The brushed steel letters that spelled Uniforms Registered are gone from the industrial brick exterior. A sign offers the Toronto building for lease. These are almost the only public signs that there will be no more exhibitions at the King Street West gallery space of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation.
A voice message on the YHAF phone line confirms that the space is closed, and that the foundation “will continue in a variety of projects in Toronto, elsewhere in Canada and abroad.” So ends a 25-year chapter in the career of a singular collector and curator, whose shows struck sparks of new meaning from skillful conjunctions of contemporary artworks, historical artifacts and “found” objects.
Several factors closed the place for good, including the development pressure that recently put sold signs on several neighbouring buildings. “We were the last holdout,” said Hendeles yesterday by phone. “But it wasn’t just that. It’s like I didn’t understand what I would be staying for.”
Hendeles launched her foundation in 1988, at the end of an eight-year run at the Ydessa Gallery, a commercial space that helped launch international careers for Canadian artists such as Jeff Wall, Ken Lum and Liz Magor. Hendeles decided to make exhibitions related to contemporary art, but not limited to it. She had the means to buy large numbers of objects, both officially “artistic” and not, from which she made a fiercely edited presentation for public view, for a year at a time.
“I’m an object-savant, and an exhibition-maker,” she said. “I work with ideas and things, and I’ve always used an artistic practice to curate my shows.” The results were among the most striking and idiosyncratic shows of the past quarter-century.
“She was a one-woman operation, and she was free from the restraints of a public museum,” said Philip Monk, critic and curator of the Art Gallery of York University. “She was able to develop a procedure for doing the perfect show, and she did many perfect shows.”
Hendeles’s projects became more personal as she went along, hinting at deep private resonances even while they engaged with history and the culture at large. Her collecting followed her interests, not those of the market.
“She hasn’t been carrying home trophies of things that were fashionable at some time or place,” said John Bentley Mays, former Globe and Mail art critic. He likens her to an auteur in film, and sees a clear trajectory in her long progress from art dealer to full-time artistic practitioner.
Recent shows at New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery and the Johann König Gallery in Berlin may be clues to her direction in future. The König exhibition reinterpreted Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, said Mays, through a characteristic grouping of toys, ready-made objects and Hendeles’s own prints based on Gustave Doré’s illustrations.
The foundation will persist, but “without walls,” said Hendeles, who is 63. “That doesn’t rule out having another space, but I would like to be open to other places, and not feel guilty that I’ve left the program at the foundation up too long.”
She maintains a vast holding of works out of public view, some of which will follow the $12-million in gifts she has already made to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Re-showing pieces already seen in her past exhibitions did not seem like an option for the foundation, she said.
For the immediate future, she plans a sabbatical of up to a year. “My mother is sick, so I’m dealing with that, and she was my muse. I made all my shows with her in mind.” She has no regrets about the King Street space.
“There’s something really nice about ending something. You want things to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”