Ask Samara Walbohm how she's feeling today and she'll probably say what she said earlier this week: "Excited. Nervous. Scared." In fact, she's probably been feeling that way since May when she and her husband, Joe Shlesinger, signed a five-year lease on an L-shaped, 500-square-metre space down an alley near the eternally funky intersection of Bloor West and Lansdowne.
Positioned unprepossessingly between an auto-body shop and a marble-fixtures retailer, the former warehouse/wine-fermentation outlet with the "very Chelsea-20-years-ago kind of feel" is in the final, hectic throes of a white-walled conversion into Scrap Metal – the name Ms. Walbohm and Mr. Shlesinger are giving to what they hope – heck, believe – will become one of Toronto's most important venues for visual arts and ancillary activities. Maybe even for Canada. It's a non-commercial gallery scheduled to open to the public Dec. 9.
Ms. Walbohm, 40, and Mr. Shlesinger, 50, like art. Love it, in fact, to the point of obsessive compulsiveness, spending the last 13 or 14 years attending auctions and art fairs, touring galleries, befriending artists and dealers, avidly acquiring en route an impressive potpourri of artifacts, contemporary and otherwise, Canadian and international. They have paintings by Jack Bush, Marc-Aurèle Fortin and Jean-Paul Riopelle, videos by Mark Lewis, Ragnar Kjartansson and Bill Viola, photographs from Jeff Wall and Scott McFarland, installations by General Idea, Douglas Coupland and Micah Lexier, among many others.
Call them collectors, in other words – even though it's not a moniker they fess up to. "We never went out to collect in a certain vein," observed Mr. Shlesinger, who's managing director of the private equity firm Callisto Capital. Instead, the couple has bought "what we loved," without hewing to a particular aesthetic or idiom. "From a collecting standpoint, there may be gaps," Mr. Shlesinger agreed, "but that doesn't bother us." Added Ms. Walbohm, best known perhaps as the co-owner of Type Books: "We've never sold anything, either," hanging onto their holdings even as their number and, in some cases, size have outgrown the capacity of their Forest Hill home. Now the duo is about to share a whole lot of this largesse (and much else) with, well … the world. For free.
If all this smacks of the scrappy "Hey, let's put on a musical" ethos of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, so be it. It's also a mettle test, said Ms. Walbohm, because "you're putting your taste out there to be judged." Nevertheless, she and Mr. Shlesinger are convinced the Canadian artists they admire – and not just the Jeff Walls and David Altmejd – "can hold their own in the same room" as their (often) more lauded international counterparts. Which is part of Scrap Metal's raison d'être. Further, the gallery represents the opportunity to "do something not determined by the dictates of commercial success," she offered, while "removing the layers" (boards, vetting committees, curatorial teams, sponsors) that are often the hallmark of larger arts organizations.
While non-commercial galleries are common in Europe and the U.S.A., they remain a rarity among the public institutions, not-for-profit spaces, commercial galleries and artist-run centres that make up Toronto's visual-arts constellation. About the only precedent for Scrap Metal might be the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, the city's (and Canada's) first privately funded exhibition space where, since the late 1980s, its namesake founder has mounted an audacious series of self-curated, themed shows, some running as long as two years.
At present, the plan for Scrap Metal is to have it host two to four exhibitions a year (none of the work displayed will be for sale) – what Ms. Walbohm characterizes as "the art-world equivalent of the slow-food movement." One of these exhibitions would be curated by Mr. Shlesinger and Ms. Walbohm themselves, using works they own, complemented by loans from other collectors and gallery owners. Indeed, Scrap Metal's premiere show is a Shlesinger/Walbohm production titled Read All Over, about text and language in books and art. Running until May next year, it will feature the work of 20 artists including Canadians Lexier, Coupland and Lois Anderson as well as international stars such as the late John Latham and Annette Messager. The Latham show, in fact, marks the first time that all 28 components of the British artist's legendary N-U Niddrie Heart mixed-media installation have been assembled in Canada. (Mr. Shlesinger and Ms. Walbohm own eight components; the other 20 are loans.)
At the same time, Ms. Walbohm and Mr. Shlesinger are keen that Scrap Metal not be seen as their "ego trip" or "vanity project." For Mr. Shlesinger, "the proof of its validity will be, how excited does the broader art community get." To that end, they're eager to turn over the space to guest-curated exhibitions or give an established artist such as Mr. Lexier carte blanche to do a three-month-long installation, or exhibit works of an emerging artist or have organizations use it for lectures and panel discussions. While the couple has sketched out Scrap Metal's programming for the next three or four years, "the thing is, we hope it doesn't turn out that way," said Mr. Shlesinger. "We want to be a community hub … learn, to be loose enough, nimble enough to move this way or that." So far the response from the dealers and artists to whom they've confided their plans has been uniformly positive.
Of course, for all this seriousness of purpose, the proprietors are also keen to have fun – an aspiration best conveyed by the sign, designed by Mr. Lexier, that they're erecting over the gallery's entrance. In white lettering on a blue background, it reads: "1. If this sign is on, the gallery is open. 2. If this sign is on, we might be closed but forgot to turn the sign off. 3. If this sign is off, the gallery is closed. 4. If this sign is off, we might be open but forgot to turn sign on."
Scrap Metal, at 11 Dublin St., opens Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. It will be open each Saturday and Sunday afternoon thereafter. Admission is free.