Interview with The White House co-founder Xenia Benivolski and board member Vanessa Rieger
Can you introduce/overview some of the key people involved with the Whitehouse collective, what their roles are?
Xenia: Well, So far the key people/ permanent board members have been myself, Vanessa Rieger, Adam Cowan, Brette Gabel and Christy Kunitzky. Various current and past memebrs such as Brette Gabel, Donna Irvine, Julia Dickens, Jonny Wheeldon and Victoria Cowan have been instrumental in our development. I feel like I do a lot of outreach, finances, programming, communications and liaison with different organizations and people, while Christy supports our aesthetic mandate, takes care of things like bills and rent collection while making sure that we are clear about or goals . Vanessa and Adam have taken on a lot of initiative in regards to programming, construction, ideas and real estate Adam basically facilitated our move and has contributed to every single decision and initiative as did Vanessa, who is largely spatially in charge and has taken on organization and placement. She is also the handiest one when it comes to figuring out supplies, building things, and figuring out timelines. We all have equal weight on anything that happens at the white house and we fell into these roles sort of naturally, though frequent meetings seem to really help!
Vanessa: The Co-Founders of the White House is Xenia Benivolski, Christy Kunitsky and Jon McCurley. Jon only stayed a couple of months in the house and soon moved to Montreal, making Christy and Xenia Prez and Vice Prez… if we go with the white house theme here. Adam Cowan and I have been members since the very beginning and are very much a part of everything that goes down. I think I would consider Adam to be the Treasurer handling financial and legal issues. I myself would be considered Chief of Action, since I do most of the construction/renovation and many times co-curation. The four of us are the main members of the “White House Board”. A new member of the White House board is Brette Gable. But usually everyone who is a part of the White House helps in different ways. The White House Board isn’t really a democracy… as no one is voted in. Being a board member is purely based on how much work you do in and for the White House. Actually, the whole concept of a “board” just kinda happened. We never started out to create a hierarchy of any kind, but when the same 5 people kept coming to the weekly meetings over and over, and did the majority of all the work and organization, it literally created itself. The only difference is that we now have something to put on our C.V. for all our hard work and dedication. Other than that, everyone is on the same level and has the same opportunities to contribute if they desire. Since then there has been many members that have come and gone, all who played a part in contributing to the white house… it’s hard to mention them all. But I’d personally like to send out a RESPECT to Ashley Long who did a lot of work at the beginning of the studio project. She now lives in Portland and is missed.
How did the Whitehouse get started and evolve into the manifestation it is today?
Xenia: The Whitehouse was an idea I’ve been bringing up to Jon McCurley for about a year until he finally said dooo it already! Studio spaces were needed asap and they needed to be cheap and fun. Jon was living at 19 major at the time which I thought would make a nice studio as it was so much cheaper than renting a commercial space. I lived in a similar set up with a bunch of people who liked to stay up all night. The idea was to find a cheap residential space and rent it for a commercial purpose of studio space. I involved Christy whom I shared a studio with while studying in Florence, Italy, who I thought would sympathize with this idea, as we both found the experience of having a workspace so awesome.
Jon, Christy and I then started to recruit willing members and look for a house and we had our first location within a week and within 2 weeks 20 people had moved in. the first wave of White House residents were 90% our friends, of that first wave only 4 people now remain the current board of directors. So there had been quite a turnaround during this first year.
Very quickly after moving in it became apparent which people were most invested in the project and our meetings became more communal, eventually settling on Adam, Vanessa, Christy and I as Jon had to leave for a few months to work on a project in Montreal. We all tried several approaches to usage the space, things like garage sales, zine-fairs, concerts and other community type stuff which we felt was befitting the concept. The fact that it was a house had lent itself to some aspects but was also kind of limiting sometimes.
During the year we all got to know each other very well as a team and as people which creates an interesting dynamic within the board and the general group. The fact that we’re all vastly different I think adds interest to our collaboration. The art scene in Toronto has also been shifting dramatically and it feels like we have an anchor in it. It seems that we found a balance of responsibilities and interests within the project.
It took a while to figure out a way to make the space workable as a studio and as an occasional event space, something which was a fun but exhausting challenge. With each show we had more and more interest until in the end of the year, as a result of problems with the building and the neighbours and a need for change we decided to take up an equally affordable and dramatic space in Kensington market.
Can you explain/talk about why the Whitehouse has moved to a new location?
Vanessa: It is true that our landlord was indeed sketchy but he let us do something really awesome so I can’t hate on him. But because he wanted to raise the rent it really made us all step back and question the situation. The house was great for installations and events, but as studio spaces it was isolating and limiting. I could be working in my studio in the living room and not have any idea that Adam was upstairs in the bedroom working. I was at the studio alone one night during the black out that happened during winter of 2008. Suddenly all the lights went out and I was all alone in a strange dark house at the end of an alley way with no one around. I thought for sure this was how horror movies started and ended up having to find my way out with my dim cell phone light. That just won’t ever happen at our new location in Kensington! The central location means more people around 24hrs access. The openness of our new space is more conducive for creative practice and artist interaction. Thankfully our landlord is a really nice guy. He liked our idea about the studio project and cut us a break on the rent but by next year it’s going up, so we hope to require money through fundraising and housing events to keep the studio up and the rent low and affordable for all. I have to admit, I am going to miss that little white house of horrors.
Xenia: Well with moving it was important for us to develop in some way and one way to do that is to try something new in terms of format. There was much deliberation on the mandate of the new space without the added punch of that unusual commercial/residential mix or a mandate that rebels against status quo but after thinking about it we all came to the conclusion that the most important thing would be to have an accessible, considerate, nice, and useable studio space in a good location something which was a constant struggle at the old place as both unconventional spacing and remote location were making attendance difficult for people. The ability to personalize the new space was an added bonus.
With the new location the Whitehouse and Double Double Land are neighbours, are there going to be any collaborations between the two venues that people can look forward too?
Xenia: Yes! Double Double land and Good Blood Bad Blood are both places which we are looking forward to working with. I feel that it is going to be an amazing symbiotic relationship between creative forces, resources, and organizational powers. Exciting!
Vanessa: Definitely! We would like to keep the white house more of a studio/gallery and less of a “house party” as it sometimes turned into at the old space. This time around we’re really focusing on making the white house a constant studio for artists with at most a bi-monthly gallery show. As for any events and fundraising we hope to branch out and show at other venues/galleries… that way we don’t have to pack up all of our work spaces to accommodate the audience every time we want to have an event.
How have you been running the White House without any funding?
Xenia: It’s been crazy but basically with a lot of trust and help. We don’t make any money and all funds go towards the white house. Everyone works on a volunteer basis and people put in crazy hours. We have several dedicated friends and members who do a lot of work around the studio and it seems to be working out in a way where everyone does their part. Sometimes new or existing members donate equipment, their time and their skills to the space and we try to get everything cheaply if not free by seeking material donations on a continuous basis. Things are discussed in a large group format to bring people up to date about what is needed. Our fundraisers have been bringing in a helpful amount of money as well on account of everyone participating and helping for freee. Basically a giant gesture of goodwill runs the space.
Since the White House is expanding I am curious if you are planning on applying for grants?
Xenia: We are thinking of applying for developmental grants for the spring but we are in no way depending on it.
If you did receive funding how would it affect the studio?
Xenia: We would like to be able to subsidize some of the time we demand from our volunteers and the people who put in much time at the white house. As this time could be used for making artwork at their studio, we recognize that it is valuable and rely want to be able to compensate for it. We are thinking on applying for a grant to fund the workforce needed before a large project or during stressful times, and to pay for needed materials, equipment, professional maintenance and guest artists. We would also like a grant to fund international visitors, workshops and such, to supplement our existing programs. What we don’t want is to rely on grants in our basic creative decisions making, it seems to me that a key component to this project is our independence from outside factors: we would like to preserve this integrity.
What other plans/projects are you working on or planning for in the near future?
Xenia: The Whitehouse is continually involved with other galleries and new initiatives. We are currently supporting the Art Critics Alliance in a series of panel discussions about art criticism in Toronto. We have a major but secret event planned for the month of June which will involve large areas of the city. We are discussing travelling exhibits and roundtable discussions in other national and international institutions in the next few months, and we are looking forward to developing our platform with consideration for the new space and new members as we go along.