Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Prairie Artsters: From Toronto, With Love*

I saw a lot and I learned a lot from my most recent art-related excursion. Spending just over a week in Toronto and seeing as much as I could, here is a brief summary of thoughts that made me think of Edmonton:

First, the Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario. The project, which cost more than four times as much as our (Gehry disciple) Randall Stout-designed AGA, was relatively four times more impressive. Sure, the ick factor is higher when they have an entire floor devoted to special event rentals and you have to walk through its posh restaurant to get to the community gallery, and almost unforgivably the entire top floor is dedicated to the art world wankings of Julian Schnabel ... but the gallery also has a massive and rather impressive permanent collection on constant display and has an army of curators to successfully integrate contemporary works from Ontario-based artists alongside international artists. I went specifically to see At Work, the show on Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and Betty Goodwin, but I left completely floored by Toronto-based Shary Boyle, who created an intervention in the main floor European galleries with her works that explode the concepts of feminine sexuality, especially in relation to art history. But eclectic programming is expected. What wasn't expected: the in-depth knowledge and coherency of the security guards who were everywhere, and seemed to know everything. I've encountered staff members of commercial galleries and artist-run centres, let alone of institutions, that didn't have a clue about the works around them, and it's these minor but integral interactions that build a returning, art appreciative audience.

Nuit Blanche. It's no secret I detest the plethora of festivals in our city that dilute their programming to satisfy an "art for all" mandate. I believe in the necessity of family programming and social outreach, but I also believe in critically engaging works that push form and content to expand and engage our interests. In its fifth year, Nuit Blanche has fallen in between the cracks in serving art for no one in particular. From more seasoned critics, the biggest complaint was not even the drunks, but the lack of family programming or projects and events that engaged with the public beyond a photo op. Edmonton's arts festivals are overflowing with family friendly programming, but there's little to entice the rest of the population, and hardly a trifle to satisfy an art-centric audience. I'm not entirely sure if any one festival could or should satisfy all these audiences, as time and time again it's proven that in trying to satisfy everyone, we all get left out in the cold. That said, call a spade a spade and stop overriding "art" for funding's sake.

Options and Fluctuations. It's a real treat to have no shortage of commercial galleries and artist-run centres, as the positive outcome within that mix is a real diversity of roles and audiences served. If you're feeling more critical, head to Mercer Union. YYZ, Red Head Gallery, WARC and Gallery 44 all have very different mandates yet coexist in the same building. And it seems that all latest artists have gone down to the converted garages along Tecumseth Street.

After one particular day of wandering through over a dozen galleries, some good, some bad, but all pretty different, I thought again about an article from this past year that tried to square off the AGA with Latitude 53. I remember at the time the article was not worth discussing, but now, it made me sad to realize that not just the writer, but the editor, and an entire base of the population really do believe galleries are just walls with art, and the only difference between them is location and size.

Simply put: being an "art" gallery or festival could mean anything from opening up a frame shop to an excuse for gelato in the streets. Regardless of how it may be funded, art is not a catch-all concept to entertain the masses. While Edmonton's numbers may not be mighty enough to make obvious the different purposes of community art and high art, its small cluster of commercial galleries, artist-run centres, public art galleries and institutions could also take a step to educate the public by distinguishing themselves from their neighbors, because at the root of each space, each started with its own purpose that should still make it relevant and special.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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