With 25 years of experience in the Toronto artistic community, Canadian Art Foundation executive director Ann Webb, 50, has worked for such cultural power houses as The Power Plant and The Canadian Opera Company. Nine years ago, she founded the Reel Artists Film Festival, showcasing documentaries about visual art and artists, which runs from Feb. 22 to 26, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Your office is in the Robertson building on Spadina. I feel like every progressive organization in the city has space there.
The Robertson building is owned by the Zeidler family, who own The Gladstone and also 401 Richmond, which is where a lot of galleries are housed. They're very community oriented. A lot of the organizations that work in this building are non-profit, social justice, art organizations. I think they want a certain vibe and people who are connected to the community. They're amazing.
Is the rent low?
The rent is fair. We've been here five years and we just renewed our lease.
Your first job was at a gallery nearby.
I've been working in the visual-art community in Toronto for, wow, more than 25 years. Right out of university I had a job as an intern in a gallery on Queen Street West, called the S.L. Simpson Gallery. It was near Augusta and it was before Queen Street was completely gentrified, trendified. A lot of the artists lived in that block. I've seen a lot of change. The artists have moved west and the city is following.
What made you start the Reel film festival nine years ago?
I met a lovely woman named Laura Trisorio who is Italian and lives in Naples and owns a gallery. She does a similar festival there, showing documentaries about visual art and artists. I thought it was such a great idea that I presented it to the Canadian Art Foundation, before I started working for them full time, and they felt it was really in keeping with their mandate. So they hired me and it evolved from there.
Where did you have the first one?
It was at Ryerson. We invited Rory Logsdail, who is the son of Nicholas Logsdail of Lisson Gallery in London. He had grown up around artists and made these amazing short films about them, people like Anish Kapoor and Gilbert & George. And every year it just grew. The next year we went to the Royal Theatre and then the Al Green Theatre. And then we were one of the first community festivals to be asked to go to the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Did that change the vibe of the festival?
We feel like we're all grown-up now. I love the building. It's a real hub of activity. Even if you're not going to a film you can go have lunch or dinner or go to the gallery. I love seeing films there. Our films look amazing on screen. I often say you want to lick the screen because it's all HD and it's so lush and beautiful.
What do people need to know about the visual-art scene in Toronto?
This city has a lot of art history and we either don't know it, or we forget. This year, for example, there's a documentary about Marina Abramovic. There are photographs of this performance she did in the eighties with her then partner, Ulay. It was called Nightsea Crossing and they sat across the table from each other for 90 days in 90 different cities, not consecutively. And one of those cities was Toronto. They set up their table in Nathan Phillips Square.
What could happen to engage more people in the city's fine art scene?
We try and encourage that with our gallery hop, where we have a free day of gallery tours and talks. I led a tour in September of the Tecumseth Street galleries. We had 50 people on that tour. The thing that I'm constantly astounded by is people say they're really intimidated by the art world. They ask, "Can I just go into a gallery, is it free?" Are you kidding me? I can't believe there's still this notion of intimidation.
Really? You walk into a gallery and some hipster looks up from their book for half a second.
I know what you're saying. But I would say the best gallerists get up out of their chair, welcome you at the door, they know when to offer you some assistance and when to back off. My experience, personally and professionally, is that if you go into a gallery and you're interested in learning more about the art and artists, the people who work in those galleries are craving that kind of interaction. Maybe there's a bit of work to be done there.
You have people from different Toronto institutions introduce each festival film. Who's participating this year?
Charles Reeve is a curator and associate professor at OCAD; he's going to talk before the film on Oliviero Toscani – he's the guy who did all the really controversial Benetton ads. Maia Sutnik, from the AGO. We asked Jane Purdue, from A-Space to introduce the Abramovic film because she wrote the original letter inviting her to Toronto in 1982.
When people come in from other cities, where do you take them?
I take them to my favourite neighbourhood bistro, called Batifole. I like going to Frank in the AGO. I take them to the Power Plant, to galleries, I take them to Ossington. I love going to Enoteca Sociale. I like taking them to the TIFF building now.
Do they like the city?
They do. This is a complex that Torontonians need to get over. We need to celebrate what we have here. I love Berlin and London and New York, but I love it here. We often need outsiders to remind us how great Toronto is. We brought filmmaker Jake Auerbach here a few years ago [for the Reel festival] and he said, "You know, you could never do this in London. Toronto is just the right size that you can do this and people pay attention."
This interview has been condensed and edited