This paper will try to show how a series of co-operative and artist-run galleries in London, Ontario from 1961 to the present have led, paralleled or followed socio-cultural developments in Canada. It will also show how London’s artist-run centres have been used as models by both the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council as funding policies were being developed for parallel galleries.
In the fall of 1957 The Garret Gallery was founded by third-year drawing and painting students at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto.* The artists had all hung around together and had spent a lot of time at Walter Sunhara’s parents’ home near College Street in Toronto in 1956 and 1957.
The Garret Gallery was located at the south-west corner of John and Stephanie Streets, on the second floor above a furrier. Three of the artists lived in the space and paid the rent. The others added a few dollars to assist with the rent money and to pay bills. Material for the gallery was found or stolen. The walls were covered with burlap which was lifted from a stretch of new cement sidewalk on Bloor Street. Sunahara drove the getaway car and Viktor Tinkl grabbed the burlap. In 1958 the Garret Gallery moved to the south side of Gerrard Street between Yonge and Bay Streets, on the fringe of the Gerrard Street Village, near the Greenwich Gallery (which later became the Isaacs Gallery) and several other small galleries, restaurants and book stores. The Gerrard Street location was a complete two storey building including a storefront. Two members rented rooms upstairs and Tinkl rented the basement as a studio. The gallery soon began to get regular reviews in the Globe and Mail and works were sold from time to time. The gallery did not take any commission. The Garret Gallery board had the usual problems of finding members to mind the shows, and of large phone bills for which no one would assume responsibility. It closed when the drawing and painting class of 1959 graduated in the spring of that year.
The Region Gallery opened in London in the fall of 1961. It was located at 352 Richmond Street in a small storefront. It was sublet from a picture framing shop at the back. The gallery was the street access to the picture framing shop, which kept the gallery open (a similar arrangement to the Embassy Cultural House many years later in that an existing business provided the day to day minding of the space). The artist members all contributed monthly to the rent.** Region Gallery organized exhibitions, readings and various improvised events. The members agreed to a small commission but nothing was ever sold. Many of the exhibitions were highly innovative and all were local. For example VACUUM CLEANER, 1962 was an exhibition of collective improvised writing on the gallery walls. No one really expected to sell anything from the gallery. Region applied for a Canada Council grant in 1962 but was turned down (there was no grant in existence for places like Region at that time). It closed in 1963 when the framing shop began to have irregular hours and the members of Region didn’t or couldn’t mind the gallery.
The Garret Gallery and Region Gallery were started to meet a need, grants were not a possibility, and so artists started them as cheaply as possible and ran them for as long as they could. Neither of these galleries ever had any kind of public funding and both basically provided member artists with uncurated space to show their work. No policy determined what kind of work members could show in them.
The 20/20 Gallery opened in London in 1966 on the north side of King Street, one door east of Ridout. It had a second floor location and its board consisted of supporters of the arts, artists and university professors. *** Its rent was provided by an anonymous London businessman and, beginning in its second year, the gallery was supported by Canada Council grants (the first financial assistance to what is now called a parallel gallery; 20/20 Gallery was one of the models used by the Canada Council when funding for alternative galleries was developed). 20/20 was consciously set up as an alternative to the local public art gallery. 20/20 gallery existed in opposition to it and consciously exhibited work that would never have appeared there or in the local commercial galleries.
Some board members espoused international as opposed to regional standards, and became involved in a vigorous public debate with poet and playwright James Reaney who started his ALPHA CENTRE around the corner. ALPHA CENTRE was a non-profit, multimedia centre that was an early advocate of improvised theatre using found, local materials. 20/20 Gallery ran poetry readings and concerts. Musicians and writers were brought in from across Canada. Robert Millet from Montréal, bill bisset and George Bowering from Vancouver appeared in London for the first time at Forest City. The pioneer synth band Syrinx also played there.
London artists and artists from Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver and the U.S. (Bruce Nauman) showed at 20/20. (The London cultural community has since that time maintained links with, Halifax, Québec, Montréal, Toronto, Regina, Vancouver, New York and increasingly Windsor). The gallery had a particularly strong connection with Montréal, Serge Lemoine, Guido Molinari, and Paterson Ewen all had their first London exhibitions there.
20/20 Gallery paid artist’s fees during its existence, before a fee system was proposed by Canadian Artists’ Representation. Jack Chambers and other artist members of the board of 20/20 Gallery were the founders and early members of C.A.R. and later put into national practice, policies that were first introduced locally. In 1969, when 20/20 began to run out of volunteers and a deficit loomed, it was closed. There was always tension at 20/20 between the artists and the other board members. The assumption that artists were financially irresponsible was at the bottom of a lot of conflict. The assumption was partially true because artists did not run the gallery. Financial policy and control was held by academics who were supporters of the arts. They had a fear of deficits. The artists used the finances raised and organized by others without the responsibility of replacement or repayment.
Forest City Gallery was founded in London by artists in 1973. Jamelie Hassan and Dave Gordon had been approached in that year by the owner of the Polyglot bookstore on London’s main street. He asked them to show in his front room, in an arrangement similar to that of Region Gallery. When the bookstore owner began to assert control over the exhibitions, Hassan and Gordon and several other professional artists rented a space on Richmond Street and founded the Forest City Gallery .**** They recognized the importance of an independent, artist-run gallery to show their own work regularly. They realized that no one else would or could do that. Forest City was one of the first artist-run centres to closely follow the C.A.R. exhibition fee schedule. The board always emphasized at that time the necessity for artists to be paid for services and for all artists’ exhibition expenses.
At its first location, in 1973, Forest City through the programming of Chris Dewdney attracted capacity crowds for its readings by Sheila Watson, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. Punk bands began to play there through Gerard Päs. The strong Montréal/London connection, first evident at 20/20 continuedwith exhibitions by Claude Tousignant, Yvon and Monique Cozic, and an exchange show with Galerie Media within the first three years of Forest City’s existence. Bob Bozak was instrumental in organizing one of the most prophetic exhibitions. Through his initiative Stanley Sarazin, an Algonquin from the Golden Lake Reserve built a birch bark canoe in the Gallery in 1976. He was paid the full C.A.R. exhibition fee, his travel expenses, and the gallery bought the canoe. A raffle for the canoe was organized and gallery members sold over $1,500 worth of tickets. There was an exhibition closing at which a documentary video of the canoe construction was shown and the raffle was held. Jamelie Hassan introduced a broad range of sources in gallery exhibitions, foreshadowing much of the multi ethnic work that now occurs in parallel gallery programming.
Three of the founders of Forest City were former members of the board of 20/20 and remembered the lessons of that experiment. The first professional manager of Forest City was a former board member of 20/20. The conflicts that ended 20/20 and caused the split from Polyglot developed almost immediately. However because the Forest City board was originally composed entirely of working artists, policies were put in place and constraints were put on the manager that put power in the hands of the artists,and the gallery survived. Grant applications were made by the membership. Financing the gallery remained the sole responsibility of the artist members. A final solution to the accountability of the manager to the membership was to offer the manager’s position only to members of the gallery (since the gallery membership consisted of working artists, only working artists could be managers, and the salary to the manager went directly into the artistic community).
Early on Forest City began to receive Canada Council grants. It also received the first Ontario Arts Councilgrant to an artist-fun centre, and like 20/20 and the Canada Council, it too became a model for artist run centres when 0.A.C. grant policy was set (ironically, in the light of recent developments as we shall see).
In 1979 or 1980 Jamelie Hassan had left the gallery because she felt that the original concept of Forest City as a collective of working professional artists was being lost.
In 1982 Forest City Gallery was forced to leave its second location, a King Street storefront in downtownLondon. Ron Benner proposed that Forest City should move into the Embassy Hotel in east London, where the hotel management would provide the space and Forest City would provide the programming. After a lot of debate some of the members felt that the space at the Embassy was too small, and they were not sure about the relationship to the hotel, and some were uneasy about a move to East London. The Embassy had been one of the two major punk venues in London and some of the Forest City musicians had been through a difficult business arrangement with the Embassy Hotel management. The Forest City Gallery then moved to much larger premises, on a second floor on Dundas Street. Benner and Eric Stach who had been the first and second artist managers of Forest City resigned from Forest City a year or two after the move. They were unhappy with Forest City for various reasons.
In May 1983, Hassan, Benner and Stach, founded the Embassy Cultural House at the Embassy Hotel. The founding of the Embassy Cultural House corresponded with one of the more successful periods of Forest City Gallery’s existence in terms of its impact on cultural life in the city. This impact was largely due to the active presence of professional working musicians on the board, (electric guitarists/composers Jerry Collins and Robert Brent had approached Benner who encouraged their involvement with the gallery) and to the large audiences Forest City began to attract regularly for concerts and performance events. At its downtown Dundas Street location Forest City programming continued its move away from free jazz, and began to include composed music (METTLE, NACH DEM TODE, Chris Meloche), rock and roll based experimental music (which had always existed with the NIHILIST SPASM BAND), and industrial music (BITS OF FOOD, THE ANTHROPOMORPHICS). Various concerts included London’s underground bands and visiting post-punk groups as well as experimental electronic music. Some concerts were shared with local bars. This activity culminated in the Radikal Muzik Concert of 1986 which attracted a crowd of over 200 to a concert of the experimental musical groups connected with the gallery. This partly resulted from the fact that with the addition of an acoustic curtain, the gallery became one of the best performing and recording spaces in London. An ambitious dance programme was developed by Stephen Best. In contrast, the exhibitions at the gallery suffered from the loss over a number of years of many of its high calibre professional visual artists. (Ron Benner, Tom Benner, Bob Bozak, Chris Dewdney, Kerry Ferris, Bob Fones, Dave Gordon, Wyn Geleynse, Jamelie Hassan, George Legrady, Ron Martin, Gerard Päs, Irene Xanthos and others). This happened because the number of visual artists in London is relatively small, perhaps not enough to maintain more than one high quality artist run centre.
The Embassy Cultural House began to apply for and received grants for specific projects. It did not receive grants for operating costs. The Cultural House was offered core funding by the Ontario Arts Council but refused to take it because of the limitations and expectations care funding entailed. Its innovative programming included: a Havana/London exchange (in co-operation with the Forest City Gallery), a group show about the human body and AIDS, and a series of permanent installations in the hotel rooms upstairs by artists who were brought to London by the Embassy Cultural House.
Benner and Hassan left the Cultural House board in September 1990. The tensions between the Embassy Hotel management and the Embassy Cultural House board had become too great. The remaining board members decided to continue, but to run their programmes at different sites in London away from the hotel. However, nothing materialized. The Embassy Hotel management mounts exhibitions in the former Cultural House space, and Stach organizes some concerts there, but these are organized independently of the Embassy Cultural House board of directors.
Forest City still exists and is by far the longest lived of any artist run centre in London (19 years in 1992). Because of its long existence it has undergone a lot of changes in both policy and membership. At the present time the board is dominated by artists and writers whose main source of employment is as teachers at the University of Western Ontario or Fanshawe Community College (11 members) or by artists who work at day jobs. Only 7 members derive a substantial portion of their income from their work as artists. During Forest City’s existence the parallel gallery system was formed and government grants have become an essential element in its existence. Without grants from three levels of government, Forest City would cease to exist and most members of the gallery know no other form of co-operative gallery. Consequently, government funding has become the central issue in gallery policy, and remaining on the right side of the granting agencies has become a central concern of successive managers of the gallery. The only alternative is seen to be private sponsorship. It seems that the notion of an artist funded centre has completely disappeared. The kind of money it took to run Region Gallery was a small fraction of the member artists’ incomes. It appears that it is not possible to run anything for that kind of money today, but that perception is probably only an appearance.
Forest City’s strengths lie in its musicians, writers and performance and video artists at the present time. In 1991 the Gallery ran a very successful writing conference called WRITING (ABOUT) THE OTHER which addressed the appropriation of voice. Writers, visual artists and musicians were involved in this event. In 1992 a book by me called DEEDS/ABSTRACTS was published by the Gallery in a cheap. limited edition, with the assistance of private sponsorship. The edition was sold out in three weeks. The money from the sale has become a Gallery generated core fund for future publishing ventures.
There is an attitude that thinks that the more expensive the equipment is, the better will be the result, an artist with a very expensive sable brush will do a better painting than an artist with a house painting brush, a very expensive camera will take a better picture than a cheap camera, an artist with a very expensive commercial video editing system will produce a better video than an artist with a cheap home video system, a well lit, well appointed exhibition space will encourage better work. This is an attitude engendered by art schools which tend to provide expensive facilities and tools that most working artists cannot afford. A powerful argument can be made that the more the artist and the artist’s material is outside of the system of expensive equipment and expensive expectations, the better the chance of an innovative and unexpected experience.
The five alternative galleries I have described roughly correspond to all the decades since the 1950’s. The Garret Gallery and Region Gallery existed in conservative and Conservative times, when government funding for co-operative galleries was non-existent.
20/20 Gallery was formed 2 or 3 years after David Silcox and others began to transform the Canada Council into an organization that was remarkably accessible to experimental art and artists. Canada Council operating grants were available to the 20/20 Gallery shortly after its inception.
Forest City Gallery was formed at a time when Suzanne-Rivard Lemoyne was consolidating the influence of the Canada Council and Philip Fry was actively supporting the policies of artist run centres and exhibition fees. The Ontario Arts Council was coming into existence at this time (the 1970’s) and it was a period of easy and seemingly endless public funding. The application forms for grants were simple and because the Canada Council visual arts officers were so sympathetic and flexible, frequently money from the visual art section was used to support experimental music and literary activities (both of those sections at the Council were very conservative in their funding). Forest City began to receive Funding from London’s municipal government at this time as well. Social and political factors (as opposed to calibre of work and professionalism) began to be important elements in the choosing of new Forest City Gallery board members.
As artist run centres became more institutionalized The Embassy Cultural House opened in 1983 as a simpler, more independent venue for the presentation of the work of vanguard and politically active artists. It avoided the pressure of annual operating grants by operating on a project to project basis. The 1990’s were a period of cutbacks in government support and of increasingly complex and specialized grant application forms. The Forest City Gallery was no longer willing or able to pay all expenses for exhibitions. The various arts were effectively split into separate sections by more complicated methods of giving out grants. The nature of culture as a complex of interrelated activities, crossing all sorts of disciplinary boundaries was ignored by the increasing bureaucracy of the arts councils. (Paradoxically this happened at the same time that the Ontario Arts Council became more liberal and less Toronto oriented in its policies). The introduction of multi-year application forms by both the Canada and Ontario Arts Councils seriously damaged the immediate nature of artist-run centres’ programming.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Forest City Gallery board began to discuss its own raison d’etre, as confusion mounted among some of its members about the relationship of grants to activities and whether the potential for grants should influence activities. These attitudes are amply shown by a recent statement from current gallery manager Chris Meloche, THE MYTHS AND REALITIES OF ARTS COUNCIL FUNDING AND PAYING THE RENT. He states “it became obvious that this Canada Council grant would no longer accommodate disciplines outside of the Visual Arts. Programme Co-ordinators accustomed to receiving up to $2000 in support of the programming (from what was loosely tormed core funding’) of their disciplines were suddenly left out in the cold” and “While it is ideal to believe that the Forest City Gallery should be able to apply for funding and use it to produce and promote whatever programming — from whatever discipline it deems worthy… it is the reality of the fact that the FGC, its Executive, Administrators and Voting members must remain accountable to the funding bodies” and “While an individual artist who has applied for a grant may, as a matter of personal artistic growth, incorporate cross-disciplinary aspects into their process and be applauded… an organization does not have this luxury”. Both the underlines are my emphasis. Clearly the manager has begun to identify with the arts granting bodies and their supposed priorities, and artists concerns have become ideal and a luxury. The essentially non-specialist nature of culture is being asked to conform to the discipline based standards of granting agencies. This is a central and probably fatal difficulty with the parallel gallery system as it exists today (the present gallery manager is a composer who mixes media with video, shortwave radios, computers and so on).
The pressures described above have happened in spite of the arm’s length nature of both the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. Co-ordinators at Forest City take into account a political dimension when they apply for programme assistance from the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communications or from the Federal Secretary of State, but artists have a misplaced trust in the rightness of arts Council policies. Arts council officials, are aware of this tendency, and they frequently warn artists about it. They urge artists to be creative in their proposals.
Pressure to obtain support indiscriminately from corporate sponsors has increased, as artists have forgotten how corporate sponsorship is frequently employed to correct negative corporate reputations. Forest City has also begun to be criticised for the nature of its programming by Ontario Arts Council visual art juries as artists who are unaware of London’s highly non-specialized cultural milieu increasingly serve on those juries.
It could be said that a sure sign of an institution is that its survival is more important than its function. At their worst, institutions lose track of their original purpose, and simply exist to keep the doors open. In the 1970’s Véhicule in Montreal was kept open by Canada Council Grants simply because it was a very handsome space (although it had no constituency or board). It was said that those same grants paid for the legal fees of former board members on both sides of a dispute.
The parallel gallery System is not the same as the community based artist-run centres that exist in Canada. If artist-run centres no longer have a constituency, should they remain open? If artist-run centres no longer have an audience, should they remain open? Anything that strengthens the academic sense of art as a set of sealed off disciplines works against culture activity. It is a final irony that the very places organized by artists to show, sell and perform their work should, over time, become the very places that encourage the segregation of that activity from its sources and potential public.
This paper has been written with the assistance of and information from Ron Benner, Bob Bozak, Jerry Collins, Frank Davey, Linda Davey, Jamelie Hassan, Chris Meloche, Margaret Dryden, Walter Sunahara.
– Greg Curnoe, London, Ontario, June/July 1992
*Garret Gallery members: Robert Ralph Carmichael, Cameron Cowan, Greg Curnoe, Sylvio Larocque, Yuri Nalywajko, Walter Sunahara, Don Thompson, Viktor Tinkl, Herb Watson. I was included in spite of the fact that I was a second year student, probably through Walter, who I
had known for years. (He was a Canadian of Japanese descent and I had become friends with him in London in 1944 when I was about 8 years old and his family, who had been expelled from British Columbia, was put up by a family around the corner).
**Region Gallery members: Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Brian Dibb, Art Pratten, Larry Russell, Tony Urquhart, Bernice Vincent, Don Vincent.
***20/20 Gallery founding board members: Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, John Davis (philosophy professor, U.W.O., art collector), Rae Davis, Murray Favro, Geoffrey Rans (english professor, U.W.0., art collector), Goldie Rans (writer, art collector), Richard Shroyer (english professor, U.W.0.), Tony Urquhart, Ross Woodman (english professor, U.W.O., art collector), Archie Young
(english professor, U.W.O., art collector).
****Forest City Gallery founding members: Bob Bozak, Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, Kerry Ferris,Jamelie Hassan, Dave Gordon, Ron Martin, Ray Sedge, manager Goldie Rans.
*****Embassy Cultural House founding members: Ron Benner, Jamelie Hassan, Eric Stach