Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays! I'll be taking an official break from today through to Monday, January 2, inclusive. All best for the new year.

(William Armstrong's 1835 winter scene on a Toronto bay from Wikimedia Commons)

Read More......

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Year-End List Time! My Top 3 Art "Things" of the Year at

Aw, yeah, it's year-end list time! Today I got to join in the action with my top 3 art "things" of the year posted at

All of my picks had to do with institutions. An excerpt:

1. Some Downward Pressure on Public-Museum Admission Fees

This year, I completed a rather unexciting transition—from being a writer whose main concern is art to being a writer whose main concern is art’s institutions, in particular our large, publicly funded museums and galleries. Over the past decade—despite museum policies that mandate as much equitable access as possible to their publicly held collections—major museums and galleries in Canada have tended to eliminate free access to such collections, at the same time implementing admission-fee hikes that well outpace inflation. In 2011, for whatever reason, that trend has, thankfully, started to stall (and even reverse somewhat). On October 27, the Royal Ontario Museum—until that point in time, by my calculation, the most expensive museum to visit in Canada—announced it was lowering its admission fees from $24 per adult to $15 per adult. On November 16, during a public talk in Toronto, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer said he wanted to restore free permanent-collection access at the nation’s largest art museum. And on November 22, the Power Plant announced that admission would be free for one year beginning in March 2012 in honour of its 25th anniversary. None of these actions can come close to mending wholesale the relationship between public art institutions and the constituencies for which they were ostensibly founded. (And in highlighting these few nominal improvements, I recognize that I’m failing to cheerlead for the museums and galleries that have bothered to maintain free public-collection access and other free access over the years, from the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and beyond.) But it’s a small start to what I hope will be a more equitable and people-friendly art world of 2012.

To read my other two points, head to

(Image of the Royal Ontario Museum admissions desk Copyright 2009 Royal Ontario Museum)

Read More......

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Spectacles, a good heart and (maybe) an iPad: David Hockney talks drawing tools in today's National Post

I was really glad to see how much discussion sprang up this fall around the David Hockney exhibition at the ROM.

As Paddy Johnson pointed out in Toronto Life, the show can be considered, in many ways, a cash grab on the part of the museum, as it doesn't involve a lot of shipping (it's emailable) and doesn't feature Hockney's best work.

And as Richard Rhodes (counter)pointed out in Canadian Art, the show, in person, actually offers a quite nice little promotion for the continued vibrancy of drawing practices, whether in digital means or otherwise.

Given all the stuff this show has brought to the conversational surface, I felt very lucky to chat a bit with Hockney himself when he stopped by Toronto in October, a few weeks after his show opened.

The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. My favourite bit is at the end:

Q Is there any art technology you’re hoping will be invented in the future?

A Well, I don’t know. But I’m not looking for some easy way out. I know that’s no good. In fact, most artists want to make things a bit more difficult for themselves as they go along, to challenge themselves. I first drew on the computer 25 years ago, and it was too slow, like drawing with a pen with no ink — frustrating. I also admit I had to use [the iPad] for quite a while to get good at it. The skill is in the practice.

Q You said earlier that looking is the key to drawing. Is there any technology people can use to get better at looking?

A Spectacles? Ha! A good heart, maybe? I mean, some people can see more than others, can’t they? Van Gogh knew he could, and he did see more than others. Picasso must have seen more than others. To look is a positive act, actually. Most people, generally, are just scanning the ground in front of them to make sure they don’t bump into anything. Not many people give much scrutiny to things. But if you draw, you do. I mean, I’m an absolute looker — I like looking, I always did. To me, the world’s rather beautiful if you look at it. Especially nature. People will tell you it’s a miserable world going to rack and ruin, but they’re not looking at it, I think.

To read the full interview (including Hockney's response to the implication that this is not his best work) head on over to the Post.

In the process of researching this Q&A, I have to say I really enjoyed looking at Hockney's website, which includes some quite fun videos of him at work on plein-air and large-scale projects.

And for those who haven't seen it yet, the show continues at the ROM until January 1, with the museum having Friday-discount pricing on evenings between Boxing Day and January 7.

(Charlie Scheips' photo of David Hockney drawing on his iPad © David Hockney)

Read More......

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Canada in Miami: Not-so-Cold Comforts at

I went to the Miami fairs for the first time last week with a strange experiment in mind -- trying to see as much Canadian art as I could, or, phrased differently, to see how Canadian art is represented in this type of situation.

The lengthy data report from this experiment was posted today at An excerpt:

Though there weren’t any Canadian contemporary-art dealers at ABMB this year, a small hub of contemporary Canadian artworks was present courtesy of Toronto artist-run centre Art Metropole, which since 2005 has shared a space in the fair’s bookstore section with New York City’s Printed Matter.

Artist multiples on display and for sale at the Art Metropole/Printed Matter booth included Maura Doyle’s Handmade Coins and Tickets molded out of clay; Lyla Rye’s metallic and mirror-like Cameo pin; Tibi Tibi Neuspiel’s Artist Sandwich sculptures showing the visages of Picasso, Beuys and Van Gogh sketched in what appear to be pieces of toast; the Fuck Death Foundation’s coffee mugs; Paige Gratland’s “feminist hair wear” The Sontag; and Sandy Plotnikoff’s Holidays Cancelled greeting cards.

This year, ABMB also served as the apropos launch platform for Art Metropole’s newest book, Commerce by Artists, which was edited by Toronto artist Luis Jacob.

“Commerce by Artists has done really well [at ABMB] for the fact that it’s so suited to this environment,” Art Metropole shop manager Miles Collyer said. “And it’s almost counter to commerce that’s going on at the fair, because a lot of the projects [in the book] are dealing with alternative forms of transactions between the audience and the artwork, or between the gallery and the artist.”

“It’s a nice kind of second sober look at commerce and what people may be coming here to participate in.”

It takes some clicking through (there's nine pages all told and a few slideshows) but if you're interested there are also reports of the Canadian dealers I did find at the other fairs if you read on--and reports on Canadian works at ABMB represented by European and American dealers, too. You'll find it all at

A final note: I don't presume for this report to have covered all the Canadian art in Miami last week; I'm sure things were missed. But it was interesting for me to see what was there. Don't know if I'll ever do this at a show again, though!

(Image: A copy of Commerce by Artists alongside Cameo buttons by Lyla Rye and Handmade Coins and Tickets by Maura Doyle in the Art Met booth at Art Basel Miami Beach)

Read More......

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Telling South Asian Tales Old and New: Profile of Brampton's Sharada Eswar out on Yonge Street

My most recent foray in profiling GTA artists for Yonge Street took me to Brampton, where I met up with a very busy professional storyteller and writer: Sharada Eswar.

Since immigrating from India with her family in 2001, Eswar—who previously worked in marketing and did storytelling and puppetry on the side—has really ramped up her activity in her chosen art. Here's an excerpt from the Yonge Street profile that provides a peek at her 2011 schedule:

In March, she and choreographer Nova Bhattacharya received a Toronto Arts Council grant for a project to re-imagine the Mahabharat from a female point of view. In April, her interviews with Sri Lankan refugees formed the soundtrack for No Entry, an installation at Coronation Park. In September, she wrapped a radio drama for Wychwood Barns' Theatre Direct, inspired by tragic Hindu hero Abhimanyu and chilling reports of the Toronto 18 wannabe terrorist group.

In December, she'll be doing carnatic singing in a Pharmacy Avenue studio for a Tamil-and-English adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The remarkable project, presented by the community-arts group Jumblies Theatre, is the culmination of a three-year Scarborough residency involving dozens of Jumblies staff and hundreds of community volunteers. During the residency, Eswar has facilitated programming for the region's Tamil seniors. With Like an Old Tale, she's taking on the role of an actor, rather than that of a self-directed storyteller.

To find out more about Eswar and how she built her career in the arts, read on at Yonge Street.

And it's worth noting that that big adaptation of A Winter's Tale actually opens next week, December 8, in a big old TV studio near Pharmacy and Eglinton. It only runs for 10 days, coinciding with the 6th Canadian Community Play Exchange Symposium. For ticket info, visit the Jumblies site.

(Photo of Sharada Eswar by Voula Monoholias for Yonge Street)

Read More......

Sweetness and (Projected) Light: Q&A on Watch Me Move at the Glenbow Museum

The Lisson Gallery's Greg Hilty works amongst some of the most highbrow echelons of the art world. So when it came time to interview him about Watch Me Move, a show on animation art that was a big hit at the Barbican this summer and is now on at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary (its only North American stop) I had to ask him how the heck he got in charge of this megacrush on populist flicks from Pixar and Disney.

You can find out what Hilty said in today's National Post, where our condensed Q&A appeared. An excerpt:

Q You’ve worked at some of the most high-end galleries in the world. How is it you’ve created an exhibition that crushes out on multiplex fare such as Disney and Pixar?

A There’s overlap in my background as a museum curator specializing in points where the visual arts connect with other visual fields, like film. I’ve always taken the view that there’s great meaning and great relevance to be found in looking at art very broadly. Though I’m very clear about what’s good and what’s not good, I think it can be found in different places.

Q So how do you tell good from bad in animation? What makes one instance artful and another not?

A That’s a hard question. One indicator of animation’s maturity is it has been taken up by many people who call themselves visual artists rather than animators, like Francis Alÿs, Kara Walker, Nathalie Djurberg and Julian Opie. But no matter who’s doing it, I think there can be good clay animation and bad clay animation, just like there can be good painting and bad painting. I think animation has been limited in the past by many museums seeing it as a set of technologies. I was keen to look at animation, by contrast, as an approach to plumb the depths of human consciousness and scale the peaks of human imagination.

My favourite Hilty quote in the Q&A comes at the end, however:

"Sweetness and pleasure and delight are things that the art world sometimes, at its cost, ignores. It tries to be a little bit above all those things — and fair enough, there are serious things to engage with — but it’s a big world, and there are many emotions in the world and in people’s lives. I think one of the reasons for the good response to this exhibition is there’s a sense of recuperating the full range of human emotion in the visual arts."

Damn straight! As a huge fan of the movie Up! and (shame be damned!) a child-free (and, I'll add, cat-free) lady who actually requested seeing Puss in Boots on its opening weekend, I have to agree on that note about sweetness.

There's also some Canadian content I had to trim for lenght, like the fact that Hilty said the NFB did give the world some pretty interesting animation, especially that of Norman McLaren, whose Neighbours is included in the show.

For the entire interview, read on at the National Post's Arts section.

(Still from Toy Story 3 from the Telegraph)

Read More......

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free Collection Admission at the National Gallery of Canada on the Way? Q&A with NGC Director Marc Mayer at

Last week, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer gave free public talks in Toronto and Winnipeg on an often-controversial topic in the arts: taxpayers’ money. In it, Mayer discussed misconceptions that the general public and art insiders alike often have about art, artists, art museums and the art economy. He also spoke about his wish to make art more accessible to all Canadians.

Today, published my condensed follow-up phone interview with Mayer. In it, we discuss the gallery’s budget (slated this year at approximately $58 million), where it comes from, and what he’s planning on doing with it in the future. The most exciting financial development for me is that Mayer says he would like to restore free permanent-collection access at the National Gallery. (I write "restore" because it did used to be free to visit the NGC collection, but today it costs adults $9 for the majority of the week, one free evening excepted.)

Here's an excerpt from the interview:

Leah Sandals: In your talk, you noted that Canadian taxpayers provide 85% of National Gallery of Canada’s funding. You also said that you would like the gallery’s permanent collection to be free for taxpayers to see, just like collections are in public museums abroad that have similar funding arrangements, like the Smithsonian and Tate. How are you going to make this free permanent-collection access happen at the NGC?

Marc Mayer: Well, it’s complicated, and we’re trying to figure it out. We’re actually trying to find someone to sponsor it. We think that makes more sense, that someone should take credit for that kind of generosity. And there are various sponsorship options, so that’s really what we’re looking at, because it’s a considerable amount of lost revenue. We think, of course, that [over the long term] there would be a gain in revenue, because more people would come to the gallery—but not in the first couple of years; it takes a while for people to get used to the idea that the permanent collection is free and that they can come anytime.

LS: The latest quarterly figures the gallery has posted online indicate that admission fees only account for a small portion of total revenues—2.2%—with much of that figure coming from tickets to special exhibitions rather than tickets to the permanent collection. So what are the obstacles, then, to restoring free permanent-collection admission?

MM: 2.2% is a lot of money on 58 million dollars. And we can’t afford to lose any money. So the main obstacle is the money. But we’re also part of a network of national museums; would our decision force them to [do something similar]? What is the ministry’s position on this? All those issues, we haven’t figured them out yet. But I do feel strongly that Canadians should have access without barriers as much as possible to the national collection, particularly those who bothered to come all the way out to Ottawa. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Read on at for the rest of our exchange, which addresses Canadian vs. non-Canadian acquisitions, the gallery's new biennial, its re-involvement in the Venice Biennale's Canada Pavilion, MASS MoCA's massive show of Canuck art next year and more.

I was thankful that Mayer was willing to speak to these topics, often in a frank manner, and I'm grateful to the University of Toronto Art Centre and the Winnipeg Art Gallery for hosting his talks. Here's a few other thoughts on the talk and chat that I wasn't able to squeeze into the interview:
  • In his talk, Mayer said that the gallery is working on having an extended wall label for every collections object on display. To this, I say, hallelujah. A lot of people who visit art museums (especially new visitors) are often left hanging when it comes to being provided with some tools or information for interpreting the art on display. Or at least some context! Mayer said that one of his priorities on this front is to get a label for Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, which has been one of the most notorious paintings in Canada for the past 20 years, but bears no trace of this context (or any other context, be it historical, formal or financial) in its gallery presentation. He also mentioned Newman's Yellow Edge in this label discussion, which I was especially glad to hear because at Speed Art Criticism this year, some earnest non-artster came up to me just really wanting to understand why the heck that work was in the National Gallery. Hopefully the label will offer some of that explanation to people!
  • Mayer also said during the talk that he's not just looking for art-historical context in these labels, but different kinds of stories or angles with which visitors may better understand (or inquire about) the art on display. I agree that providing multiple vectors of entry into artworks is a good idea.
  • On the more humorous end of things, Mayer said during his talk that the Group of Seven era "frankly hadn't interested me all that much until recently." He did go on to note, however, that many members of the public and the critics decried the National Gallery's acquisitions of Group of Seven works as a waste of taxpayer money a century ago, and that public outcry is to be expected of art-museum acquisitions, in a way, since the mission of contemporary curators at most national art museums is not to document the best-loved art of their time but rather what is likely the most game-changing art of their time. (Because some people rightfully decry the overuse of the word "game-changer" these days, I'll clarify that that's my word choice, not Mayer's.)
  • Mayer noted that at talks like these (and I would extend, of course, that in interviews like these) he is largely preaching to the converted. This made me think afterwards: how could he reach a wider audience and vice versa? There were jokes about interrupting a sports event, but it did make me think, again, of the Speed Art Criticism event at Nuit Blanche, which to me is a really interesting opportunity to meet a public that is art-interested, but not art-ingratiated.
  • I'll end this post with a quote from the talk that I found interesting: "Our greatest efforts need to be the creation of a much bigger audience for art, both new and old. We need to think much harder about how to do that, and focus our research and cogitation on the cause of connecting Canadians to their most ambitious culture. That's what the National Gallery is thinking about above all other concerns these days, I can promise you. Indeed, that is what the National Gallery is for." (I myself actually suspect Mayer is likely juggling many more concerns than just audience development, but I appreciate him making the point.)
(Image of National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer courtesy the NGC and via

Read More......

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Power Plant announces Free Admission from March 2012 to 2013

First the ROM's announcement of reduced admission fees, now this: The Power Plant has announced free admission for a full year starting March 23, 2012.

Here's the details from the gallery press release emailed this morning:

The Power Plant is pleased to announce the launch of the ALL YEAR, ALL FREE program in celebration of its 25th anniversary year. Due to the generous support of The Hal Jackman Foundation, the gallery will drop all admission fees for one full year commencing 23 March, 2012.

The launch of this new initiative is timed to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of The Power Plant, an occasion to encourage increased public access to the gallery, mark its achievements, celebrate its past successes, and build an exciting future....

The gallery is indebted to The Hal Jackman Foundation for making this yearlong program possible. Since 2005, the generosity of the Foundation has enabled The Power Plant to open its doors free of charge during the summer, making the gallery more accessible to thousands of lakefront visitors and tourists. The summer program has been overwhelmingly successful, enjoying an increase in attendance numbers by more than 400%, and reporting 77% of those attendees as first-time visitors.

I can't say that this is anything but a good thing--after all, I'm always happy to see private donors sponsor more free admission to art institutions--though it seems strange/unfortunate to me that we must wait for the initiative to begin in March.

I also wonder if a year of free admission is enough to really acculturate new audiences and publics to frequent visiting of the gallery--some say a few years of free is needed to make that happen at art museums.

(Also, the longer I think on matters of access, the more it seems vital to me that public Canadian collecting institutions make access to their permanent collections free, whether sponsors are available or not. It's the principle of the thing, you know?)

But getting back to the Power Plant (a non-collecting institution) I do have to say this comes as a very pleasant surprise. Kudos to the Hal Jackman Foundation for continuing to put arts access in their list of priorities.

For more information about the Power Plant's upcoming programs, visit their website.

(Image of the Power Plant's smokestack by Xavier Snelgrove via Wikimedia Commons)

Read More......

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Exactly that: Q&A with Ken Nicol out in today's National Post

Ken Nicol is a master at divining order out of chaos — particularly chaos of the everyday-life variety. Whether he’s carefully sorting swarms of houseflies or arranging potato chips into tidy grids, this Toronto artist distills mathematical purity out of lo-fi dross. With his latest show, themed on the number 100, now on in Toronto, Nicol talked to me about his work. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Your current show is themed on 100. Why?
A I don’t know. I’m hoping to make a list of 100 reasons to do 100. I’ve been asking people for ideas. Someone said, “Well, 100 is really round, it’s not like 37, all pointy and stuff.” Ha! But 100 did come up with the Pringles I use, because it’s 100 chips in every can. And the show is on for 100 hours. So 100 kept coming up. And it’s a great tool, because it’s a good goal for something. If I claim 100 as a genre of mine, then I can know when to stop collecting things like my white beard hairs. It gives me a nice little parameter.

Q Was math a big thing for you in school? There’s so much in your art about symmetry, counting and sets.
A Generally I sucked at math in school. But I do a lot of drafting. I suppose it’s geometry I’m more interested in. Phi, the Golden Section number — that’s pretty neat. And as for grids, well, I mean, look at my heroes: Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre. Though I keep on buying Cy Twombly books, and I don’t know why.

Q Because your works can be so small and precise, I find they prompt me to acknowledge my own poor attention to detail. Does it bother you that people don’t always pay as close attention to objects as you do?
A It totally bugs me. I mean, you go to a Ken Nicol show — if you actually pay attention, you’re going to be rewarded. A lot of this stuff is easy to absorb, because it’s nice-looking and well done. But if you go a little bit further into it, there’s more.

There's definitely more, I agree! To read the rest of the interview, head to the Post.

Nicol's show Hundreds of Things, Volume 1 continues at MKG127 in Toronto until November 12. He also has a small show at Convenience Gallery that closes November 24.

(Image of Ken Nicol's 100 Pringles, Regular, Sour Cream & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Barbeque 2011 Courtesy the artist and MKG127)

Read More......

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"I don’t know what there is in the colour green that makes you think hard": Grade 6 students review contemporary Canadian Painting

The other day, I received a set of terrifically enjoyable art reviews. They were all written by Grade 6 students at a Toronto public school. Their teacher had assigned them to look at the semifinalists in this year's RBC Canadian Painting Competition and make a case for their favourite work. Some of the reviews are reproduced below, along with the works they refer to.


I chose the Untitled art painting first for the competition by Tristam Lansdowne. I chose it because I like how the artist made the colours balance and look eye catching. The background colours look like a peaceful background so when I look at it, it already looks like a clam and peaceful place. In the front the beautiful falls of water and the plant looks like it is a beautiful place with beautiful nature all around it. When I look at the picture it reminds me of my old unforgettable dreams in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, there was a war. After the war we went to Sri Lanka from Canada and saw the beautiful buildings half broken and saw the other beautiful half. I also like this painting because the artist uses emphasis. First the top is normal but in the bottom it has more information. These are the important and good reasons I chose Tristam Lansdowne’s Untitled for first place in the painting competition.


My first choice for the art competition is Blotto by Deirdre McAdams. This picture has a lot of colour and shapes. The type of colour it has matches very well with the shapes. I really like the placement of the shapes because of its rectangular figure and bright pink and orange colours. I admire that this is abstract art because there isn’t really a picture of a person to look at. It can be anything you want it to be! That is very interesting to me. That’s why Deirdre McAdams’ Blotto should win the art competition.


My first choice for this art painting competition is Ianick Raymon’s Decomposition 2. The first reason I chose this painting is because it reminds me of checkers and a movie that I saw. The second reason I chose this painting is because it looks 3D and 3D stuff is really cool. The third reason I chose this painting is because I like how the artist put the checkered pattern in the middle and the corners. It is really creative. These are all the reasons why I believe that Decomposition 2, by Ianick Raymon should win the competition.


My first choice for the art painting competition is Bitsy Knox’s work entitled The Improper Sister 1. The first and most important reason why I chose it is because I really like the shapes. I like the shapes because the triangle shapes seem to bounce. Another reason why I chose it is because the colours make me think hard. It makes me think hard because of the highly contrasted colours, especially the colour green, contrasted with the pink. I don’t know what there is in the colour green that makes you think hard. There are many shapes and lines in the picture. The biggest think is that the colours stand out very nicely. The bouncing shapes make it more interesting for me. These are the reasons why I strongly fee that the painting by Bitsy Know should win the competition.


I chose Amy Schissel’s art because I like how her art looks free with so many colours. The colours of the lines make me want to fly because there is no balance. I vote for her because she knows that art should have no instructions. Shapes don’t have to be shapes, lines don’t have to be straight. You can imagine what you can make from her shapes. That’s why I think Amy Schissel should win the competition.


My first choice for the art competition is Julie Trudel’s painting named Project CMYK, Test 44. The first reason is that I thought how she mixed all the colours and made something look like a black hole! Second, I like the texture of how it is mixed like one part looks higher than the other. Third, I like the cool swirls and make it look like a black hole or a colourful toilet. That’s why I chose this one.


I have to say my favourite is that last piece of writing with its "colourful toilet" analogy. Many thanks to the teacher of these students and to Jackie Braden at RBC for forwarding along these reviews. And good luck to these young writers in future!

For more information about this year's RBC semifinalists, visit the competition website.

(All images from

Read More......

Friday, November 4, 2011

Muskrat Magazine's Rebeka Tabodondung: Looking at Media from a First Nations Perspective

My most recent piece for Yonge Street Media, posted this week, looks at Rebeka Tabodondung, editor and curator of Muskrat Magazine, a new online Toronto magazine that focuses on First Nations perspectives.

Here's an excerpt from the middle of the article:

"I got the sense in early discussions that Muskrat wasn't going to focus on how 'deficient' First Nations people are— their disasters and problems—but rather focus on contributions they can make to broader society," says Deborah McGregor, interim director for Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto. McGregor contributed an essay to the debut issue tracing the Ojibwa re-creation myth in which the muskrat—among the smallest and most humble of animals—is the only one brave enough to dive into deep waters after a massive flood and bring up soil for a new land to be built.

The muskrat's parable of great ends from inauspicious beginnings is a powerful one for Tabodondung, who was kicked out of high school before graduating. At 19, while on an exchange program for indigenous youth from Guatemala and Canada, she had a revelation which changed the direction of her life.

"That was the first time in my life I'd ever heard of an indigenous perspective of history," she says, recalling the youth program's visits with Aboriginal groups in B.C. "I realized the Aboriginal experience of colonization in Canada is not a perspective that is included within the education system, within media and general Canadian consciousness. I began to understand the power of media and the importance of indigenous people to control their own stories, to tell their stories the way it happened to them."

Researching this piece was a good reminder for me on the power of media and of telling one's own story. It also introduced me to a compelling performance piece by artist Keesic Douglas. Last summer, Douglas canoed from Rama First Nation near Orillia to The Bay on Queen Street West, where he tried to trade his great-great-grandfather's Hudson Bay Blanket for beaver pelts. Here's a film on that performance from Muskrat Magazine's Youtube Channel:

For more information, visit the Muskrat site or read on at Yonge Street Media.

(Image of Rebeka by Tanja-Tiziana for Yonge Street Media)

Read More......

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dealing with Resistance to Change: Notes from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference

Following on yesterday’s post, today I’m compiling notes on a couple of sessions from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS Centre in Toronto.

The presentations ranged widely over brain structure, pedagogy, curriculum, and educational institutions. Here’s the points that stood out the most for me in terms of thinking about contemporary art, contemporary art education and related programming at public museums and galleries:

- Change coming from within educational institutions, and other institutions, is thought by many experts as being in the highly-challenging-to-well-nigh-impossible range of plausibility. As speaker Stan Kutcher put it, “Changing a university is more difficult than moving a graveyard.” As a result, several speakers said, change on educational and other fronts must be initiated outside the established institutions. To me, this recalled the development in decades past of Artist Run Centres in Canada, an alternative exhibition model that grew outside of museums. And perhaps, in more recent years, it points to the growth of the web as a place for exhibiting art outside of the museum and ARC structure. Still, I wondered -- must all change come from outside? It's a depressing thought for me, even if it's a realistic one.

- Some educational theorists are excited about the idea of moving from a top-down, lecture-based model of teaching to an interactive and shared model of teaching. Again, it’s worth wondering how this could apply to art institutions today. Though many museums offer “interactive” features of one kind or another, the general feeling in many art museums is “we are conveying or presenting important art knowledge to the viewer,” not “we are collaborating with the viewer on generating art knowledge and experiences” or “the viewer might have something to teach us or share with us about art knowledge and experiences.”

- In terms of using new technologies, all the presenters agreed that integrating resources for training educators in those technologies was crucial. Many institutions provide the budget for tech equipment, but not the budget to teach educators (and perhaps, in the museum case, curators and directors) how to use it.

- Even fewer resources, at times, may be devoted to much-needed testing, whether it’s of paradigms old or new. As Kutcher pointed out, he has been trying to do research on the effectiveness of certain technologies in education and teen mental health, but has little comparative data, as the effectiveness of traditional educational and mental health strategies had not been thoroughly tested in the first place. In terms of art museums, this prompted me to wonder what ideas of value in exhibitions have become accepted as status quo through the centuries without any data on viewer learning to actually support them.

- Again, collaboration between divergent groups is key for moving forward in technology and education, including arts education. As Matt Thompson, a representative from Mozilla put it, “The geeks are getting it. We know now that the Internet is not going to save the world. But it’s the dawn of a more interesting age” where there are hybrids between technology and other fields are growing more useful applications. As an example, he discussed some tech-ed programs Mozilla had developed in intensive collaboration with teachers and curriculum advisors. The upshot here for arts institutions is, again, to reach out to teachers (and, as necessary, programmers) when looking to develop appropriate and useful arts-ed technologies.

Also, here’s a few of my thoughts on the conference in general:

-Next time, please allot more time to speakers and panelists, or focus the topics so that they can be addressed in the allotted time. Many of the topics at the conference could have had full days devoted to them. Instead, each panel speaker was given four to five minutes to cover that topic. I’m all for conciseness, but there’s a limit to condensing useful information. It’s also annoying to go see a single-speaker talk that runs out of time in terms of getting down to the nitty gritty. That’s partly the fault of the speaker, but could have to do with unclear timing expectations.

- In a conference that has a lot of buzz around “new ways of learning in the 21st century” I was left wondering why so few 21st century tools and approaches were being used in the presentations I saw. I’m talking about webcasting the talks and panels as a basic minimum, which didn’t happen. I’m also talking about revamping the traditional top-down speaker approach. There’s few things more annoying than hearing a speaker expound on the benefits of “non-broadcast, non-top-down models of learning” while they absolutely engage in broadcast, top-down modes of communication.

- Be sensitive to the ways a sales pitch can alienate your desired audience. I overheard at the conference that some attendees were annoyed with the sales-y ness of the presentation lineups. Next time, to improve its usability and integrity, the conference might want to consider providing some tips for educators that don’t require buying a book or software program or consultant time to put into action.

Overall, I found the conference an interesting experience, especially as a non-educator myself, and I’m sad I’m not able to attend this afternoon’s panel featuring Sally McKay of Digital Media Tree. Good luck Sally!

For more information about the conference, please visit

(Image of an old-timey classroom -- with the same layout as many new-timey classrooms -- from elearninggr14)

Read More......

Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning through the Arts: Notes from Day 1 of Art, Science & the Brain

Today, I attended a couple of sessions at Art, Science & the Brain, a conference on learning organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS centre in Toronto.

Here’s some of the key findings that came out of the talks for me in terms of learning through the arts. I've also noted, where possible, the potential implications for contemporary-art institutions like public museums and galleries:

- Teacher-Institution collaboration is the bedrock of a successful arts education program. This was reinforced in several sessions. Institutions can’t just create a program and put it out there and expect it to be used when teachers’ curriculum or other key needs are unaddressed.

- Institutions may wish, when possible, to consider supporting arts in the classroom, not just bringing students into the gallery. The Guggenheim Museum retains more than a dozen resident artists to go out into NYC public schools on 20-week programs each year. The Guggenheim program also requires three school visits to the museum, but most of the work is done in-class. This is likely an extreme example for the Canadian funding context, but worth considering – how do we follow up with kids in the classroom?

- Arts education programs like ArtsSmarts can enhance positive student behaviours and decrease disruptive ones in the classroom to a statistically significant degree. This finding is supported by an ongoing ArtsSmarts research study in Quebec public schools which has found the outcome to be true over a period of 2 years thus far. This is especially true, say teachers, for students with so-called "special needs." Personally, I think this is a remarkable finding as making the classroom an open environment for learning would seem to be half the battle in overloaded classrooms these days.

- Institutions need to be willing to work on basic logistics as needed. Cambridge Galleries found that teachers were interested in bringing their students to the gallery, but teachers found it was difficult to find appropriate and affordable transportation to do so. Luckily, Cambridge’s Education Officer managed to make a link to the local transit authority, which was delighted to handle the transportation as the 9am to 2pm window was typically a low-use period for them. Kudos to the gallery for working with the community on this solution to an unglamorous (but persistent) problem.

- Lessons learned in a visual arts program can benefit grades in other subject areas, anecdotally speaking. In one presentation about ArtsSmarts’ Quebec research project, it was noted that one teacher saw her students’ English Language Arts grades increase after the ArtsSmarts program. What she concluded was that her students learned a lot about creation and revision from the visiting artist, who would have students take a closer look at their watercolour paintings and revise them 4 or 5 times over the course of 4 or 5 weeks. As a result, students became more comfortable with the idea of producing and editing written work—rather than just working on writing one perfect sentence, they would write five good pages, then trim it back.

- Engaging multiple media enhances chances of learner success. The Textile Museum offers many hands-on, touchable experiences in its gallery, but it also has opportunities for students to follow up online and post their own views on artifacts through its Social Fabric site.

- Though no statistics are able to show so far that ArtsSmarts programs enhance student engagement, there is much anecdotal information to that effect, particularly where so-called "special needs" learners are concerned. One teacher told me, “I’ve dealt with kids who haven’t been to school for five years. But when they’re in this program, they don’t miss a day.” Pretty remarkable.

Also a few questions seemed to linger in the air during the day. Here’s a couple of note:

- Are current educational materials at Canadian museums and public galleries too dumbed down? This seemed to be the view of a few people at the conference. They would like to see more respect for the viewer offered in interpretive materials and texts.

- How can arts educational projects be funded consistently? It’s worth noting that the Guggenheim’s Learning Through the Arts program actually wasn’t initiated by the museum, though the museum has now taken it on. Currently, funding for these types of initiatives seems to be a patchwork, with more and more funding tied to “it better be good for the economy” outcomes.

- Is a conference of this sort too wide-ranging? Perhaps attendees would benefit from more indepth approaches to the arts or science or the brain, rather than all three.

- How is it that education has gone from being a core element of museums and public galleries to being a separate department, often with a separate space within the museum or gallery? How can the educational mandate of institutions be better integrated with their everyday activities and spaces?

- Are arts education programs such as ArtsSmarts most likely to be taken up by teachers who have high levels of student engagement in their classrooms already? Is there a temptation to test out these types of programs in classrooms that, in a way, need them the least, because a "good" class will better guarantee a "good" research outcome?

I hope to hit up a couple more sessions tomorrow and to post more notes then. For more information about the conference visit

(Image of an ArtsSmarts project from

Read More......

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It’s about time: ROM reduces admission fees to semi-reasonable levels

This morning, the Royal Ontario Museum is officially announcing that they are reducing their admission fees, which, until this announcement, were the most exorbitant in Canada and among the most expensive in the world.

The general admission fees are dropping to $15 for adults [previously $24], to $13.50 for seniors and students [previously $21] and to $12 for children over the age of 3 [previously $16].

As any frequent reader of my work would likely suspect, my reaction to this news is generally positive. Admission fees and affordability at museums has been an axe I like to grind, and this is a big step in the right direction. The adult admission fee has dropped by a third, and is finally almost in that movie-ticket ballpark I’ve recommended as a maximum in the past.

At the same time, those who care about museum access might also see some cause for concern in this announcement. As part of these changes, the ROM is eliminating its two free hours per week, which were Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30pm. (Inconvenient and tokenistic as a time slot, I’ll admit. But my preference in terms of these announcement would have been to see these hours expanded and moved to an evening during the week.)

On the more good-newsy front, the ROM is at least maintaining cheaper hours on Friday from 4 to 8pm, with admission fees during that time dropping to $9 for adults (previously $12), $8 for seniors/students (previously $10.50), and $6 for children (previously $8).

Yesterday, ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding chatted with me on the phone about this change to admission fees. Our edited exchange is printed below.

Q The ROM has said for years that there’s no money in the budget to reduce admission fees. Where did the money come from to do this?

A Well what we’ve done over the last few months as part of our strategic plan is we spoke to people who hadn’t visited us before or visited us in a while. And what we were hearing then was that the price was too expensive for people. We felt we needed to make a change, and people said to us that if we had a lower entrance price, more of us would come. We’ve reduced the [adult admission price] to $15 and we think the cost of doing that will be offset by the increased number of people who will come. I would rather have lots of people coming to see us at a lower admission fee than fewer people coming to see us at a higher admission fee.

Q How much of overall revenues do admission fees currently comprise?

A Well, last year 17% of our revenue was admissions. But that was including all of the admissions—admission to special exhibitions as well as to the permanent collection. What that doesn’t include is membership.

Q The ROM policies demand that the museum reduce economic barriers to the permanent collection to the greatest extent possible. Why not just make access to the permanent collection free and charge for temporary exhibitions, as many other museums do?

A Where we are right now, what we found is that we couldn’t afford making the permanent collection free without cutting temporary exhibitions. So it wasn’t a viable economic model.

It feels to me that my role is to create a museum that’s lively—that people have access to what we do. [At the same time,] I don’t want to reduce the quality of what we’re doing. I want to have more people coming.

Also, we found that even most of those visitors who were coming during our free hours were happy to pay something—they just felt $24 wasn’t the right amount. So we said, let’s make it cheaper for lots of people to come everyday.

Q And you eliminated free hours altogether. Why?

A We’re working on the basis that we’re going to be free to the people who need it to be free for them. So we’re increasing the number of tickets available in our access program by 50% to a total of 75,000.

Q Does that include distributing ROM passes at all Toronto library branches rather than just a few of them?

A No. We’ve focused on those areas that are particularly areas of need, the areas where people were least likely to be coming to the museum.

Q One thing I’ve found in researching this issue is that institutions often point to each other when setting fees. They say, “this fee is consistent with comparable institutions in the area.” So how do you expect this admissions fee change to impact structures at the AGO and the Ontario Science Centre and other museums in the area?

A Well the research that we did was for our visitors. We didn’t ask questions about other sites. I would expect everyone would be looking at it from the point of view of their audience. What I have done is I’ve made sure our colleagues knew [in advance] that we were making this announcement this week. So from my point of view it’s not about what’s right for everyone else, but what’s right for the ROM.

Q You came to the ROM from overseas museums [like the Australian Museum] where the admission fee structure was considerably more affordable. How did that affect your approach to the ROM’s admission fees?

A When I arrived, I knew that we were an expensive museum to visit compared some other museums. But what I wanted to understand was what audiences here felt.

The research we’ve done over the last few months has been helpful in working out what we need to be. And my interest is in being the best museum we can be.

To me, this is the first step in what I’d like to do over the next 3 to 5 years. When we get to 2014, [the ROM’s centenary year], I’d like people to being seeing the ROM as an essential destination… and affordability is a key part of that. So it’s about what’s right for the people here in Toronto and Ontario.

Q How much did the Ontario government recommendation of last year—that the ROM improve its economic access—affect this change of approach on admission fees?

A Well, we did a whole series of things in terms of preparing for that committee, and that included taking a look at whether our access program was working. I think one of the reasons we’re increasing the number of [access program] tickets to 75,000 is we feel that’s actually working. But we’re constantly looking for new partners to help us reach new audiences. So we’re delighted to work at the YMCA and the YWCA, for example. So I think preparation for the committee helped us.


A few more of my thoughts on this development:

- I’m all for museums staying financially solvent, but when will they stop treating the public as a customer and start treating them as a shareholder or client? The ROM’s funding is still 50% government grants, and it remains an agency of the provincial government. This admission fee drop is a big step in the right direction, but the elimination of free hours is not a good precedent to set in terms of a collection held in the public trust.

- I am wondering, as indicated in the Q&A, how other museums in the area might react to this. My ideal outcome would be that they reduce their fees as well. We’ll see what happens. I can also imagine them being very upset by this announcement from an internal perspective, since it does put pressure on them to reduce fees they may not feel ready to reduce yet.

- I would like to see museums, strangely, become a bit more self-interested on this front. When Toronto councilors threatened to shut local libraries, there were hundreds of people who turned up at city council to protest and thousands more who signed petitions online. Citizens feel that libraries, quite rightly, are theirs, because they can access them at almost any hour for free and they experience them as providing a vital public service. Because museums charge such high admission fees (and yes, $15 is still a lot to many Torontonians and Ontarians), they forego a large amount of that kind of popular emotional support.

- Also, I still don’t understand why the ROM didn’t at least set the fees at movie prices. In terms of market, if I can pay 10 to 12 bucks and go see a multimillion dollar production with a compelling narrative and emotional appeal (okay, yes, I recently saw Moneyball) that could, in marketing terms, well outshine paying $15 to see artifacts for which no narrative or context is necessarily provided. (I write this as an obvious narrative junkie, but I know I’m not alone in that prediliction.)

- Overall, just to underline, I'm pleasantly surprised by this announcement. A big step in the right direction. But still lots of work to be done!

(Image of the ROM from Design Lines Magazine)

Read More......

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Innocence Lost: Kurelek-related Q&A out in today's National Post

I heart William Kurelek. And I'm very, very, very excited about the first survey in 30 years about him, which recently opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

It's accompanied by a terrific website, -- please do take a look at that. (I'd love to see more exhibition websites like it from Canadian museums. Very comprehensive but also navigable and with many artwork reproductions.)

And lucky for me, the show is travelling to the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the coming year, so I'll also get to see it in person. (It will also be going to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria too.)

Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, chatted with me generously on the phone about this new Kurelek show earlier this month. The condensed Q&A version is out in today's National Post print edition. An excerpt:

Q Many Canadians know Kurelek through his sweet, nostalgic books. But this show reveals his bloody, apocalyptic works. Why?

A One thing I think the exhibition does—and people may or may not appreciate this!—is that it removes the veil of innocence that covers a lot of the Prairie Boy’s Winter kind of work. I think you can’t return to those bucolic, nostalgic scenes with the same eye after you’ve seen paintings like This is the Nemesis. You start seeing an edge of underlying discomfort.

Q Where does that edge come from?

A Kurelek was concerned with nostalgia—he painted largely from memory. But his view of childhood was tempered by his experiences growing up. He was socially awkward to begin with. Then, he spoke Ukrainian for the first seven years of his life, which put a bulls-eye on his back when he went to a school in Manitoba where most of the students were English and Scottish. The Ku Klux Klan was active on the prairies through the 1920s, and his own father faced racism. So his view of childhood was not as sentimental as it may first appear.

A few Toronto-centric notes on Kurelek: he lived on Balsam Avenue in the Beaches neighbourhood for the latter part of his life and early in his career on Huron Street closer to U of T. While living on Huron, he created his Passion of St. Matthew series, and, because he was low on cash, sometimes traded paintings and odd jobs for his rent. Here's another snippet from the interview that relates to Toronto:

Q Many Toronto artists in the 1970s refused to visit Kurelek exhibitions because of his overt social conservatism. How did that affect him?

A Though Kurelek kept up a gregarious correspondence with various people, he was extremely socially set apart. It wasn’t just that his work was distinct from Robert Markle’s or Harold Town’s or Michael Snow’s. He didn’t out to the jazz clubs on Yonge Street or do the whole Yorkville scene. Partly that was because of his social conservatism, but also because he remained very awkward. He made it well known that he had a problem with Markle’s lascivious nude paintings. And while he won praise from some critics, like Robert Fulford, there were others, like Harry Malcolmson, he had famous controversies with. The interesting thing is that critics couldn’t not talk about him—even though they knew they were being preached at, and, of course, resented that.

For more, please check out today's print edition of the Post.

(Image: William Kurelek, Polish-Irish Fight, 1977. Courtesy the Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Read More......

Friday, October 21, 2011

Art Markets and Stock Markets: Another RBC Q&A out in Today's Post

I'm always being prompted to think about new things on the job--things that are new to me, anyway.

In chatting with RBC curator Robin Anthony this week, it finally came into my full consciousness that painting may not only be a safe market choice for private art collectors--it also could be considered a safe market choice for museums in terms of selling tickets to exhibitions and getting viewers through the door.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation, out in today's National Post:

Q Canada's biggest commercial art fair, Art Toronto, kicks off next week. What are you expecting to see there in terms of the market for these [RBC CPC finalists] and other artists?

A Having just come back from Frieze Art Fair in London, what we noticed was that most of the art dealers took a fairly conservative approach. There was a very noticeable amount of painting as opposed to photography or video. It may also be coincidental with that [Tate] Richter retrospective and with the just-opened Group of Seven show at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which RBC was also involved with. My prediction at Art Toronto is that many of the booths will be exhibiting painting and perhaps take a little bit of a conservative approach, so that it will be work that's of a scale and size appropriate for private collectors.

Q Don't expect to see any massive murals for sale soon, then?

A Probably not as much as we've seen in the past. I think caution from the financial markets does transfer over into the art markets, but at the same time art offers people the chance to look at other vehicles of investment [besides stocks and bonds].

For more of Anthony's advice to collectors and artists in this tough market, read on at the Post.

Read More......

Just Because

Can't get this song out of my head this morning!

Read More......

Monday, October 17, 2011

Time for Art: Patrick Bernatchez exhibits 1000-year Wristwatch in Montreal

Why do I need Dave Dyment's A Drink to Us When We're Both Dead—that is, a bottle of 100-year-aged scotch to be released in 2018—to remind me of my own mortality when Patrick Bernatchez's BW Project—a wristwatch that makes one revolution every thousand years—is about to debut in Montreal at Galerie de l'UQAM?

Here's an excerpt from Bernatchez's website about the project:

BW consists of a wristwatch with a mechanism and form that have been created entirely from scratch. This object, which appears to be quite simple at first glance, proposes a different reading of time and immerses one in a more abstract measurement scale. The BW display is made up of a single hand that will take a thousand years to complete a full revolution....

The BW (BlackWatch) was designed and crafted in collaboration with Roman Winiger a renowned Swiss watchmaker. The works title BW is an initialized form of the watch itself and the respective surname initials of the artist and watchmaker.

You know what is dumb about my reaction to projects like this? There's always some nitpicking part of me that goes "Um, well, how are we sure it's going to actually happen? How will we know the watch won't break down or something?"

With Dyment's project, the 100-year timeline makes me think it's a little more plausible to execute. With a 1000-year timeline like Bernatchez's my sense of pragmatism starts to fail. But I guess that's probably the point! There's part of me that (incorrectly) thinks I can plausibly look 100 years into the future. 1000 years, not so much. Good luck, little watch!

Read on here for more info about Bernatchez's project and here for more info about his Montreal show, opening this Friday.

(Video of Bernatchez's watch from his website)

Read More......

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What I learned from the New OAC Arts Engagement Study

Today, the Ontario Arts Council released the results of its latest arts engagement study. You can read the summary here and the full report here.

Here's what I found interesting in the study results:
  • Almost all Ontarians could cite at least one arts activity that they’d like to do more frequently in the future - and the number-one pick for arts activity they'd like to do more frequently was to "Paint, draw or make other original art." So to me it seems important that art institutions need get involved in helping adults and children actually engage in making art. This includes partnering with the school system to get kids making art at a young age.
  • Overall, the home is the predominant setting for engaging in music (89%), dance (51%) and visual arts (71%) activities. This is consistent with other research suggesting that the home is the foundational setting for arts activities of all sorts. So how can art museums and galleries reach into homes? Maybe by getting on board with online exhibitions as an endeavour that's just as seriously undertaken as producing beautiful catalogues that few people will purchase and fewer, read? Or, um, something?
  • Half of Ontarians visit art museums and galleries at some level, although half of all activity around museums is held within only 20% of the population. This is the steepest audience-distribution relationship among all arts activities in the study! To me, this also goes a long way to demonstrating how intimidating it might be for people not in that 20% to actually visit art museums and galleries -- could be easy to feel like an outsider.
  • As might be expected, ‘watch movies on computer, TV or DVD’ is by far the most prevalent of all visual arts, crafts and film activities, with 61% doing it ‘at least once a week,’ and another 28% ‘at least once a month.’ Somehow, this made me wonder why watching TV didn't count as a cultural activity in itself. There are a lot of crap movies out there, as well as some good TV. Just sayin'.
  • Reading in general exhibits the highest frequency and salience index scores overall. Salience for ‘accessing books through a local library’ is higher than frequency, suggesting that although not typically thought of as a creative act, going to the library to seek out reading material is a highly valued activity. The study suggests that, as a result, libraries are "a natural partner for arts organizations to increase outreach and expand programming." To this, I say, word. It's time for the NGC, the AGO, the ROM, the Power Plant and other publicly funded galleries to start considering how they can reach out through library branches. I've seen some workshops in the past, but I feel like more work is needed.
  • 95% of Ontarians said they would like to be doing more arts activities than they are doing now. Well, that's kind of heartwarming. And I also like that the study has included "going out dancing" as an arts activity. I'd like to do more of that too.

(Generic I'm-learning-from-stats image via Hope for the Sold)

Read More......

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay: Humanity Lookin' Dismal (yet Compelling) at Current U of T Shows

Mon dieu! Homo sapiens doesn't come off well in a couple of University of Toronto shows this season. Still, I kinda liked them. I discuss this conflicted effect in my latest reviews for the National Post, which came out on Saturday. An excerpt:

1. Models for Taking Part at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
7 Hart House Circle, to Dec. 11
Humanity doesn’t come off well in Models for Taking Part. This is especially the case when considering two of the exhibition’s major works: Artur Zmijewski’s Democracies and Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. Zmijewski documents protests and other mass events such as state funerals, sports rallies and war reenactments — mostly in his home country of Poland, but also in France, Germany, Israel and Palestine. Arrayed over several screens in a single room, Zmijewski’s videos are overwhelming, whether sonically (as reenactment gunshots ring out alongside requiem orchestrations), visually (as burning buildings lit by the Black Bloc meet “Feminazi” signs at an anti-abortion protest and national flags, well, everywhere), or psychologically (as each group’s attempt at “outreach” only seems to entrench disparate positions in its actors and bystanders). As a whole, Democracies — a work labelled, supposedly, for one of the greatest inventions of humankind — makes prospects for peace and understanding seem grim. This effect is deepened in Martens’ feature film, which traces a Congo journey exposing layers of injustice in a) global economies; b) global media; c) global aid organizations; and d) global art-making. No one, the artist included, seems to escape the film’s cynical gaze. Heartbreaking moments, like the deaths of malnourished children, take place very nearly onscreen, while stomach-turning scenes — like Martens suggesting that the Congolese should just learn to “enjoy poverty” because it makes the rest of the world feel noble — provide little relief. Nonetheless, both these works remain strangely compelling for their no-holds-barred approach to our species’ fascistic, hooliganistic and narcissistic tendencies. It’s also worth noting that the ethical implications of these works could be up for discussion at a special curator talk Oct. 11, at 6 p.m., and a panel on Oct. 12, at 6 p.m.

For details on Mark Boulos at the Coach House Institute and (the considerably more gentle) Angela Grauerholz show @ UTAC, read on at the National Post's Posted Toronto blog.

Also just FYI, this is the last At the Galleries column the Post will be running. As of October 15, they're overhauling their Toronto section, with the column eliminated as a result. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do the column over the past three years or so, as I understand it's a privilege to have that kind of mass-media platform. But I'm also glad that individual art shows may have the opportunity to get longer or more in-depth treatments in future, and that a greater range of critical voices will be represented.

(Still from Artur Zmijewski's Democracies via the Barnicke Gallery)

Read More......

Monday, October 3, 2011

Prize Pick: Q&A with RBC Painting Competition Winner Rebecca Brewer out in Today's Post

Who says art doesn’t pay? Vancouverite Rebecca Brewer, announced as the $25,000 winner of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition last Tuesday, may need to ponder that question sooner rather than later. But first, she answered a few queries from me over the phone about Canadian guilt, palette psychology and the best canvas ever. The condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Some say that in art school, there’s the painters… and then there’s everybody else. What do you think?

A My experiences have confirmed that many times. When I did my undergrad, I studied with two teachers; one was a sculptor and one was a painter. I’d always secretly be doing painting behind my sculpture class’ back, and vice versa. Now I’m doing my MFA at Bard College, and the painting department is definitely its own beast.

Q Bard has strong ties to the New York City art world. How important is it to be connected to New York when building a painting career?

A I think painting never died in New York, in a way. I feel really affirmed there compared to what my experience was in Vancouver. I think that Vancouver has started to blossom in terms of painting, but it’s only been over the past 5 years that I’ve noticed that happening. I feel I’m part of something much bigger since being at Bard. I really appreciate Canadian painting culture, but I’m pretty awestruck right now by the scope that there is in New York.

Q What are the differences between Canadian and American painting?

A I think it’s difficult to qualify statements about that! In Vancouver, for a while, there was the shadow of photoconceptualism and conceptual art practices. So conceptual painting seemed the natural fit, but somehow that created a bit of a backlash. I just feel it’s a lot less tortured in the States. When I interviewed at Bard, they asked me what the deal was with this big chip on my shoulder, and then the chair of the department said, “Everyone, remember, Rebecca’s from Vancouver!”—meaning, I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder from my experiences of coming up among the sort of naysayers who believe that painting is irrelevant and outmoded.

I should say that Brewer is currently working in both Vancouver and New York, and did clarify later that she feels lucky to enjoy support in both communities.

To find out more about the inspiration for Brewer's winning work, Beuys painting, and learn about her favourite painting of all time, you can read on in the print edition of today's National Post or online at the Post's website.

And many thanks to my fellow NSCAD alumnus Marco D'Andrea for his observations about painters and art school and prompting my own reflections on this matter. He's currently doing a degree at the University of Guelph if you'd like to track him down.

(Image of Rebecca Brewer's Beuys painting from

Read More......

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nuit Blanche: Alight, but for how Long? at

Also on the Nuit Blanche front (as per the last few posts!) today published my Q&A with one of Nuit Blanche's big honchos: Julian Sleath, programming manager of special events with the City of Toronto.

The Q&A (condensed from a 15 minute phone conversation) looks at the difficult (to many observers) fiscal and political context Nuit Blanche may be taking place in this year. Here's an excerpt:

Leah Sandals: Given the $500 million-plus that the City of Toronto is looking to trim from its budget this year, the 10% reduction in spending demanded of all city departments, and the many recent recommendations to cut funds for city-owned museums and other municipal cultural programs, it’s a tense time for many in Toronto’s arts community. What are the challenges of mounting Nuit Blanche in this type of fiscal and political environment?

Julian Sleath: Challenges? We probably don’t really know, because we’re not party to those discussions so far. We as a team have, increasingly, a 24-month planning cycle. So we’ve hired next year’s curators already. We’ve had the commitment of a title sponsor from Scotiabank till 2014. And the Special Events team are working on that basis, that we’re here to stay. At this point, I’m actually seeking proposals for 2013.

LS: Yet because you work so far ahead, you and your team must have projected the possible impacts of our city’s deficit, and efforts to eliminate it. How have you dealt with that long-term factor?

JS: Well, in our department as a whole, we’re subject to the standard and ongoing operating efficiencies. Aside from the Core Service Review, every department of the City of Toronto is under an annual challenge to decrease its expenditure by an amount set each year by the city manager. And we continue to do that, in no small part due to those commercial and branding sponsorships that we obtain. We’re extremely fortunate that we have a number of partnerships in the form of commercial sponsorship that help us sustain the program and help us look forward to a long-term future.

Sponsorship and other outside funds are providing us with 73 percent of our funding this year. This includes Scotiabank, GMC Chevy and Timothy’s Coffee, as well as the various tourism-related grants we get through the Ministry of Ontario’s Celebrate Ontario program. In alternate years, we usually get money from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund. We also get a significant grant from Tourism Toronto each year.

To read on for the rest, where Sleath discusses what more permanent arts institutions could learn from Nuit Blanche (I have to say I agree with him!) read on at Also, just wanted to note I spoke with Sleath by phone on Monday, and I appreciate him taking the time to chat at such a crazy time for the festival.

(Image of revellers near Toronto City Hall during the 2009 Nuit Blanche, courtesy the City of Toronto and via

Read More......

Flightpath: A Nuit Blanche Q&A with Usman Haque & Natalie Jeremijenko

Given the budgetary struggles at Toronto's City Hall this week, voters across the political spectrum are likely wishing some councillors would take a flying leap.

Well, a Nuit Blanche artwork being built just outside council chambers is inviting all Hogtown residents - elected or otherwise - to do just that. In Flightpath, residents will be able to soar across Nathan Phillips Square on cables some four storeys tall. On Tuesday, London architect/artist Usman Haque and New York engineer/artist Natalie Jeremijenko talked to me about this eccentric solution to deadlocked urban politics as they were setting up on the Square. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Flightpath promises to help Torontonians "reimagine the city." But to a lot of folks, it might just look like a bunch of zip lines and scaffolding. Which is it?

Usman: The point of this project is to explore ideas of mobility around the city.

Natalie: Yes, there's a big idea here about how we design our cities. Are they for efficiency? Are they for pleasure and wonder and play? There's a claim here that there is a place for playful reimagining - for pleasure-driven, wonderdriven engagement with possibilities for the future.

Usman: And the birds of Nathan Phillips Square were a very direct inspiration. As human beings, we experience the city in straight lines, you know? You walk down the street and go up an elevator, then you go across a floor and down another staircase. In Flightpath the city can be experienced in a completely different way.

Q Why debut Flightpath in Toronto? Did this "reimagining of mobility" result from a bad experience on the TTC or the Don Valley Parkway, perhaps?

Usman: Well, I think Toronto has a history of being creative or open toward reimagining the city from the perspective of the environment - often in a way that other metropolises are a little more reluctant to. And this project looks partly at emission-less transportation.

Natalie: It's absolutely the case that Toronto is an intellectual leader in green technology. There's the Carbon Zero initiative here, there's the sustainable buildings festival. When there were 20 food coops in New York City, there were 2,000 in Toronto. There's an urgency and openness here to meeting environmental challenges.

For more, I urge you to take a look at the Arts & Life section of today's National Post, which has some fun pictures of Haque and Jeremijenko setting up. There's a more disjointed version online as well, but given the layout it may be a bit harder to understand. You can find that here.

Also, I was really pleased to learn there will be a group sound-and-light piece happening as part of Flightpath. (It's discussed later in the interview.) Haque has done some pretty cool projects in that vein before, where a light projection is controlled by the public's voices. I'm embedding a couple of examples below. The first is from Yorkminster Cathedral in 2007 and the second from Santa Monica beach in 2008.

Primal Source (video documentation) from haque d+r on Vimeo.

Cool, eh? I'm looking forward to seeing this work on Saturday night.

(Image of Usman Haque testing out one of the Flightpath harnesses and wings by Aaron Lynett for the National Post)

Read More......

Monday, September 26, 2011

Art Criticism in a Truck! All Night! Nuit Blanche!

Art Criticism in a truck, people! This is what the Toronto Alliance of Art Critics is bringing you this Saturday (aka Nuit Blanche). It's all thanks to Leitmotif, an exhibition-in-trucks organized by curator Stuart Keeler and the Parkdale BIA. You'll be able to find the truck-o'-discourse in the parking lot of the Gladstone Cafe, 1181 Queen St W, ie. in the parking lot across the street from the Gladstone Hotel.

Here's the tentative critics schedule I've got - subject to change (+ indicates may be present intermittently):

7pm - 10 pm
Leah Sandals
John Bentley Mays
+ Otino Corsano
+ Murray Whyte

10pm - 1 am
Elena Potter
Katherine Dennis
+ David Jager

1 am - 4 am
Sky Gooden
Fran Schechter
+ Mary McDonald

4 am - 7 am
David Jager
Amish Morrell
+ Murray Whyte

I was on the 4-7am shift for the all-night project TAAC did last year, and I enjoyed the conversations had about art and criticism. I encourage anyone and everyone to drop by this Saturday for opinions and discussion on art and writing about art. Also feel free to bring artwork if you'd like us to discuss it in situ. Time limits may apply, but it would be great to meet folks face to face for whatever we can squeeze in. Questions or feedback about the way we practice (sometimes not so well in my personal case, see previous post) are also welcome.

For more information visit the Leitmotif Facebook page or the Leitmotif Nuit Blanche page and look for Leitmotif maps on the night of Nuit in Parkdale.

(Concept image via Leitmotif's Facebook page)

Read More......