A New Generation: In conversation with five independent art galleries: Little Sister, Bunker 2, Franz Kaka, The Loon and Y+ Contemporary
by Anna Kovler
It only makes sense to claim that there are “too many artists” if artists rely on existing institutional structures to exhibit and legitimize their work. Throughout history, artists have demonstrated that creativity in the studio can be matched in developing new models for exhibiting their work. In Canada, artists have played an important role in developing independent artist-run spaces, ranging from publicly funded, anti-commercial ones like Vancouver’s Western Front in the ’70s to the likes of Cold City Gallery in Toronto in the ’80s, which strove to fully engage with the art market.
Today, the expansion of graduate programs in both studio art and curatorial practice, and the overhaul of former art colleges into universities, has created more degree-holding artists and curators than ever before – an increase not necessarily matched with career sustaining opportunities. The recent closure of a handful of commercial galleries in Toronto compounds the problem, pushing artists and curators to start their own gallery projects. But those opening a DIY art gallery face a host of challenges: accessible locations, lack of amenities, struggling with zoning by-laws, financial hardships and sudden rent increases. Freedom from many of the restrictions of larger institutions and commercial galleries is certainly a creative boon, but also means a lack of reliable funding and difficulty sustaining the project in the long term.
Despite all of these hurdles, countless independent, artist- and curator-run galleries and venues have opened up and thrived in recent years. In Toronto, 8-11, YTB, AC Repair Co, VSVSVS, Whippersnapper, Double Double Land, Warner, Bunker 2, Franz Kaka, The Loon, Little Sister and Roberta Pelan, among many others; Y+ Contemporary in Scarborough; Carl Louie in London, Ontario; and Raising Cattle, soon.tw and Vie D’ange in Montréal. An antidote to art scene competitiveness, these spaces provide an opportunity for artists to support other artists by getting to know their work, even spending weeks together through residency programs and other collective projects. I spoke with the artists and curators behind five of these spaces in Toronto and Scarborough to discuss their motivations, their biggest challenges, how they navigate issues of gentrification and where their work lies in relation to the art market.
Anna Kovler: What inspired you to start an independent art gallery?
Aryen Hoekstra (Franz Kaka): I didn’t like having to rely on outside institutions for operating support. When I decided to open Franz Kaka I was in the process of leaving what was generally a positive experience working with G Gallery, but its relationship to a university, the bureaucracy that surrounded its funding and the need to constantly justify its existence to some unseen set of financial officers was so deflating. It just sucked all the energy out of the thing. But there was something worth hanging on to in the freedom the G Gallery projects afforded, and I wanted to extend that gesture. So I opened Franz Kaka with a similar hands-off ethos: work with interesting artists; trust them; invite people to see the results.
Tiffany Schofield (Y+): Initially, we were seeking a studio space. We had all been attending the University of Toronto Scarborough, and were hoping to stay in the area and split the cost of rent. We wanted a separate project space, a clean space where we could test project ideas; from there, opening up the space as a platform for others became a sort of natural conclusion. A few of us had already been involved with galleries and non-profit organizations, so we had the collective knowledge to make it happen.
AK: Describe the highlights of having your space.
Kate Kolberg (Little Sister): It is really the best to witness the artist realize their work! Beyond this, the highlight that may have surprised us the most has been the daily rentals. We decided to make the space available to others at times that fall outside Little Sister programming. It operates as a short-term platform for people to showcase and circulate their own work, and bring their circle of followers or friends together. As an example, someone recently hosted an afternoon event to launch an EP of their music. This type of engagement has really encouraged a broader community to form around the space, and hopefully aids to blur some of the potentially superficial distinctions between art forms and practices.
Liam Crockard (The Loon): Foremost: building deeper relationships with people who come by the space, and the artists we show. Having an artist in your space for a few weeks at a time gives you a great opportunity to learn about them and their practice; being able to offer someone carte blanche in terms of what they want to do is a really good feeling, and I think the community responds to that kind of ambition and open-endedness; not everything has to be a really singular, polished exhibition.
Tiffany Schofield (Y+): One of the greatest benefits of having a space is its capacity to connect us to new people – artists, audiences and other organizations. It has been incredible to witness the community that has formed around our space, and how it has acted as a catalyst for an expanding network of collaborations. We are able to leverage our position to provide resources to other artists, to support and cultivate the kind of experimentation and artistic development that becomes difficult within more established institutions and which are especially inaccessible in Scarborough. As we facilitate multiple professional development programs in addition to our exhibition programming, we are especially conscious of how fortunate we are to have a space. A guaranteed location removes much of the administrative burden that comes with program development, allowing us to pursue projects without relying on multiple stakeholders in order to move forward.
AK: Many artists struggle with our role in the gentrification patterns of a ravenous real estate market; how do you see your gallery functioning within its immediate neighbourhood?
Veronika Ivanova (Bunker 2): The gallery took its shape out of necessity; we are the direct result of the inaccessibility of the real estate market. We don’t exactly conform to middle-class taste and sensibilities; we’ve gotten formal complaints that our gallery is an eyesore and is actually bringing the property value of the surrounding area down. As far as our priorities are concerned, we can and will move with ease to offset gentrification.
Liam Crockard (The Loon): While we are all complicit in the role we play in gentrification, the Sterling Road area has been a hotspot for studios and workshops for a very long time. My partner Aleksander Hardashnakov’s first Toronto gallery, Tomorrow, opened here seven or eight years ago. The Loon has a fairly discreet presence in the neighbourhood, and fits in readily with its neighbours. With MOCA Toronto opening its doors here sometime next year, we hope they will still have some fellow artists as neighbours by the time the ribbon is cut, but we will have to wait and see.
Tiffany Schofield (Y+): While we aren’t exempt from the conversation around gentrification, there is still a bit of buffer for us being located in suburban Scarborough – the landscape here is undergoing change much less rapidly. We exist as part of this neighbourhood, and conceived of ourselves being here – we are not located here simply because we were priced out of other neighbourhoods. We specifically sought out this place, not just this space.
AK: Do you think there is a stigma nowadays for artists to stage shows of their own work? How do you conceptualize the difference between artist and director/curator? Would you ever show your own work?
Veronika Ivanova (Bunker 2): In the words of Boris Groys, “There is no longer any ontological difference between making art and displaying art.”  Which is to say that the event or the experience of an exhibition as a whole can be just as presently felt as any particular work in the exhibition. Curating is not unlike conducting an orchestra, and if done well, the conduction of an exhibition will be a product that is more than the sum of its parts. Curatorial authorship can be just as presently felt and seen in an exhibition as artistic authorship. I find that this stigma is more applicable to the curator who displays her own work rather than the artist who curates her own work. I find artist-as-curator projects inspiring and exceptional, because here you have someone who is really taking the reception of their work into their own hands. This takes a lot of confidence. I think at the beginning of our practice we trust others to celebrate our work more than we trust ourselves to celebrate and esteem our own work, which is why an artist may want to collaborate with a curator. We’re reluctant to show our poems to our parents, our closest friends, our acquaintances; sometimes it’s easier to show our poems to a curator. But the curator-as-artist, to me, is just a curator. The stigma arises when artists demand space/the most flattering conditions at the expense of their collaborators, in order to celebrate their work and themselves alone.
Aryen Hoekstra (Franz Kaka): There’s a stigma when it’s done poorly or seems calculated and opportunistic, but I can think of plenty of examples of artist-run spaces that show their own work with great care and generosity; where their inclusion strengthens an exhibition or brings new eyes to the work of other artists. At their best these independent spaces are meant to be generous, and my experience is that they’re being received generously as well. But just like the move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, if all of these spaces only exist for a year or two at a time, then we’re not really any further along. The hope is that new spaces continue to emerge, with projects that grow this conversation and can complement and push back against these already existing projects as they too begin to evolve. If support continues, we can see what effect longevity has on these projects, what role(s) they might be better suited to fill than our existing institutions, and how and if they transform in response to a little perspective.
Liam Crockard (The Loon): Both Aleks and I have shown our work at The Loon in group shows. The kind of stigma you are referring to is tied more so to a for-profit gallery with a roster than that of a DIY project space. Given that The Loon is run out of an existing studio and often has artists staying here for days or weeks at a time, collaboration is a welcome possibility, not necessarily something we feel a need to avoid. The Loon is very much by and for artists, and really tries to cultivate that kind of communal sensibility. “Curator” is just one of a dozen roles that your average artist inhabits on any given day.
AK: What have been the biggest challenges for you?
Kate Kolberg (Little Sister): Easily the biggest challenge is the most evident: financial. But it is important to note that the financial embodies so much more than the money itself. The financial includes the time that has to be spent at our other jobs which ultimately makes it difficult to find time to work on developing the space or even presenting consistent gallery hours.
Veronika Ivanova (Bunker 2): $$$$$$. Despite the low overhead, money is still an issue. We pay for everything out of pocket and it’s a shallow pocket. Luckily, we have incredibly generous friends willing to volunteer their time, resources and skills. The gallery would not have come together without their support.
Aryen Hoekstra (Franz Kaka): Even though we’ve built in measures to decrease this – the gallery shares its space with another gallery [called] Towards, scheduling exhibitions only every other month – running the gallery requires a significant amount of time and energy. The challenge isn’t only finding the time and energy, but also finding a balance between its operation, my own practice as an artist and writer and any other jobs that might come to help pay for its operation. And then, what does that balance look like? As the gallery grows, how much more time will it need dedicated to it? Maybe that means involving more people in its operation. If it does, how then to stop it from falling back
into the bureaucracy I’d hoped to escape?
AK: When the network of artist-run centres was established in Canada, it was done with an ethos of opposition to the system of art institutions and commercial galleries. These were meant to be spaces where artists could show experimental, risky, immaterial or otherwise “hard to sell” work. Is there a new, emergent relationship between the establishment and the independent periphery? And how do you relate to issues of commercialization?
Kate Kolberg (Little Sister): That’s tough – because as much as the primary intention is not to sell, we share the belief in allocating money to the arts or for people to buy art. That is not because it might appreciate financially, but for the simple reason (as tacky as it might sound) of throwing your weight behind something you admire and enjoy. This is particularly true of a small-scale operation such as our own; people who are producing and attending exhibitions are inherently more likely to run in the same circles outside the venue. The relationship between the establishment and periphery may have shifted towards a more fluid one, where generally the work need not defy the institution of commercialization to prove a point but if it does, that’s okay too.
Aryen Hoekstra (Franz Kaka): I feel like I should start by addressing the presupposition that we think the gallery is somehow on the periphery. We have pretty “establishment” credentials, like a formal art education and published writing and all of the artists that we’ve worked with exhibit in very “establishment” contexts regularly, so I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we claimed to be outside of that. But there are maybe different expectations shared between artist and gallery with a project like ours. And despite literally being run by an artist, we’re not at all what I would call “artist-run” in the sense that title has come to be understood in Canada. But we’re also not trying to position ourselves as a commercial gallery with a roster of artists and a business plan. We’re somewhere in between, and we see the gallery as working to complement what’s already taking place here. With the resources we do have, we can only offer so much, so we prioritize freedom and flexibility. But, we also know that enough gallerists, writers and curators take our exhibitions seriously so that the conversations that begin at Franz Kaka will be extended. When work does sell, we’re excited, and the artist is excited and the gallery gets to stay open for another couple of months.
Franz Kaka is Aryen Hoekstra, located at B1 87 Wade Ave, Toronto.
Bunker 2 is Matthew Kyba, Veronika Ivanova, John Elammar, Kate Benedict and Tamara Hart, located at 346 Campbell Ave, Toronto.
Y+ Contemporary is Danièle Dennis, Daniel Griffin Hunt, Dorica Manuel and Tiffany Schofield, located at 15 – 1345 Morningside Ave, Scarborough.
Little Sister is Holden Kelly, Kate Kolberg and Jack Lambert, located at 13 Mansfield Ave, Toronto.
The Loon is Liam Crockard and Aleksander Hardashnakov, located at 109a – 227 Sterling Rd, Toronto.