Nine stellar highlights from Toronto’s art scene in 2020


It’s been a rough nine months for the Toronto art world. 

For the romantics among us who crave the rush of an art opening or the wonder of leaning in to get closer to an artwork, 2020 has been difficult. 

Artists had their shows put on indefinite hiatus, major festivals like Contact Photography Festival and Nuit Blanche had to pivot online and funding for emerging artists vanished.

But in terms of accessibility, virtual gallery tours, art talks on Zoom and online archives made 2020 the year where art was at our fingertips. 

Without the barriers of ticket pricing or location, anyone could tune into a free virtual drawing lesson hosted by AGO (NOW Reader’s Choice for Best Museum) or a virtual walk-through of the Power Plant’s current exhibitions with an audio guide from the artists themselves. 

Not to get sentimental, but it’s uplifting to think about all the great things that happened in a year that felt like a dud in so many other ways. 

In that spirit, here are our our picks for the best 2020 Toronto art moments, shows, accomplishments and announcements. 

Courtesy Nick Lachance

Outdoor art

Looking at images from the 6th annual Winter Stations at Woodbine Beach feels like a window into another world: children climbing the public art installations while parents weave through the sculptures, interacting with the art. Although outdoor art for the rest of the year was less interactive, it was also the safest way to experience art in the city. From outdoor photography collages sprinkled throughout Malvern as part of curator Anique Jordan’s ode to the Scarborough neighbourhood for Contact, to BigArtTO projecting 200 hours of works onto landmarks and buildings across the city, it was a good year to go for a walk and get inspired.

Rah Eleh's work at Nuit Blanche 2020
Courtesy Nuit Blanche

Art goes virtual

Virtual art is typically not anybody’s first choice to see major exhibits, but it works well for more intimate viewing. And for much of this year, it was also our only option. Nuit Blanche, Contact Photography Festival, Art Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Power Plant Gallery all pivoted online successfully. The Koffler Centre of the Arts’ digital arm was already suited for life in quarantine, as it commissions artists to create works specifically for the virtual space. AGO From Home brought the gallery experience to your living room with highlights from all its collections. The ROM had 46,699 objects available for viewing online. The University of Toronto’s galleries introduced the Virtual Art Museum, featuring video recordings of lectures, artist talks and panel discussions.

The Art Gallery of Ontario AGO reopens after lockdown in July 2020 with social distancing measures in place
Samuel Engelking

Major galleries bounce back after lockdown

As we hesitantly emerged from our COVID bunkers in early June, galleries across the city slowly reopened with strict protocols and safety regulations. The AGO and the ROM offered free admission to frontline workers. Socially distant gallery visits turned out to be quite an enjoyable viewing experience. The Power Plant’s fall offering included thought-provoking shows from Howie Tsui, Manuel Mathieu and Nathan E. Carson. There were vibrant multi-panel animations, floor-to-ceiling canvases, intimate drawings – it had it all.

A photo of the experiential art show Immersive van Gogh in Toronto
Courtesy of Immersive Van Gogh

Immersive Van Gogh

Every year there’s one show that everyone flocks to. In 2019 it was the unveiling of the AGO’s permanent Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror room. This Immersive Van Gogh exhibit was a digital projection show that took the paintings of the Dutch impressionist master and turned them into psychedelic animations. It opened in May and ran until the current lockdown. They plan on reopening at the end of January, if permitted. During the summer months, it was the only major socially distanced art event in the city. Located in the former Toronto Star printing plant at 1 Yonge, the exhibition was a much-needed 35-minute escape from pandemic anxiety into a dark, air-conditioned room of swirling brushstrokes, sunflowers and starry nights.

Independent and commercial galleries

It was a bit harder for independent galleries like MKG127, Cooper Cole, BAND Gallery (voted Best Independent Gallery by NOW readers) and Zalucky Contemporary to bounce back after lockdown, since they don’t always get the level of funding major institutions do. Despite it all, they manoeuvred through the obstacles and mounted phenomenal shows. From Ramolen Laruan and Aaron Jones at Zalucky to Dawit Tibebu and Krystal Ball at BAND to Luke Parnell and Joy Walker at MKG127, shows were delayed or cut short but they still prevailed.

A photo of a close up of Tau lewis's fabric sculpture Symphony
Courtesy Cooper Cole

Tau Lewis at Cooper Cole

In a year where mounting any show felt like a triumph, Tau Lewis’s first solo at Cooper Cole Gallery, Triumphant Alliance Of The Ubiquitous Blossoms Of Incarnate Souls was a godsend. It was cut short by the second lockdown, but luckily before that people flocked to see it. The scale of the works, sewn by hand and made from reclaimed household materials, is colossal. She dyed the fabrics in pastel pinks and peaches and soft browns to resemble a light-filled womb. The maternal, genderless beings exist in their own sci-fi realm, exuding a soothing tenderness. Her show was one that made us feel a little warmer and a little closer, exactly what I needed after months of isolation. I saw a handful of shows in person this year, but Lewis’s was the only one that felt like a warm hug.

Sobey Art Award $25,000 to everyone

In April the Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada made a welcome announcement. Rather than choosing a shortlist of five artists and awarding a single $100,000 prize to the winner, they decided to award all 25 long-listed finalists and give them each $25,000. With opportunities to generate income by exhibiting work pretty much nonexistent, the widespread financial support helped artists in their time of need. The five artists from Ontario were Bambitchell, Sara Cwynar, Georgia Dickie, Jagdeep Raina and Catherine Telford Keogh.

A photo from Nia Centre's redevelopment press event in 2020
Courtesy of Nia Centre

Nia Centre expansion

The art organization based in Little Jamaica is expanding to become Canada’s first multidisciplinary professional art space dedicated to Black art. The new Nia Centre for the Arts wants to be a community hub in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood near Eglinton and Oakwood. In October, the centre announced the groundbreaking of renovations. Over the past decade Nia has offered artist residencies, youth development programs, Toronto’s first Black art fair and countless mentorship programs. Particularly integral to Nia Centre’s new programming is a youth hub, a space in the building for drop-in, after school programs and artistic workshops. Historically art councils and sponsors haven’t invested in Black artists in Toronto. Executive director Alica Hall says we lost a generation of artists without that support, and she hopes the expansion will help rectify that.

New AGO department devoted to global African art

Helmed by curator Julie Crooks, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced a department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora in October. The new arm of the institution is dedicated to collecting all kinds of work – from photography to sculpture – from the African continent and beyond. They will work in tandem with other departments throughout the gallery. Community outreach and meaningful programming are integral to the new department. The AGO created an acquisitions advisory committee called the Friends of Global Africa to ensure the wider community is reflected and has a voice within the institution.




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