A year ago, on a dark October evening, Canadian art lovers got all dressed up, cracked open the Champagne, plated the nibbles and sat down at their computers to pretend they were attending the opening night of an art fair. Art Toronto, the annual fair that normally fills the Metro Toronto Convention Centre with 100 gallery booths and thousands of visitors, tried hard to offer a virtual version featuring viewing rooms and video interviews. There was a certain atmosphere – if you tried equally hard – but without the circulating crowds and the continuous chatter, it didn’t really feel like a fair.
This year, the chatter may be somewhat inhibited by masks but Art Toronto is back with an in-person event at the convention centre. More than 60 galleries are participating with physical booths as well as an online presence; another two dozen are offering simultaneous shows in their own premises for those who want to avoid any crowds.
You’ll need proof of vaccination to enter the convention centre and tickets are timed to the half-hour. Meanwhile, the swank opening-night preview, traditionally a fundraiser for the Art Gallery of Ontario, has been postponed until 2022.
Still, from Friday to Sunday, there will be real art in real physical spaces; for the digital skeptic or the neophyte collector, browsing is back.
And from all this, there emerges a theme too: Indigenous art. About a third of participating galleries happen to be showing work by Indigenous artists, from veterans such as the Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore to mid-career figures such as Maria Hupfield, an Anishinaabe artist now working in Brooklyn, N.Y., or the Toronto artist Jason Baerg, who is Cree and Métis and teaches at the Ontario College of Art & Design University. This is coincidental, reflecting the interests of Canadian gallerists and collectors, rather than any specific direction from Art Toronto. It is a trend that includes fair stalwarts such as Montreal dealer Pierre-François Ouellette who has shown work by Meryl McMaster and Kent Monkman for years and the arrival of more galleries that specialize in First Nations art including the Indigenous-owned K Art from Buffalo, N.Y., and Vancouver’s Ceremonial Art.
It also happens to dovetail with the fair’s panel on decolonizing public collections, moderated by National Gallery of Canada curator Greg Hill. That is an online event, one of a series of interviews and discussions that can be watched at home. You can also visit the exhibitors online: Their VR booths on the Art Toronto website will remain up for a week after the physical event closes.
Another in-person option, however, is being offered by some of the participating galleries in Toronto who have banded together to produce a city-wide gallery week to coincide with the fair. Last year, photography dealer Stephen Bulger couldn’t stomach the idea of online-only and organized a small pop-up fair, inviting four galleries from across the country into his Dundas Street West headquarters and allowing masked visitors to step carefully inside. That idea has taken hold and, alongside Bulger, several more Toronto venues have visiting galleries in their spaces: the Olga Korper Gallery welcomes Calgary’s VIVIANEART; Robert Birch Contemporary hosts Montreal’s Art Mûr and Feheley Fine Arts has Vancouver’s Fazakas Gallery.
Although not officially affiliated with Art Toronto, the friendly art-week idea meshes with the cross-Canada scope of a fair that has always positioned itself as a national rather than metropolitan event. For example, this year, almost a third of the participating galleries are from Montreal. One of those galleries is Hugues Charbonneau’s, and that dealer is arriving already sold out of work by two artists, both of whom address issues of Black history and identity, the Haitian-Canadian Manuel Mathieu and the Congolese-Canadian Moridja Kitenge Banza.
You can’t really put a dollar figure on Art Toronto’s activity because sales are handled by the individual galleries: The barometer of its success is simply the number of galleries that choose to come back year after year. The pandemic may have hurt museums badly but as Charbonneau’s example shows the art market itself has prospered in recent months. In 2021 Art Toronto is exhibiting resilience.
Art Toronto runs Oct. 29-31 in person at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and online to Nov. 7. See arttoronto.ca for details.
Toronto Gallery Week runs Oct. 26-31. See torontogalleryweek.com for details.
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