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Collective City – The Un Collective

Some time ago, Sheila and I were approached by artists Richard Mongiat and David Sylvestre about a project they were working on documenting artist collectives in Toronto, called Toronto’s Other Art Scene. As Collective City, they were putting together a number of short films about Toronto art collectives. These films as a group, can be found and viewed on YouTube. Also check out Matt Galloway’s interview with Richard Mongiat about this film series on Metro Morning. One of the films documents some of the work Sheila and I were involved with over the years….

This was an exciting time in the history of the Toronto art scene because there was a proliferation of collectives exploring various ways of considering art exhibitions, and some of these exhibitions became significant cultural events in the city.

As I recall, as young artists (Sheila and I graduated from York University in 1983), we felt the art scene was a closed shop for us. There were some commercial galleries, mostly dealing with mid-career artists. Very few artists we knew were getting much traction there. There were the so-called alternative galleries or artist-run centres, such as Mercer Union and A-Space – but we were painters and we weren’t seeing very much painting at all in those environments, and we did not feel very much at home there.

Both Sheila and I were involved with a gallery called Workscene which operated more of less like a co-op. There were a group of artists who were “members” and who operated the gallery and exhibited in the space. Members paid dues, which covered the bare-bones gallery costs and the artists basically did everything else along the way. This was an interesting model which had mixed success. Workscene had not-for-profit status, which added a layer of bureaucracy to the mix – we even had to have meetings following certain protocols.  Later, another gallery called Loop came along (I was involved with that one for a while as well) which operated using a similar model.

At a certain point, Sheila and I, along with Scott Childs, began organizing exhibitions from scratch, finding a group of artists, negotiating with landlords for space, figuring out how to pay the bills, getting some publicity going and so on. We wanted to free ourselves from the confines of the collective gallery. We wanted the freedom to work with different artists for each show we were involved with and we didn’t want to be saddled with a particular space over time. We really wanted to reinvent what we were doing for each project. We did not think of ourselves as a collective because we were constantly trying to change up what we were doing. I suppose this wasn’t the smart marketing approach but at the time our concern was for the exhibitions much more so than the marketing.

As well, we were not interested in seeking grant funding from the arts councils. We figured we could fund exhibitions on our own terms without taking any grant money from anyone. We didn’t like the idea of planning an exhibition contingent on receiving an arts council grant, so we decided we simply would not do that. There had to be another way. We knew we would need some working cash to get going, so put together an estimated budget, and each artist who participated invested in the project. We then looked at ways of raising money to pay back the artists. In each case the projects pretty much broke even and we were able to pay the artists back their investment.

We raised funds in a number of ways. For instance we produced and sold unique catalogs. I recall the catalog for the Canadian Shield exhibition. I wish I could remember whose wonderful idea it was to use twigs to bind the catalogs (it might have been Jay Wilson who did a lot of the fantastic design work on that exhibition….if I’m wrong about that and somebody out there remembers, please correct me). I do recall several of the artists involved hanging out in the space for hours, binding catalogs. We produced a significant but limited edition and they sold out fast. In some cases, local businesses supported the exhibitions through ads in the catalogs. Artists involved also contributed small works which we would package up and auction off with silent auctions at the opening. As well, we typically had a huge opening party and raised money at the bar.

Each of the exhibitions had many different artists involved and as a result, each had a different flavour and a different dynamic. Although Sheila and I and Scott sparked these exhibitions and brought our growing experience to bear, each of them evolved differently with ideas from many different artists who were involved. We figured out how to organize these events as we went along. Typically, one of the first things we did was choose a date for the opening of the exhibition. They we would build a timeline backwards, figuring out all the things that had to be accomplished and who was going to accomplish them. The whole business was lumpy and there were all kinds of obstacles which came up along the way.

The biggest challenge was always finding the right space. We learned that it was impossible to arrange for short term space many months in advance, because the only spaces available to us on our budget were spaces which we sitting un-rented. At a certain point it was a mad scramble to find space and everybody involved in these projects was out there talking to their contacts. What was available. Was it big enough? Could we get it on the cheap? Somehow or another, we not only always found space, we found some fantastic, remarkably interesting spaces.

When we did the c. 1996 exhibition, there was a lot of neighbourhood sensitivity about what were up to. It seems that previously there had been a booze-can operating in the space and there was fear from some of the neighbours that we were going to do the same thing. Now we new were were going to have a big party on the eve of the opening but this was after all an art exhibition, and this particular exhibition included some very well known artists such as Ron Bloore and David Partridge, Jim Tiley and Ray Mead. Politicians reached out to us and asked us to address a committee of City Council, an invitation we declined. As it turned out the exhibition went off without a hitch. We had the Subtonic Monks spirit drummers performing at the opening and there were no complaints from the neighbourhood.

I recall the Canadian Shield show – 1998 – which was in a warehouse building in the Bloor and Lansdowne area. It was a great space on two levels, but parts of it were pretty disgusting. People had been living in the lower level in horrible conditions. A lot of elbow grease was involved in cleaning that space up to a point at which we were prepared to invite the public in. I worried that we were not going to be able to draw people off the main streets to this out of the way spot for the exhibition. I needn’t have worried though. For me, one of the crowning moments in organizing these exhibitions was looking down the street from the building and seeing dozens and dozens of people walking to the building for the show.

Sometimes we would bring in artists not involved in the exhibition or in some cases curators to arrange the works for the show.  Of course all the artists wanted their works to be exhibited in choice spots at the venue, but we learned that we had to get past individual egos to make sure the exhibition was arranged for the best possible show. We learned to do this early on when we lost a couple artists during the organization of The Strachan Project – they felt having their work in the choicest spots was more important than organizing for the best possible exhibition overall. This, like everything else, we learned by experience.

We really appreciate the interest Collective City has taken in the work we accomplished over the years, and in all the art collective activity which took place in Toronto from the late 80s on. It is really admirable that they’ve taken on the task of going back in time, finding documentation, interviewing artists and making this series of films happen. Fortunately Sheila keeps great archives (something I’m horrible at), so we were able to help them out with plenty of documentation. We have many photos from all those exhibitions courtesy of our dear friend Ardis Breeze who always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, camera ready.


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