The death of gallerist Katharine Mulherin is a hard blow for Toronto’s art community. Beloved and highly respected, Mulherin was central to building the vibrant art ecosystem the city enjoys today. Struggling with depression in recent years, Mulherin took her own life last week at age 54, her son Jasper Mulherin confirmed in a Facebook post. The loss has been widely mourned on social media – and at an informal gathering of friends on July 16 at the site of one of her former galleries at Queen and Dovercourt. Over the years she had many.
Mulherin created the world she wanted to live in. A habitual gallery-maker, she founded a stream of them, first in the late 90s in Toronto, then in New York and Los Angeles. Making spaces was at the heart of her practice. She also worked and showed as an artist, studying art first in New Brunswick, where she was born, and then in Quebec City. Her move to Toronto in 1988 was accompanied by a shift to curating. She graduated from the criticism and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1998, a time when the profession was just becoming formalized as a career.
Things were different when Mulherin was starting out. In a 2001 cover-story interview with NOW, she said there was a simple secret to running three galleries simultaneously while also being single mother to a small child: “Cheap rent.” More than a wisecrack, this was a strategy. Work with what you got – and live behind the store, or above it, which Mulherin did at a number of locations, along with her young son, Jasper. She opened BUSgallery in 1998, then quickly went on to create 1080BUS, also on Queen West and, at the invitation of OCAD, the School BUS project space.
In the NOW interview Mulherin cited an abundance of younger artists she wanted to show as the reason for her growing empire. This was the emerging Toronto scene she played a key role in nurturing.
Countless artists benefited from Mulherin’s discerning curatorial eye, with shows at her gallery leading to recognition elsewhere. A random sampling includes Kris Knight, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Elaine Stocki and Balint Zsako, who calls Mulherin “magnetic.” Her “mix of wit, intelligence and enthusiasm made her like nobody else in Toronto,” he says.
“Katharine invented communities, programs and collectors,” notes painter Margaux Williamson, who showed with Mulherin in Toronto and New York. “The stakes were high, but they were not typical, so there was so much more room to move.”
Art collector Paul Bain remembers Mulherin as “kind, down-to-earth and open,” noting that’s not always the case in the art world. Bain bought his first artwork from Mulherin, who made it easy for people to collect. “Working with her was like a process of discovering things together,” he recalls. “Like a partnership.”
Over 20 years, Mulherin created many spaces, including Board of Directors, KMLA, Katharine Mulherin’s Sideshow, No Show Exhibits, Mulherin Pollard Projects, Mulherin New York, No Foundation, New Multiples and Mulherin Toronto. The range of initiatives spoke to her entrepreneurial drive and an ad hoc approach, with the general temper of the times, budgets and affordability dictating the terms of each project.
Given the global scale of the real estate affordability problem, the term “gentrification” might now seem like an outdated notion. Regardless, Mulherin’s gallery practice ran on the rhythms of gentrification. She was intimately acquainted with the process, moving into overlooked neighbourhoods like West Queen West. “Before the Drake and the taco shops,” Bain notes.
On Queen West, Mulherin would find a clientele in the area’s new condo dwellers, who would go on to take over and transform the neighborhood, making it much less affordable. But art always exists in this uneasy symbiosis between patrons and artists. All credit goes to Mulherin for the ingenuity she brought to this balancing act for so long.
The artist Annie MacDonell had her first exhibition with Mulherin after graduating from Ryerson University in 2000. She went on to show with her for almost 15 years. “I always thought of her as someone who was unstoppable, as someone who would keep on reinventing herself and the world around her for a long time to come,” she says. “That’s part of what makes it so hard to lose her.”
Mulherin is survived by her sons Jasper and Satchel, her husband Daniel “Paco” Paquette, sisters Jennifer and Erin and brother Shawn. A celebration of her life will take place at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) on August 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm.
A GoFundMe page to cover immediate and ongoing expenses for her family has also been set up.