharine, for all that you did and all that your work will continue to inspire. Let us all remember her accomplishments and continue to see her as a heroic champion of the arts in Canada and abroad. The world, art or otherwise, will never be the same. On her behalf, I will continue to give a fuck.
Margaux Williamson, artist
Katharine Mulherin did so many beautiful concrete things with ease, against adversity, with her head held high. Showing others how to do the same, defiantly rearranging the world a little bit through her galleries with such hustle and pleasure and much empathy, letting many, many of us in along the way.
On the other side of that ease, I also glimpsed a small part of her tremendous efforts and force of will to climb out of previous, unbearable bouts where her mind and body turned against her. Hard to see a battle so weighted in someone who moved about the world so easily. I am so unbelievably sad she couldn’t make her way out of this one. I am very grateful for her life and actions and love; I couldn’t guess where I would be without them. Lucky to have stood on Queen Street so many nights, talking quietly, the sun going down, one more lucky recipient of her generous beaming smile.
Alex Bierk, artist
I will remember Katharine as a great artist. I will picture her cool and smiling. The space she held for us and what she created wherever she went was uniquely her own and to me absolutely perfect.
I remember Mike Bayne’s show on Queen Street (she introduced me to him) and the energy of the gallery. Walking by after work at Woolfitt’s, I imagined myself there someday. That strip of Queen Street should be named after her.
I remember her space in New York, the one that you had to walk down into: I wanted to be there too.
I remember Katharine took time at openings to talk to Amanda and me, and it made us feel welcomed and a part-of. She had nothing to gain. It was authentic.
I remember having dumplings in New York with Katharine and Jasper, and admiring the closeness of their relationship. We hung my show in her gallery on the Lower East Side at night because of the heat. They walked with me for miles in the sun the next day to make sure I caught the right bus to make my flight home. Those few days, I will remember for the rest of my life.
Katharine, I am deeply grateful for your kindness and our time together. In Toronto’s ever-changing landscape and art world your impact and hard work will live on. It means something—it does to me. I will forever regret not reaching out to you over the last few weeks, because you were on my mind.
Mia Nielsen, director of Art Toronto
When Katharine opened BUS gallery in the late ’90s, I was working in a project space around the corner. That’s how I met her. She came out of a creative practice—she was a dealer, but she was very much an artist’s collaborator. She would allow artists to come in and physically alter the space in ways that were really supportive of what was going on in the community at that time, and the way that artists wanted to work.
When I think of what Queen West became, it was in large part because of her gallery. As other galleries came and went, she just kept adapting. Moving from a scrappy storefront space to a more formal one down the block, then into the next door, then into multiple locations. When business got good, she went to LA, she went to New York… she was so inventive and entrepreneurial.
Katharine was so inspiring to me—on a professional level and personal level. Certainly as a single parent. Perhaps it’s getting better now, but it’s hard to make space as a cultural producer and a single parent with a really young child. And she started BUS when Jasper was 3! Years later, when I was in a similar position, she was my constant touchstone that I could do this.
She did so much for Toronto and so much for this idea of Toronto as a cultural city. And she touched a lot of people. There were a lot of people who bought their first work from Katharine, because she was that amazing mix of totally welcoming and unassuming. She could talk the talk, but she was so approachable.
Yet she really performed at an international level. Her exhibitions at Untitled in Miami were phenomenal—it’s a smaller fair where standards are really high, and she killed it every time. She did a show at Spring/Break in New York a few years ago. It was the first time I saw Coady Brown’s work—it was in part a very politically charged exhibition a couple months after Trump’s inauguration, and it was the one everyone talked about.
Katharine was so supportive, particularly of the curating work I did at the Drake. I could call her up and say, “Hey, I’m working on a show and I have this and this and this.” And she would always have an idea, she would always contribute with a loan for a show. I would just walk works over from the gallery. She was actually, herself, in the first show I ever curated outside of school, in my brother’s vacant apartment in Montreal.
She was instrumental. Instrumental! It’s a hell of a loss.
Penelope Smart, curator and writer
I knew Katharine, worked for her, lived with her and her family. I worked with Katharine as her gallery assistant from 2013 to 2015, starting out as her intern during my MFA in Curatorial Practice at OCAD. I lived in her famously art-filled and homey-beautiful apartment above her gallery on Queen Street during a good portion of that time.
I had just turned 30. She was turning 50. She was back and forth from NYC at that time—it was stressful, but an active, good time for her. She was back and forth from NYC each month; she’d roll in sometime at night on the red-eye bus and I’d wake up and she’d be sleeping on the bed she set up in the living room, and we’d go for coffee at Ideal on Ossington before the gallery opened up at 12 p.m. I also worked for her in NYC, staying at her Lower East Side pied-à-terre tucked above her US gallery.
Being Katharine’s assistant was an integral moment in my life as a young woman in Toronto—in finding my voice as a writer and curator, both in institutions and experimental platforms. The “strip,” as we called it—a near-gone block of Queen Street West between Ossington and Dovercourt—included Katharine’s gallery; the work of Ron, her close friend and early mentor, at antique shop Rec + Art History; NO FOUNDATION, a project space; and Weekend Variety, now a bookstore. It remains a meaningful, exciting place and an active network in my life.
David Liss, curator at Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto
It’s widely acknowledged that Katharine was a pioneer of the Queen West art scene in the early 2000s. Toronto is the biggest city in Canada, and the art market in Toronto—though maybe a little bit lacking—is the largest one of any other city in Canada. And of course, all the media is in Toronto, too. So for artists to be showing on Queen Street West was a really important step. When I was working in Montreal, Queen West is where I went to see new art when I came to the city.
And not only did Katharine want to bring artists and emerging artists front and centre in the scene in Toronto—I think she understood that for artists to really have an impact and survive, they needed to be on the international scene. Today, everybody does art fairs. But going back to those earlier 2000s, there weren’t a lot of Toronto galleries that were participating on that circuit in New York and Miami. She was.
One time I worked with her was presenting a booth of hers for the ARCO fair in Madrid. 2004, I think. She was a person with vision, a person with ideas, a person with energy—working with her, I mean, it was the easiest thing! She was very welcoming and enthusiastic and open. And I think, sometimes, in the art world, it tends to be somewhat the opposite of that. It can be a closed world of people who are all in the know and honing their own agendas. She was just not like that. She was a very easy person to hit it off with.
I think her impact really shouldn’t be underestimated—the things she was doing for Toronto artists and the art scene here. In this world that we live in now, everything comes and goes so quickly. But I think Katharine’s role is too important to be breezed over.
Sophie Hackett, curator of photography, Art Gallery of Ontario
Katharine agreed to be part of the first exhibition I curated—“Visions of Me” in Zsa Zsa Gallery’s wonderful tiny storefront for the 2001 CONTACT Photography Festival. That felt like a big deal at the time: she’d been running BUS Gallery for three years by then, so she had a serious thing going, but she was still keen to make her own work. Katharine proposed to make a new series of photographs for the show, where she would try on wedding dresses in thrift stores and photograph herself in the fitting room mirror. The camera’s flash, of course, reflecting in the mirror, obliterated her face every time. She titled the series Never a Bride. The photographs were both funny and sad, deliberate and artless. All Katharine. In her artist statement, she described a preoccupation with failure, underachievement and an “indifference to correctness.” This was heartbreaking to read in light of her death and in light of all she accomplished. But she chose to tackle these head-on, in life and in her work, for as long as she could. All Katharine. I plan to remember that courage.
Erin Stump, director, Erin Stump Projects (ESP)
I worked for Katharine from 2007 to 2011. She was a mentor, collaborator, peer, and above all a friend. I curated my first show in her space and later opened ESP right next door to her gallery at 1086 Queen Street. I’m so lucky to have had her support for the past 13 years.
The most inspiring thing about Katharine was her hustle. She maintained a space in New York while having a gallery in Toronto—and not to mention the many other projects that bolstered artists and created a community along the way. She was perpetually moving forward with drive and commitment. She would open a show in Toronto and the very same night hop on the overnight bus for the next exhibition in New York with no complaints. I always admired how she was able to have so much going on at once and manage it all with her incredible memory, insatiable compassion and creative drive.
Katharine and I were in contact recently. I think it’s important to let people know—those who are regretting they didn’t reach out lately or connect with her in recent weeks—that she wasn’t really letting people in. Her sons and family and those supporting them did everything they could to help and support, but she wasn’t in a place to accept it. In the end, I believe the health care system failed her more than people did.
It’s really nice to see the outpouring of love in recent days. It’s important for her children—who grew up living and breathing her gallery life—to have people reflect on those memories, illuminating the impact of her vision and legacy. That’s what she would have wanted.