Monday, July 30, 2012

Rita Davies leaves City of Toronto Culture Post

Still catching up on news from while I was on vacation... today in the Toronto Star I learned that Rita Davies stepped down from her post as executive director of culture at the City of Toronto, and that her last day was July 20.

I don't know Davies, but I did interview her a couple of times and she struck me as an individual who was defnitely passionate about making the city a better place through the arts, and about making the city a better place for artists and creators. She held the position, reports state, for 13 years.

As the Toronto Arts Council ED Claire Hopkinson noted in a related release, Davies helped make possible the founding of Artscape, and by extension Artscape's studio and living spaces for artists. Hopkinson also notes that Davies made great strides on the equity front in terms of arts funding.

Most recently, Davies might be known for providing great support and leadership to the Creative Capital Gains project, a 2011 consultation and reporting endeavour aimed at safeguarding arts funding in a cuts-seeking environment at Toronto City Hall.

The Star reports that it's unclear whether Davies will be replaced.

(Image of  Toronto City Hall via the City of Toronto)

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When Poor Planning Gives Public Art Initiatives a Bad Name

Just back from a vacation in Calgary, and while most of my time was spent with family, I did have some public-arty reflections along the way.

Driving by the Calatrava-designed Peace Bridge on Memorial Drive, I got to see for myself just how close it is to three other existing pedestrian bridges over the Bow River. According to Wikipedia, the distances are just "275m west, 400m west, and 900m east" of the Calatrava bridge location. Having walked and biked those previously existing bridges during the time I did live in Calgary, the Peace Bridge location does seem a bit strange--couldn't it have gone in a location that better needed a pedestrian bridge? Or have replaced an existing one?

My concern about the less-than-stellar planning around this bridge initiative—like, why give people a good reason to hate on public art? Why not put it in a better location where it will be less wasteful of resources from an infrastructure perspective?—intensified when it was pointed out to me that this project included only a bridge over the river, not a safe pedestrian crossing over the adjoining thoroughfare of Memorial Drive.

As a result, many Peace Bridge users have been unsafely jaywalking across the busy Memorial Drive, which, being somewhat twisty, has poor visibility, and which, as a major downtown artery, can be quite busy.  

The Calgary Herald reported in March that the City of Calgary is acting to resolve this problem by adding a crosswalk, but I didn't see any such crosswalk during my visit. In a more recent article in Metro Calgary, aldermen also trumpeted the success of the bridge, saying usage has well exceeded forecasts—I can definitely see the aesthetic appeal of the bridge and its power to create a kind of destination, but I also don't think that completely excuses the infrastructure doubling.

In any case, driving by the bridge did prompt me to consider the ways public art can go wrong, even when the creative is stellar and the overall result is largely positive for many people. 

Drew Anderson at FFWD also recently posted a reflection on the bridge as being a consequence of what I'll call "world-class city" anxieties, resulting in a generic, rather than particular, feel to new art and design projects. (These anxieties aren't just for Toronto, ya'll!)

Basically, I remain a big supporter of public art and related initiatives, but it remains frustrating to see poor planning that gives citizens quite good reasons reasons to be skeptical or unwelcoming of public art in general.

If anyone has other examples of the ways poor planning can hamper promising public art, feel free to post in the comments.  

(Image: Nighttime view of Peace Bridge by Skeezix1000 at Wikimedia)

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Away until July 24

Vacation time! I'll be away from my desk until July 24. No comments will be moderated during until that date. Happy summer!

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Recommended: New Yorker profile of Nicholas Serota

I feel like I'm probably the last person in the world with an interest in museums to have read the Nicholas Serota profile in the July 2 New Yorker. I finally read it today (or in the terminology I like to use here more of late, I fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally read it today) and recommend it.

If you have trouble tracking a copy down, you can find a link to a PDF here at Real Clear Arts.

One thing the story definitely comes back to again and again (as does the Real Clear Arts post) is the spectrum of opinion that exists in the art world about whether museums should be lively, casual, community friendly spaces or not. One of the big arguments against that comes up is that this type of space is not adequately reverential towards the art itself, or doesn't encourage a reverence or deep engagement--that it ultimately distracts from the art.

Personally, I think even in a quiet, reverential environment, many people spend only a few moments looking at most of the art. A reverential environment does not in itself guarantee reverence in the viewer, in my opinion.

Of course, I can be reasonable about this and say that there are limits--that a lot of noise and distraction is not conducive to a very deep art experience either. But if distraction and noise and crowds themselves are verboten to these types of museum critics, why do very respected museums manage to maintain that respect while hosting huge parties, galas and openings? Why do so few critics object to art being a backdrop at those types of experience? Or why is that not such a big deal to them?

I'm going down the rabbit hole of imagined argument a bit here.

To step back and summarize, I have to say I find Serota and Tate's commitment to public access and friendliness inspiring. And I was very impressed to learn in this article that their free collection admission is still maintained with just 40% of its funding coming from the government. By comparison, the National Gallery of Canada has been receiving roughly 80% of its funding from the government, and the permanent collection costs money to see most hours of the week.

I also appreciate that the article/Serota also pointed out that it's not just free admission, but strong exhibitions, that also make a museum popular. And that artists are to be integrated into the process of developing the museum too, or shaping it. 

(Image of Tate Modern by Michael Reeve from Wikimedia)

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Hello, Wide Open Spaces: Kara Uzelman talks Saskatchewan Moves at

Earlier this month, my interest was piqued when I saw a release from Saskatoon's AKA Gallery stating that artist Kara Uzelman was residing in a small town in Saskatchewan.

I had thought of Uzelman more as a Vancouver- and Berlin-based artist, having seen her work at the Power Plant, Red Bull Projects and Mercer Union here in Toronto and read about a project where she excavated her Vancouver backyard.

Why, I thought, would someone younger and so evidently growing audiences in these art centres be drawn to a town of 450?

Well, this week, Uzelman kindly indulged my curiosity about her move in a phone conversation from her new home in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, where she lives with her partner Jeffrey Allport. We also discussed she and Allport's first collaborative exhibition, which is currently taking place at AKA Gallery. 

Some of that conversation ended up in a kind of previewy item at, where I work part-time. Here's an excerpt:

“I feel like my work is really somehow based in Canada,” Uzelman says over the phone from her new home. “I didn’t really want to live in Germany permanently, and Vancouver was just getting too expensive to be able to both live and travel.” (By contrast, the house she and Allport purchased cost just $28,000 while remaining in easy driving distance to Regina, Saskatoon and their international airports.)

Uzelman is known for an archaeological approach to her practice—she once dug up the backyard of her Vancouver house—as well as her interest in found materials. She notes that both these tendencies, and her family background and high-school years in Saskatoon, are also part of what made the move a good fit. 

“In a foreign country, I just didn’t feel totally comfortable [using found materials] because there’s a whole history and culture there that I’m not intimately aware of. Here, it’s somehow a little more comfortable working that way.”

You can read the rest over at I also note some of the other contemporary Canadian artists who have been drawn to the frugal pleasures of small-town SK living. Residing in Toronto as I do, I have to say I envy the amount of space they have, which is a factor that likely drives my interest in stories such as these. 

Oh, also to add to my envy, they live near North America's oldest designated bird sanctuary, Last Mountain Lake. It's part of the inspiration for the title of their AKA Gallery exhibition, Warblers.

(Image of Uzelman & Allport's Warblers installation @ AKA Gallery by Devon McAdam via

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Author Photos Article out in July/August Quill & Quire

 Who reads a book based on its author photo? Not many readers, I'd say.

But who looks at the author photo on a given book? And gives it some consideration? Likely most readers.

The current July/August issue of Quill & Quire features an article by yours truly about the tricky, slippery matter of the author photo.

Some exhibitions of late—like Shelley Grimson's show of early Atwood and Ondaatje portraits in Toronto, and Barry Peterson and Blaise Pascal's ongoing travelling exhibition of West-Coast author photos in Vancouver—have demonstrated some of the public's interest in this form of imagery.

At the same time, few publishers are willing to pay anymore for professionally done author photos, even as they recognize their importance in engaging readers and media outlets. 

To find out more—and see some unusual author pics—check out that current issue of Quill & Quire, on newsstands and in libraries now.

(It's a good reminder to me, actually to update the photo I use on Twitter and this blog—got some new glasses recently and am sporting a few more gray hairs to boot!)

(Image: Shelly Grimson's circa-1970 portrait of Michael Ondaatje via Torontoist)

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally Read: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

So this week, I fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally read Marilynne Robinson's prizewinning 2004 novel Gilead.

Gilead has little, if anything, to do with visual art, but it has some terrific observations in it about reading and writing and their potential roles in people's lives. The book takes the form of a long letter than an elderly reverend is writing to his young son for him to read long after his death, so it's apropos that these kinds of thoughts come up.

Praise for Robinson's eloquent, gemlike writing style has been delivered by the ton already elsewhere, but I have to reiterate it; Robinson manages to condense a lot of wisdom and cogent observations of human life into a relatively slim volume.

I particularly enjoyed the parts where Robinson's narrator discusses reading and writing in relation to solitude and loneliness.

At a presentation for York University grad students a few years ago, I tried, by much slimmer means, to make a related observation about art writing, or arts criticism in general—that beyond providing a service to the readers (telling them whether or not it might be worth their time and energy to go see an exhibition or movie or play, or read a given book or listen to a given album), criticism can be about not being alone with one's observations about an exhibition, movie, play, book or album.

This can, if we extend Robinson's observations below, be true whether one is writing the criticism or reading it. It's obviously not the only impetus behind reading and writing, but it is one I'm glad she acknowledged.

Here are some passages on this topic from the book:

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.


… I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering far more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry sould every bitter thing is sweet.” There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience. 

Now I need to read Robinson's Housekeeping,  first published in the 1980s. She took a long time between the two books, but the wisdom is still packed in there, for sure. 

(Image from MacMillan USA)

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Worth Consideration: Doug Borwick on Questioning Institutional Assumptions

I already RT'd this on Twitter, but wanted to call attention on the blog as well. Over at Artsjournal, arts-engagement consultant Doug Borwick has written a brief post about the value of reexamining some basic arts-engagement assumptions: namely, the belief that art need the be-all and end-all of an art institution's focus.

As Borwick writes,

the deification of art removes (or at least distances) it from its role in human experience. And it is that role that is crucial. Isn’t it the power the arts have in our own lives that drew us to the field? In addition, and this is the important part with respect to engagement, focus on the art as opposed to its role in individuals’ lives makes it easier to (unconsciously) ignore the fact that many are not moved by what we do. The art-focused view has the subliminal effect of supporting the “If we build it . . .” mindset. This impedes the potential for community engagement. 

(Bolding is the author's.)

Though I really love the way art objects manage to speak directly to various people through space and time, I appreciate the point he is trying to make—that my overvaluing the object in a material sense, we may be downplaying the human experiences around it which give it other kinds of community and individual value.

Read the whole post over at Engaging Matters.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Le Cultural Access Sad: Ontario Science Centre hikes adult admission, becoming most expensive museum to visit in Ontario

Much as I would *not* like to rag upon museums a little bit more on the access front, it behooves me to do so again today.

As of July 1, adult admission at the Ontario Science Centre has been raised from $20 to $22. (HST included.)

Granted, it was the Ontario Government, of which the OSC is an agency, which mandated this change, not the OSC itself. Sadly, however, it gives the OSC the dubious honour of being the most expensive museum to visit in Ontario (as far as I know, feel free to correct me)--a mantle once worn by the ROM, which was $24 for adults to visit until it dropped its prices last fall.

Also, there are no free hours at the OSC to provide community access, though it does participate to a limited extent in the Toronto Public Library's Museum Arts Pass program.

It is especially sad to me that an institution which trumpets "40 Years of Innovation" can't innovate to improve its community access.

(Image of the OSC from its website)

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