“ART CAN BE TRICKY in Toronto,” said art critic Bill Clarke. “Once you find it, it’s incredibly vibrant. But you have to find it.” We were standing in the VIA Rail Panorama Lounge in the Great Hall of Union Station during the cocktails and dinner for the fortieth anniversary of Art Metropole. Founded by artist collective General Idea in 1974, Art Metropole has for decades, with resolute passion and meager resources, distributed artists’ editions and publications, as a nonprofit bookshop, lending library, gallery, publisher, and most simply a center. The group who assembled for Thursday’s event reflected that spirit: a bit punk, certainly smart, totally committed. As the crowd, including collector-philanthropists Gilles and Julia Ouellette and curator Jonathan Shaughnessy from the National Gallery of Canada, shifted from champagne to the dinner, a few sculpturally peculiar foam cushions poked out from the seats. A graying dowager whispered with delight, “Mine goosed me!” Laurie Kang of the collective Fiancé Knows admitted with a mischievous smile that a few had been intended as “stimulating pillows.”
Though introduced and MC’d by effulgent drag queen Mary Messhausen of Hotnuts and a duo of mysteriously gendered cohorts, the official announcements came from current Art Metropole director Corinn Gerber and board copresident Danielle St. Amour, both of whom were only twinkles in their respective parents’ eyes when the institution was inaugurated. “Art Met has been doing so much with rather little for so long now that it was nice to do something a bit brazen,” St. Amour told me after her speech. “And being brazen on one’s fortieth seems like a fine indicator of doing a decent job of life.”
Throughout the dinner, one critic and a variety of artists spun tales about the donated artworks for the charity auction. Clarke wove a heartbreaker about a sketch his grandfather made; David Horvitz talked about a series of moody Polaroids of road trips to the Spiral Jetty, for some years forgotten in a red bank bag and later saved from a closet; and a radically coiffed Martha Wilson discussed one of her earlier experimental haircuts, documentation of which constituted the many-petaled chrysanthemum of her donated print.
Between each story, Atlantic chef Nathan Isberg pulled off strange course after strange course. The mix of locavore slow-cooking, Rasputinish alchemy, and minimalism could easily be described as “stark” or “uncompromising”; mostly it was gently and high-mindedly delicious. The first course consisted of three hollowed-out and gilded eggs with their tops shaved off, each filled with a delicate dollop of sashimi, slivers of fresh vegetable, or roe. Each morsel was like a succulent poem that lasted no longer than a haiku, so no one could blame those diners who snuck backstage to eat a few cold slices of leftover pizza from the volunteers’ early-evening pies.
The dinner emptied into a party already in swing next door in the station’s Great Hall, a yawning, vaulted industrial cathedral, with the names of Canadian cities taking the place of saints circling the mantle of the muscular brick columns. A difficult place for the sweaty intimacy of a rave, but the mostly youngish artists that made up the revelers danced with fervor. I snuck around the edges sipping weird cocktails and Canadian beer, trying to glean something of Toronto’s contemporary art scene. No one seemed particularly territorial, though people were quick to mention Michael Snow or Suzy Lake (currently enjoying a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario). Largely driven by mostly ephemeral artist-run centers (Art Metropole one of the heroically lasting exceptions), one could sense a wealth of talent in the city, but not enough opportunities to support or export it, with the result that a lot of said talent either struggles or splits.
A couple nights later, cool rain washed away an early snow and a crowd amassed for an opening at the delightfully named artist-run space 8-11. When EDM DJ Skrillex passed through the city, he posted a snap of their storefront, resulting in the space going viral and leading to a cease-and-desist letter from the aggrieved corporate overlords at 7-11. But the sign still beams brightly in the dark night from the crumbling heritage building it shares with a bonsai shop and a gentleman’s club. The collective’s membership “hovers between eight and eleven people, though currently at nine,” I was told by Xenia Benivolski, a talented organizer of sundry artist-run projects around Canada and member of the collective running the space. From Russia by way of Israel, Benivolski had been in and around Toronto for fourteen years, and was able to put the city in perspective: “Artists always want to leave Toronto, but when they do, they always want to come back.”