Toronto Alternative Art Fair International at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) and the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), October 1 to 4, Friday to Sunday noon to 8 pm, Monday noon to 5 pm, plus shows at night. $5 at the door. Gala tonight (Thursday, September 30), 9 pm, at the Drake. $20. 416-537-3814, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toronto International Art Fair at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (255 Front West), October 1 to 4, Friday and Saturday noon to 8 pm, Sunday and Monday noon to 7 pm. $16/day, four days $40. 1-800-663-4173, email@example.com. Gala tonight (Thursday, September 30) at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), 6:30 to 10 pm. $175. 416-979-6608.
The Toronto International Art Fair is gearing up for its fifth year. It has A-list art stars, a strong avant-garde and claims to support the Toronto arts community. So exactly what are Pamila Matharu, Andrew Harwood and Selena Cristo doing starting a Toronto Alternative Art Fair International (TAAFI)?
TAAFI's office is a small but comfortable place. Mismatched chairs line a long desk holding a few computers, and there's a bed in the corner.
During the past five months, the organizers have been pulling together an event that blatantly coincides with the Toronto International Art Fair.
"We're giving birth," says Matharu.
You boil the water; I'll get the towels. What started last October as a simple lament over the lack of events supporting contemporary Toronto artists has ballooned into a full-blown fair.
The first hits of helium came in the form of special project funding from the Toronto Arts Council, and soon after, the participation of the Canadian Art Foundation.
When the Drake and Gladstone hotels stepped in to share the role of hosting, it not only firmly cemented TAAFI in the West Queen West/Parkdale community, it also marked the first time in their 115 years of sharing the strip that the two hotels have collaborated.
All good developments but why, with the larger Toronto International Art Fair (TIAF) going strong, have Matharu, Harwood and Cristo struggled to give birth to a second event?
The short answer is that they couldn't stop themselves - all three tend to organize as if it were a natural reflex. Matharu, a veteran artist and curator, has been involved in everything from running commercial art galleries to a stint at the National Film Board. Harwood, also an artist, is best known as the man behind the pioneering Zsa Zsa Gallery and has been both a co-director of Mercer Union and the general manager of C Magazine. As the director of Luft Gallery, Cristo branched out to help organize the popular lecture series Art In The Dark and has held the post of art editor at Hive magazine.
They see that a lot of great work in the local art community gets ignored by TIAF, work that ought to be shown. Meanwhile, as Matharu points out, "Collectors are going to New York to buy Canadian art."
Money often breeds conservatism, and the bigger fair tends to be a little staid. That said, TIAF has done a great job of including some contemporary and groundbreaking work this year. Curator and Canadian Art magazine editor Richard Rhodes's News At Five series of exhibits, changing each day, are eagerly anticipated. But many art cubicles at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, home of the fair, will be showing work that sells but does not inspire.
Part of TIAF's problem is that its offices are nestled in the exclusive confines of West Vancouver, giving the impression that the fair is flown into Toronto just as a convenient locale for doing art business. In fact, the fair started in Vancouver in 1997 but didn't receive the support it needed there. When it moved here in 2000, local galleries and institutions jumped on the opportunity for an international event.
TIAF founder Linel Rubenchuk, on the phone from West Van, acknowledges in his genteel way a difference in focus between TIAF and TAAFI. TIAF, he says, wants to make people comfortable with the idea of buying art, while he sees TAAFI as being an innately more casual and social environment. He bristles slightly at the suggestion that the difference has more to do with TAAFI's grassroots basis in the Toronto art community, stressing that TIAF also fits in.
"The aim," he says, "is not to do a convention show for the dealers but to involve the whole community and to introduce new people to art."
Ultimately, TIAF and TAAFI represent two very different approaches. The model is the same in many creative sectors in Canada: the big-business side of things produces less interesting work but generates a chimney effect that draws on the flames of the creative community. If TIAF is the chimney, then TAAFI represents the hearth. Both are necessary, and form a symbiotic whole.
According to Power Plant director Wayne Baerwaldt, "A lot of commercial galleries simply can't afford to attend TIAF."
Whole stables of Toronto artists are left out, and only work that sells makes it into the show.
Baerwaldt chides TIAF for selling a booth to anyone who can afford it, whereas the focus, he says, should be directed toward "enlightening, informing and shocking" audiences.
To that end, he and Power Plant curator Reid Shier are bringing members of Danish collective SUPERFLEX to TIAF, exposing Toronto to their subversion of international trade as a form of art. SUPERFLEX will be distributing a drink called Guaraná, imported directly from its producers in Brazil, that ought to quench even the greatest thirst for artistic integrity. (See NOW's September 23 cover story.)
The torrent of energy engulfing TAAFI in the months leading up to tonight's gala has also swept up Philip Monk, curator of the Art Gallery of York University. Monk has been fostering a renaissance at the AGYU since his move there a year ago, bringing work up from the Queen West gallery district as well as from around the world.
"There's still a long way to go for TIAF," he says. "I support their endeavours, but I prefer something more engaging."
Take note when a public institution like the AGYU gets involved in the alternative art fair rather than the more established one. It speaks volumes about TAAFI's relevance. Monk brings to TAAFI the underground French publishing collective Le Dernier Cri and American artist Georganne Deen, and he'll also participate in an international panel discussion on the question Is There An Avant-Garde?
Back at the TAAFI office, Harwood rolls up in an office chair and addresses what he sees as the most important question: what is he going to wear to the gala? There's mention of a tutu. He is, I think, not entirely joking but gets serious when he blurts, "Wouldn't it be nice if the whole city could get excited about art for a week?"
Matharu adds, "Look at somewhere like Europe, and the Middle East, too - art can make the front cover of a national newspaper. Here, culture is the first thing to get cut."
Speaking of elsewhere, ours isn't the first major city to experience duelling art fairs. The Liste Art Fair in Switzerland offsets the big Art Basel, and Art Basel Miami has given rise to Nada. In New York, Scope runs alongside the Armoury, which itself was once a small grassroots fair.
You could look at the emergence of two festivals like these as a sign of another heyday for T.O. artists, and many people note a renewed vitality in the scene. The concurrence of TAAFI and TIAF during Toronto Arts Week this year reads less like a competition (See sidebar, page 103) than an alignment of the planets.
But, of course, art isn't even about art any more - it's about partying. Word is, most of the people attending the TIAF gala will head to the Drake for the TAAFI gala after it winds down. I ask Linel Rubenchuk if he'll be there.
"Of course!" he says.
Maybe Andrew Harwood will lend him his tutu.
Going both ways
Just to show there are no hard feelings, a number of artists and galleries are participating in both art fairs.
Fiona Smyth takes over a wall at the Gladstone for TAAFI with a new mural that refers to German painter Jorg Immendorf, who lost the use of his right arm, and also floats her inflatable God's Sister at the MOCCA booth in TIAF.
Luft Gallery 's Adele Chong appears at TAAFI with the ethereal acrylic painting Turbulence In Heaven, and her work is also being curated by Rhonda Corvese at TIAF in the Berlin Constructions exhibition.
Christopher Cutts brings Eldon Garnet to both shows, with some expressions from his writings cut into stainless steel at TIAF and his photo-based work at TAAFI.
TAAFI gets works on paper under $1,000 from Robert Birch Gallery , including pieces by Mitch Robertson , Luis Jacob and Ed Pien . The same three also show at TIAF, where Pien's print Wild Oats tastefully depicts oats growing out of someone's ass.
Paul Petro Gallery wins with five two-timers.
Andrew Harwood naturally has work at TAAFI: Truckermobile, his sliver-and-blue-sequined truck convoy, goes on the wall in the Gladstone Melody bar. At TIAF he shows CB lingo phrases stitched in sequins into brightly coloured bits of gingham and denim.
Matthias Herrmann photographs himself in Will Munro 's underwear at TAAFI, while Herrmann's photos and a sequined pair of Munro's underwear appear at TIAF. Fastwürms bring two large paintings on vinyl to the Gladstone stairwell at TAAFI, and the technicolour squiggles of Anaconda Neural Net to TIAF.
And Allyson Mitchell 's cement sculptures Tiny Trubs go to TIAF, and their gigantic 4-metre-tall sister Big Trubs, replete with fun-fur bits, will be in the Gladstone lobby at TAAFI. Upstairs, her Deep Lez Craft Den, miraculously sponsored by the BMO Mosaic MasterCard, spreads word of the Deep Lez Movement. Facilitating a bank-sponsored lesbian manifesto lair has to be one of TAAFI's greatest feats so far.