Seeing as how I posted about the April 17 Toronto Biennial forum a few weeks back, I thought I’d follow up with some of my thoughts on the event—y’know, now that it’s actually happened and all.
I attended the full day of presentations and took notes throughout, which adds up to a sore writing hand and too much material for a quickly produced blog post. Also, the entire proceedings were videotaped, hopefully to be posted online at some future date along with a summary by Peggy Gale. So what follows instead are five of the spectrums (spectri?) of discussion that were most interesting to me overall.
1. Town Hall vs. Nothing at All
OK, so the main thing I got out of this whole event was that museums and other public art institutions should do “town hall” style public meetings more often.
During the course of the day, it was incredibly evident that people from many different parts of the arts community really wanted to provide feedback the big kahunae and to each other, that people wanted a forum to express their loves and loathes about the Toronto scene, as well as suggestions or critiques for making it better. The feedback didn’t just address the idea of a biennial, though that was the ostensible jumping off point. It also touched on wider issues in arts funding, local history, and current institutional choices—things that people do want to talk about in a setting that’s a bit wider than beers with friends from time to time.
Of course, I understand that many public museums and galleries feel like they already stretched to the limit just trying to meet programming and budgetary goals. Extra events and associated logistics? No thank you. But honestly, if the president of the United States can make time for public town halls, maybe our museum directors can too. Just sayin’. I really believe it would be to everyone’s benefit in the long run. (And to be fair, if you don't want to wait for this next town hall to be organized, Matthew Teitelbaum said during the forum that he's welcomes feedback at email@example.com.)
2. Nasty vs. Nice
One of the most engaging moments of the forum’s morning session came when panelist Philip Monk, speaking on a panel titled “Histories and Opportunities,” held up two pieces of paper to the audience. “Would you like Nasty or Nice?” he asked. The audience’s energetic response, to my relief, was “Nasty!” And so Monk went on to provide a helpful counterpoint to the typical (though often practical) tradition of Canadian niceness.
One question Monk raised (from what I understood… Monk and others are very welcome to correct me in the comments section) was whether the forum was truly collaborative or whether there was an agenda (ie. a biennial plan) already at hand. He also took issue with the format of the sessions, with morning being “histories/past,” the afternoon being “supposed visionaries” of the future and “the big boys” stepping up at finish the day.
Monk also noted that the press release for the event said it was about “bringing” a biennial to Toronto, and that he wanted to critique a persistent idea that Toronto needed to have stuff “brought to it” rather than “building on what’s here.”
He also pointed out the latecomer nature of this Hogtown biennial discussion. “Why is Toronto always belated? What does that say about our city and its elite?”
Referring to an Olympics model of the way big events force cities and countries to prove they can “get it together” for the world, Monk asked “Can Toronto get it together? Does Toronto have a history of getting it together?” Riffing on this question, he stated, “Toronto is a sick scene, a dysfunctional scene. Will a biennial be a part of this sickness or will it be a way to health?”
And lest anyone be left out of this enjoyable nastiness, there was also something for the critics! Monk said “When it comes to criticism, this discourse in Toronto is at a juvenile level—Toronto has no art critical understanding. It is confused and regressive, with no knowledge of what is at stake.” (I take no issue with this, really—I feel confused much of the time, art crit being a field with few standards or performance-measurement mechanisms.) (UPDATE - In an April 30 comment on this post, Monk writes that his comment wasn't directed at published criticism. He says his original panel comment was: "When it comes to criticism—and I mean not what is published but what purports to be a public discourse, that is, as what takes place in public—frankly, this critical discourse in Toronto today is at a juvenile level. Ju-ven-ile! It’s embarrassing." I suspect the panel documentation will bear him out on this, but I also doubt I'm the only one who took his comments as being directed to published criticism in the moment. For more details, please see the comments.)
To sum up, Monk said “I’m always distressed by a lack of generosity in this art community… I can imagine a biennial that might be a love-in for Toronto or public group therapy for the art community. But we can’t have an international biennial until we change our attitude to being here.”
Cue resounding applause, which is what Monk got.
I reproduce Monk’s comments, or my notes of them, at length because I feel there is a considerable and consistent tension in the art community (and during the daylong forum) with “how to couch this or that criticism so that it produces the change I want to see without being emotionally inflammatory?”
In a way, this is an advantageous approach to conflict, wanting to maintain relationships rather than burn bridges while making desired things happen. But it is also feels like a drawback in terms of vitality, honesty and robustness. There were many other people during the forum who had compelling feedback along the nice to nasty spectrum, and I actually have to say I was impressed with the way people spoke to longstanding, difficult or frustrating issues in mostly “positive” ways. In any case, I think the point now is to keep the conversation, whatever its nature, going. (Possibly peppered with a bit of nasty to keep people awake.)
3. Festivals vs. Institutions
Another point that became clear from the day of talks was that any future art festival in Toronto, biennial or not, will have a hella lot of pressure put on it to represent local or regional artists. To my mind, this is due to the fact that our institutions have not committed to consistent programming of Toronto or Ontario artists, have not committed to reflecting the strong creative production of our region back to the public. So when the idea of a biennial comes up, and associated questions of local vs. international focus comes up (as it must) the pressure is huge to finally do the local justice.
The problem, to my mind, is that we really need our institutions to step up and do some of that regional research and presentation. It really can’t all be shoved on a festival. It needs to be something more consistent, and more persistent, like regular solo shows of local artists, large ones at that for those with significant careers already under their belts. Matthew Teitelbaum of the AGO did say there was more Toronto-artist programming coming in the future, which is great to hear, but it must be evaluated as it is produced. (aka I sure as hell hope that not all the installations in the AGO’s new “Toronto Now” space will double as an extension of the gallery restaurant—I know it works for Dean Baldwin’s current show, but I confess I have my think-the-worst fears.)
4. Toronto vs. Vancouver/Rest of World
Holy man, I did not expect to hear as much about Vancouver during the morning of this forum than I actually did. Some panelists, though joking in tone, were actually saying things like “it’s sad for a lot of people in the arts community to see planes flying over Toronto; we so often picture an international curator in there, jetting direct from Europe to Vancouver.” Which was kind of funny but also kind of freaking-well sad.
Later, the anxiety around Vancouver widened, as it does, to basically include the rest of the world. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world recognize our scene?” the plea seems to go. “Why are we a second or third tier country at Venice?” (A consequence of this widening anxiety also sometimes conflates “Toronto” as “Canada,” another weird and unfortunate psychogeographical leap.)
Overall, though I think it was therapeutic for people to air some of these fears and frustrations about feeling overlooked, I do believe that you have to value your own scene before you can expect other people to value it. (Haema Sivanesan of SAVAC had a great anecdote about immigrating to Toronto from Australia and finding the scene difficult to perceive—great behind the scenes but not visible in public spaces, I think it what she was referring to. This is the kind of valuation that’s needed, and relates to that point on institutions I mentioned earlier.)
You also have to be realistic; Canada may be a wonderful country (I certainly like to think so) but it is also a rather small one in terms of population. I don’t think it’s very realistic to aim for more than (or lament being) “a second or third tier country” at Venice. Sometimes all you can do is do your best, be a pro, market the hell out of it, and appreciate the coverage you get—which I’d bet is actually a fairly high proportion relative to Canada’s population size.
Then again, maybe I’m missing some data. What is this other country that people think Canada should be “equal to” artistically? Or a city that people think Toronto should be thought of in the same league with (other than Vancouver, people!). If you have ideas beyond the usual unreachably-megalopolis suspects (NYC, London, Paris) please share in the comments. Is it that Sydney and Auckland are outshining TO? What’s a reasonable point of comparison?
5. Artist-run vs. Mega-org
The last, but certainly not least, thread of discussion that intrigued me had to do with tensions between artist-run centre approaches and priorities and mega-arts-organization approaches and priorities—or at least some of the perceived differences between these sectors’ priorities.
Panellist Heather Haynes of Toronto Free Gallery (and Fuse Magazine) actually put me on the spot a bit when she referred to my original post about this forum and my complaint that there wasn’t enough artist-run centre representation in the official proceedings. She said that had prompted her to consult informally with some artist run centre staff and compile a list of their recommendations for any proposed Toronto Biennial.
According to my notes, these artist-run centre feedback points—which were well received and referred to again in the rest of the proceedings—were:
- Financial concerns and desire to participate in the planning process
- Wondering whether this is a good time for starting a project like this with provincial funding commitments already being cut to large infrastructure projects in Toronto like Transit City
- Worry about top-down Olympic effect, of funding orgs going over festival budget and of long-term operational budgets for centres and galleries being cut as a result
- Concern over whether a biennial type event would result in overworked and underpaid labor
- A desire for something other than “high-profile prosecco parties,” for something that lasts longer than a day or a week
- Looking for a strong balance between international and Canadian programmers
- Noting a need for strong representation of aboriginal communities in the planning stages and racialized communities as well
- Interest in seeing a biennial that will go beyond the international art stars and that will present emerging artists along with established ones
- Documenta was often used as a frame of reference, for example in the way it creates a website and publications that live on beyond the event
- There was also a feeling the biennial should not appear in one location and should be held throughout the city
- A lot of people were interested in events that are not just VIP oriented, that go morning to evening
- Also interested in a biennial that challenges what happens in traditional art centres
- Questions of how to make this a non-Toronto initiative, to bring in other Canadian centres
In a way, that’s a false battle (one I admittedly might have constructed in my own mind through misinterpretation) because most ARCs realize that they don’t have the public reach of an OCAD or an AGO. Yet the fact remains, as SAVAC’s Haema Sivanesan noted, that many smaller galleries in Toronto do “biennial-quality” exhibitions, which is to say show strong art—some of it stronger and more internationally robust than what the big guys show.
So… this concludes my main threads of interest from the panel pétanque on Saturday. Apparently, the AGO has agreed to host any followup panel in association with one of my freelance clients, the Canadian Art Foundation. Will it happen for reals though? I certainly hope so. There’s a lot of people, I think, who still want to step up to the mic.
And in that spirit, what did you think of the event? Would you go to the next one? Why or why not? How would you make it better? And most importantly, what did I get wrong?