Toronto art lovers gathered on the sidewalk at Queen Street West and Dovercourt Road on Tuesday night with flowers and tears. They had come to pay their respects at the former site of Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects. These days, the storefronts that once housed the centre of Toronto’s indie art world are empty or changing hands. Now, Mulherin herself is gone. The pioneering art dealer took her own life on Sunday, just a few days before her 55th birthday.
Credited with establishing the new Queen Street West art scene in the 2000s and developing a ground-breaking model for an experimental commercial gallery, Mulherin was “a true gatekeeper,” said colleague Paul Petro of Paul Petro Contemporary Art. “She was honest, loyal and deeply committed. … She helped with the composting of ideas in the community, and she wore a few hats – as a curator, an artist, a gallerist and a shopkeeper.”
Mulherin was born July 19, 1964, into a family of shopkeepers. Her father Kent owned a grocery store in Grand Falls, N.B., while her mother Noella ran a flower shop. After studying fine art and photography at colleges in New Brunswick and later at Laval University in Quebec City, she moved to Toronto in 1988 to enroll at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). She dropped out, but re-enrolled after the birth of her son, Jasper, and completed her degree while juggling the responsibilities of a single parent.
“It was just her and me on the back of her bike,” Jasper said.
After her graduation in 1998, she immediately opened a gallery to give her former classmates a place to show. With the BUS gallery on Queen Street in the Parkdale neighbourhood, she began developing the mixed model that would become her signature: renting cheap storefronts to provide both exhibition and studio space for emerging talents, and building a business that operated as much like an artist-run centre as a commercial gallery.
“She ran a looser, more collaborative and curatorially-driven commercial gallery program,” said Sophie Hackett, photography curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “And through her, a new crop of Canadian artists found new collectors, new curators found space to try new ideas and new galleries followed, inspired by her risk-taking, do-it-yourself example.”
It was never about making money, Jasper said, recalling that in the early days, the goal was simply to pay the rent on run-down premises: “The bones of the buildings were terrible, but we made the rooms look good.”
Mulherin developed an impressive roster of artists, including Lisa Neighbour, Kris Knight and Dean Baldwin as she gradually expanded westward, establishing her flagship storefront at 1086 Queen West in 2000.
That address and several nearby storefronts became the core of a many-tentacled endeavour that included a traditional gallery roster of artists, one-off shows for others and special project spaces where people could try both artistic and curatorial experiments.
“She was doing it all, coming at it from all angles,” said Emelie Chhangur, interim director at the Art Gallery of York University.
Mulherin quickly developed a reputation not only for her energy and inventiveness, but also for her curatorial eye.
“Katharine was fierce and discerning,” Chhangur said. “She had a really good sense of work that was ahead of its time, especially in relationship to painting. She really championed work that had a sublime grotesqueness that kept painting alive … with an eye to younger painters,” she added, pointing to artists such as Eliza Griffiths and Clint Griffin as examples of the exuberant painting Mulherin favoured. “She always supported the underdog and made them superstars. That was scene-changing here, because she was able to shift the values of the art community and the art community’s own aesthetic values.”
In 2010, Mulherin tried moving the model she had developed in Toronto to New York, starting her first curatorial projects inside other commercial galleries before opening her own space in the Bowery district, where she showed both Canadian and U.S. artists.
“She created a space here that was of this place and she took it to New York. That’s bold,” Chhangur said, pointing out how unusual it is for Canadians to export rather than import cultural models.
Mulherin closed the New York gallery in 2017 and returned to Toronto, moving her headquarters to new premises at Dupont Street and Lansdowne Avenue, again pushing into a gritty neighbourhood with ambitious plans. The project at Emerson Avenue foundered this year as Mulherin battled a deepening depression, finally leaving friends and colleagues gaping at a hole in the arts scene.
“In many ways, Katharine defined Queen Street West for an important decade. It was an energizing place to be and I will miss her,” Hackett said.
As well as Jasper, Mulherin leaves her son Satchel, her husband Daniel (Paco) Paquette and her siblings Jennifer, Erin, and Shawn.