Published, EAC Communiqué, May 1986
Your earliest involvement in visual art was as an artist during the mid-sixties, in San Francisco.
hat’s true, but I quickly realized from my experiences that artists seldom get a fair shake in terms of exhibitions in commercial galleries. They end up selling maybe four works and break even or lose money in the process.
I arrived in Toronto in 1967, and shortly after set up the Nightingale Gallery in a downtown converted warehouse. I operated it initially as a commercial gallery for a few years but soon realized that the type of art I wanted to show had no place in the market at that time, so I decided to start what is now referred to as a parallel or artist-run gallery. The gallery, called A SPACE was probably the first of its kind in Canada and is still in existence today.
Had there been a history of artist-run galleries in the U.S.?
No, the alternative space galleries seemed to originate simultaneously in Canada and Great Britain. We’re actually far ahead of the U.S. in that regard, with over seventy parallel galleries now in existence in Canada.
I fully intended to eventually start showing my own work again, but became increasingly involved in being a dealer or in a sense an art facilitator. I think it’s foolhardy to combine being a curator with making art. I’d rather do one thing well than two things poorly.
After a year with A SPACE you left to become Curator/Director of the Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. During those five years the gallery developed a reputation for ambitious programming combined with thoughtful exhibition catalogues.
Mount Allison offered an idyllic situation, after Toronto, since construction had just begun on an art gallery which really became the most impressive facility east of Montreal.
A major problem, however, was our small three person staff. With such limited human resources it becomes nearly impossible to commit the time required to do serious in-depth research. However, as a result of having to do pretty much everything it takes to run a gallery, including drive the delivery truck, it did allow me the opportunity to meet many artists.
While in Sackville I helped establish the city’s community arts centre, a beautiful old six-room schoolhouse which had previously been deserted. We rented it from the province for one dollar per year, opened a gallery and began running classes. It was the kind of centre that would do well in a community like Elora.
In 1976 you became Director of the Canada Council Art Bank in Ottawa. What exactly was and is the mandate of the Art Bank?
What the Art Bank does is purchase works by living Canadian artists and in turn, leases those art works to public offices across Canada and around the world. By “public” we meant anywhere other than the private sector, since we didn’t want to compete with the commercial gallery system. In my first year we had a budget of $1.1 million and in my fifth year $1.5 million, of which the majority of the budget was allotted to the purchase of art.
During your final year, the Art Bank was generating over $450,000 from rentals. It’s remarkable that the agency has been able to consistently return 40% annually on its investments.
The objectives of the Canada Council have always been to support the arts, but it was always understood that a very limited commercial market existed, so that Art Bank was created to encourage a market. But more importantly, because that could become an official situation, to try to promote a context in which the public on a day-to-day basis had contact with the best of Canadian contemporary art.
So it was the educational aspect with its subtle seeding through exposure which was and continues to be the most significant.
Is there a way in which to estimate or evaluate the long term impact of that policy?
Not really. Although from talking with artists over the years I’ve found that they do receive a substantial response to their work while on public view and that as a result their work sells more readily.
At any given time how much of the collection is on public display?
Usually sixty to seventy percent, either on lease or part of various touring exhibitions. The remainder is housed at the Art Bank warehouse in Ottawa where it’s available for viewing.
You left the Art Bank in 1981 to become a freelance curator. Can you talk about the role of the independent curator?
I was interested in exploring new directions and working independently on projects that I was committed to. For a while I acted as an arts consultant to the federal government but found that often my research recommendations were never implemented. And if I did initiate change, the results might not be seen for five or six years and I just didn’t have the patience for that.
While in Sackville I helped establish the city’s community arts centre, a beautiful old six-room schoolhouse which had previously been deserted.
As an independent I didn’t so much sacrifice my credibility when I left the Council, so much as actual power. If one has done a good job in any capacity that credibility stays with you although you may no longer have the same degree of influence, which is power.
I decided to give myself five years, as I had done with the Art Bank. In my present status as an independent curator/consultant I can’t depend on a regular income, but still encounter a good deal of frustration, often doing months of work purely on speculation. At the same time it’s much more satisfying.
One of my central objectives is to promote Canadian art internationally. I looked around and saw that the official systems were just not doing it adequately.
Internationally you’re preparing a major exhibition on Michael Snow for the U.S., you’re a curatorial advisor on Documents 8, held every year in Kassel, West Germany, but certainly your most consuming project is the Toronto Project 1990.
That’s a project for the City of Toronto in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario. The theme is “Art at the End of the Century” and it will look at post-modernism with a reassessment of the modernist tradition. It’s dangerous to think of the importance and success of this type of exhibition as measured in terms of revenues and attendance figures alone. There are more accurate yardsticks which measure in terms of quality and relevance rather than quantity.
It’s ironic that given your international scope, you and your wife decided to leave Ottawa to live here, in a small Ontario village. Do you ascribe to the McLuhan notion of “The Global Village” in terms of communication?
Ottawa doesn’t have what I would refer to as a visual arts community and certainly not the activity of say Toronto. We wanted to live in a smaller community while being close to Toronto and its international airport.
One disadvantage is being physically outside of the urban arts communities, so it becomes important to stay well informed about what is happening. Living “outside” is healthy from the point of view that your perception rather than being myopic is much more objective.
When you visit New York, L.A. or a city in Europe, you quickly realize that Toronto is not the centre of the universe.
A good artist will survive no matter where he or she lives, by being strong enough to be independent and creative.
Would you apply the same principle to those involved in art production as well as arts promotion?
A good artist will survive no matter where he or she lives, by being strong enough to be independent and creative. More important is the problem of finding a system in which to market the artist’s work. There is such a proliferation of galleries, public and private and parallel that it’s not very difficult for artists to get their work shown in this country.
However we’re living in a vacuum here,and that’s really why I’m interested in promoting Canadian artists internationally, because artists don’t have very much of a focus for their visions. I think by operating in the international milieu we’ll realize that potential.
– by John Chalmers, May 1986
Christopher Youngs is now the Director of the Freedman Gallery at the Albright College Centre for the Arts, Reading, Pennsylvania, USA.