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the c.1996 artists – photo by Hank Roest

Sheila Gregory and I instigated several large-scale art exhibitions in non-traditional spaces in the 90s and into the 2000s, of which c.1996 was one of my favourites. We got sculptor Scott Childs involved early on and then Ronald Bloore. We knew Ron from our student days at York University in the early 80s when he was our professor. We wanted to present an exhibition that featured artists at various stages of their careers, featuring work fresh out of the studio. Gradually we cobbled together a roster of artists for the exhibition, all people who were doing work we were excited about for one reason or another. Because the show featured both younger and older artists, some people assumed it was an exhibition about mentorship, with older artists presenting the work of younger up-and-coming artists, but that certainly isn’t what we thought we were doing.

That’s Sheila Gregory on the far left. Beside her is Jim Tiley, then Ron Bloore, David Partridge, Ray Mead, me, Scott Childs in the back, Claude Breeze sitting down, George Papas, Tim Noonan and Angela Leach. The photo was taken in Bloore’s studio by his studio assistant Hank Roest. Jim, Ron, David and Ray are gone now. It was fabulous to work with them.

We decided to try to fund the exhibition ourselves without seeking any public money, then make back the seed money by producing and selling catalogs and also by having a huge opening bash and selling lots of beer. As it turned out, this was a viable method of putting on exhibitions although it wasn’t without risks and problems.

The first challenge was renting space at low cost for a month for the exhibition. A couple years earlier we had rented some space for an exhibition from a fellow named Mort Rapp. Mr. Rapp, as it turned out, was well known as a supporter of the arts and a collector as well. He was willing to give us a reference to another landlord. We found a great space at Bathurst and Adelaide owned by a fellow named Elliot Title. Mr. Title knew Mr. Rapp. Mr. Title was willing to rent to us but he was nervous. He was nervous for every good reason because a previous tenant ran a boozecan in the space which caused him grief. To rent the space from Mr. Title, we had to get insurance (standard) but also, he wanted some collateral, so I brought him 4 large paintings which he locked away. If his space got trashed or there were other problems, he was going to keep the paintings.

At some point close to the beginning of the exhibition, some local resident caught wind that we were going to have a big art show and worried we were going to open another boozecan. That individual contacted the local City Councillor, who immediately started creating problems. We explained that we were going to hold an art show for a month, and that yes there would be an opening gala but we would have a liquor license and everything would be on the up-and-up. The Councillor wanted us to appear at a City Council meeting to explain what we wanted to do. We talked about this and decided the only reasonable thing to do was to ignore this request.

We did in fact get a liquor license, and the local politicians didn’t follow up with us. Did the opening gala meet the requirements of the license? All I can say to that is we did not get shut down, so everything must have been fine. The evening of the opening might have looked kind of like what you might see at a boozecan, with a cash bar, lots of people, and a band (somehow or another we arranged for the fabulous Subtonic Monks to play at the opening). The band was great – even our landlord was dancing to the spirit drummers. Everything was more or less orderly, and we were able to pay the bills – and I had no trouble retrieving my paintings from our landlord after the show.

Previous to c.1996, we did an exchange project with a group of artists from Chicago, and then there was The Strachan Project, which was in a big old building on Strachan Ave south of Queen W. The year after c.1996, we did another circa show – c.1997, and in 1998 we put on an exhibition called Canadian Shield, which caught a good deal of attention. Later there was Meat and another version of Meat in Montreal, and there was Great Lakes at the old Harbourfront Gallery. I think the biggest of the exhibitions we instigated was called Big Show, in a 10,000 square foot space which was once a pool hall on College St. I say instigated because while we got them started, each of these ventures took on a life of their own. Some artists were in multiple exhibitions, others in just one. We weren’t out to create any kind of cohesive collective. We were more interested in generating a series of exhibitions with a variety of artists.

It’s been quite some time since we’ve done anything like this. Looking at the group of exhibitions now, I’m really proud of them. I can tell you a bunch of artists getting together to organize something can be pretty challenging. There are a lot of egos involved. As well, there were a lot of logistical obstacles to navigate, not the least of which was getting space. It was never possible to get space until within 2 or 3 months of the show, and that was very anxious. In those days, there were a lot more odd-ball spaces around that we could turn into exhibition space. I think it would be a lot more difficult in today’s Toronto.

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