Like any big city, Toronto has an urban fabric characterized by the fluctuation of permanence and impermanence. The artist-run centres and other alternative art spaces have followed suit. With urban gentrification on overdrive, it seems as though the life expectancy of these spaces has steadily declined. There are concerns for the viability and sustainability of new ideas and projects for emerging generations of independent art producers and even veterans in the art community. This has encouraged – or, perhaps, forced – the art community to think of the gallery as more concept than physical space or to adopt a nomadic gallery model. In discussions with founders of new or young alternative art spaces, I learned how they are circumventing or coping with present real-estate challenges. I reached out to ma ma, The Loon, Sibling, Beauty Supply, Egret Egress, and Art Spin.
Founded by Magdalyn Asimakis and Heather Rigg, ma ma is a new curatorial project that is described as a “roving contemporary art space” for critical dialogues through art and gathering. Being a roving art space entails moving from venue to venue, programming in each for a limited time. The first location was a unit in the Clock Factory at 300 Campbell Ave., a former plant occupied by IBM in the early 1900s. For Asimakis and Rigg, the roving model was conceptual, practical, and instinctual. Rent in Toronto is unsustainable, and they feel that the malleable approach better accommodates different art practices and experimentation. Resisting “calcification” and “stasis,” moving allows for them “to be discursive and critically aware” of what they are doing.
ma ma emphasizes contemporary practices that are “urgent, critical, and create productive dialogues.” It has presented exhibitions featuring local and international women artists, talks, critical reading groups, and workshops. The second location is a five-minute walk from the current space and will open in spring 2019. It is a room attached to a house, in which Asimakis and Rigg will plan site-specific projects around issues of public and access. In the interim, being between spaces gives the duo opportunities to conduct research and studio visits and to explore future funding.
The Loon is composed of Oliver Roberts, Caleb Dunham, Aleksander Hardashnakov, and Liam Crockard. The idea for The Loon was inspired by the generosity of art spaces that Hardashnakov encountered while working in Europe. It was intended to be an alternative to the dominant “white cube” art space model. Nestled in the Junction Triangle, The Loon is a cozy industrial apartment-studio with a small kitchen tucked away in the back corner. The gallery space is unique, with its wood- panelled gallery walls and pleasantly quirky pink floors. The Loon hosts regular exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, and screenings. Its programming reflects an organic, self-organizing model built on trust. There is no formal mandate or vision, but the members increasingly refer to The Loon as a “school,” suggesting that it is a place for reciprocal teaching and learning. The emphasis is on informality, experimentation, and differing voices. Visiting artists and collective members have both worked and lived in the space. “In a way,” explains Crockard, “The Loon is . . . governed by the same principles as you might [have] when inviting someone to stay at your house.” With this ethos in mind, the programming process is driven by generosity, inclusivity, comfort, and full bellies. For openings, Crockard makes soup instead of providing the more customary alcohol.
Sibling is an alternative art space that launched in November 2018. It is operated by Becca Fleming, Holden Kelly, Kate Kolberg, and Jack Lambert, some of who also co- founded Little Sister, a former storefront window gallery in Little Portugal that relocated to a garage space in Little Italy. Sibling is located behind a house in a residential neighbourhood. Unlike the old space, the new industrial garage unit has amenities that include a bathroom and heat.
Sibling’s mandate is to foster a site for new ideas to materialize and support young art practices. Kolberg noted that in Toronto there is a lack of available venues for emerging artists to exhibit and develop their practice outside the studio. Although this deficiency isn’t a new challenge, as most commercial galleries are risk averse, Sibling hopes to operate “somewhere in the middle between project space and gallery-proper.” Following the success of its inaugural exhibition featuring Toronto-based Mike Goldby, Sibling will continue curating both Canadian and international emerging artists.
Beauty Supply is a 170-square-foot renovated space that hosts small exhibition projects, screenings, and installations. It is located in a semi-industrial area, on the second floor of a house belonging to artists Lisa Neighbour and Carlo Cesta. Along with the practicality of using a renovated room in their house, Neighbour and Cesta came up with the idea for Beauty Supply after having conversations between themselves and with friends. With independent artistic practices, the two have been exhibiting their work across Canada and internationally since the 1980s.
As demonstrated by the purveyors of these curatorial projects and alternative art spaces, nothing is long term in Toronto for the rental community. They all maintain the quality of their exhibitions, and their programming is not determined by a physical space.
I was greeted with immediate hospitality by Neighbour, who told me to help myself to a drink in the kitchen. Aptly timed on a particularly cold autumn night, a house full of artists gathered in warmth to view the exhibition entitled “the weather is always right,” a self-adhesive photo-based wall drawing by Canadian artist Lee Goreas.
The curatorial mandate of Beauty Supply is casual: “To show things that people may not have seen yet, by artists . . . doing great work.” They want to encourage the local community to gather, see, and talk about the exhibited work, and to show artists who don’t have regular commercial exposure in Toronto. “We have a surplus of exceptional artists in Toronto, and finding exhibition spaces is really tough,” they explain. Upcoming exhibitions will feature mid-career to established artists such as Eric Glavin, Nestor Kruger, Tanya Read, Scott Carruthers, and Alan Belcher.
Egret Egress is a curatorial project by Jennifer Warne and Craig Spence. It is currently situated behind a house, off an alleyway, in a cinderblock garage. The unit has a red brick facade and large industrial metal doors painted white. Initially, Spence intended to renovate the space into a woodshop, including a space that could be used as a sculpture studio. Sharing frustrations about the lack of space in Toronto to show artwork in a “casual, fun, and inclusive setting,” Warne and Spence decided that the studio could also host exhibitions.
The vision for Egret Egress is to curate solo exhibitions by “Canadian and international artists with a focus on formalism, craftsmanship, and conceptual critique.” They hope that a mandate will develop as a “visual representation” through their exhibitions and programming. Although the two are interested in experimental forms of artmaking, they also want to “show work that can be sold because artists need to make money and . . . to keep the space running.” The space is also funded through woodshop rentals and resourced from skill sharing within the art community (for example, photo documentation in return for plinths being built).
Egret Egress is not tied to its current space. With Toronto’s changing urban landscape and increasingly inaccessible rent, Warne and Spence say, “There’s no point in investing a mind-set into [a physical space].” Apparently, their landlord has already raised their rent because they’ve painted the walls white. “It’s capitalism and late-modernity,” they say. I can’t help but read their words with a feeling of helplessness.
Art Spin, founded in 2009 by Rui Pimenta, began as a bicycle tour of galleries in downtown Toronto. With Layne Hinton joining Pimenta as co-director and co-curator in 2010, Art Spin has since grown into a more robust operation that organizes large-scale group art exhibitions. Art Spin does not have a physical headquarters for its programming. Instead, it focuses on temporary site-specific works in decommissioned or unconventional spaces across Toronto such as defunct schools, parks, parking lots, and beneath overpasses. For Pimenta, the roving model has always been an integral part of the Art Spin experience. “When you get people on bikes moving through the city,” he explains, “the act of moving recontextualizes the way you see it . . . [the city] is being reimagined and rediscovered.”
Through fundraising events, grants, and sponsorships, Art Spin has been able to regularly produce three projects a year, each lasting anywhere from four days to two weeks; admission is usually free, with some ticketed activities. A noteworthy project includes In/Future (2016), a ten-day art and music festival situated at Ontario Place, a temporarily decommissioned theme park built in the 1970s.
One way for Art Spin to stay sustainable has been to operate through specific partnerships with companies in the business of urban development. In particular, the Kajama Boat Tour (2018) was a one-day event in August that took voyagers on a vessel that crossed Toronto’s inner harbour and sailed into the Port Lands waterways. Voyagers experienced art in the form of performance and installation on and around the boat. The project was presented in partnership with Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company focused on developing controversial technologies for the infrastructure of a smart city (think: autonomous vehicles and so on). Although “we must remain vigilant and critical,” Pimenta asserts, “you cannot talk about change without involving the people who hold the power about community planning and urban development.”
As demonstrated by the purveyors of these curatorial projects and alternative art spaces, nothing is long term in Toronto for the rental community. They all maintain the quality of their exhibitions, and their programming is not determined by a physical space. Whereas some are making the best of their temporary spaces and embracing ephemerality, others, such as Crockard, believe in “fighting the good fight.” Pimenta suggests that “people should be channeling their frustrations and concerns” to the municipal government, which is responsible for regulating the developers. Nevertheless, they all seem to agree that it’s best to remain open to change and being fluid. These are just some of the strategies and coping mechanisms being used by these artists, curators, and programmers. If Torontonians want to keep a vibrant, diverse, and culturally rich community, they must support these alternative art spaces and projects in the city. Attending exhibitions is an easy way to do so.
All quotations in the article are from interviews conducted by the author with the staff of each art space. She would like to thank them for taking the time to converse with her.
New address to be announced mamaprojects.net @ma_ma________
56 Mulock Ave., Unit 1 sibling.online @sibling.to
227 Sterling Rd., Unit 109a theloon.info
16 Geary Ave. beautysupplyroom.com @beautysupplyroom
164 Willowvale Lane egretegress.com @egretegress
Varied pop-up sites across downtown Toronto artspin.ca @artspintoronto