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Feminist Art Gallery

August 17th, 2011     by Kate-Christine Miller     Comments

“Our interest in feminism binds us together and our supporters join us in the belief that art can be a powerful tool for social change.” - Feminist Art Gallery

The first rumblings I heard about the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) were from filmmaker Elle Flanders as we sat passing time in an empty room at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus waiting for an audience at a feminist film and video night. A smirk ran across my face as she casually divulged the info she had, piece by piece: Artists Deidre Logue and Allyson Mitchell were organizing it; they already had a space in Parkdale in the west end of Toronto. It was actually happening. This magical thing many of us had dared to think about from time to time, a space for feminist art to grow was really going to happen here in Toronto.

Logue and Mitchell were the perfect team to do it. They invited feminist art big shots and young’uns, friends, activists, and creators to their home for a potluck, to sit down and talk and listen to what people would want from such a place. In attendance were Michelle Jacques (Curator of Contemporary art at the AGO), international feminist artist Suzy Lake, and video artist Alison SM Kobayashi, who reflected, “They just had everyone there!”

At this point early in the discussion, the gallery was just a dilapidated garage and a floor plan. One year later Kobayashi was having an opening for her A.S.M.K+F.A.G. exhibition there. “That’s Deirdre and Allyson, they just get things done.” Logue is the Development Director at Vtape (Canada’s leading artist-run, not-for-profit distributor of video art) and Mitchell is a professor at York University. Despite having busy full time jobs, not to mention running the gallery, the pair of established artists maintain an impressive creative output.

The pair were interested in creating an opportunity to reorganize existing power structures in the art world, and running a feminist gallery out of their home allowed them to do things differently. One way this is done is by offering emerging artists flexibility and trust. Kobayashi first thought of doing a show about a Boogey Man haunting the space but later changed her mind when she was inspired by a Polish phrasebook. Kobayashi didn’t feel the pressure to deliver on certain expectations, or to draw crowds; she felt free to focus and experiment. She was encouraged to show the “process behind the work,” rather than one polished end-product.

“Often galleries require that work is verified and validated before it gets shown,” says the FAG pair, “We don’t care about this.” The success of this approach is clear in the enthusiasm of the crowds drawn to the events and exhibitions. There is no stale art opening feeling; instead there is laughter and exchange.

The community around the FAG gallery is both intentional and organic. The structure of how the gallery can sustain itself financially is experimental and has the ability to transform how we think about the relationship between art and funding. In what could be a manifesto, FAG writes:

“FAG has created a web of matronage, whereby people contribute a pool of resources to ensure that artists will always be paid for exhibiting their work. This type of structure allows FAG to remain committed to the artists we work with while resisting the need to meet the interests of governing powers and also cut through a lot of red tape. Our web of matronage also speaks to the community surrounding FAG – our visitors ensure that we continue to represent feminist artists and provide a space for feminist discourse. Our commitment to that community and keeping our donors undisclosed ensures all of our visitors are on a more equal level.”

While government funding sources like the Canada Council for the Arts, Toronto Arts Council, and provincial arts councils provide an important infrastructure for many artists and institutions, they don’t exist in a vacuum, and artists will likely face the same obstacles applying for grants as elsewhere. Formal education, access to resources, and institutional support often determine who is funded. Many feminist artists feel equally disempowered by the grants system and the commercial arts system. The FAG seems to offer a third way whereby support is provided directly in trust, without corporate or government purse strings.

So what makes art feminist? This is a question probably most loathed by artists who work with feminist ideas or identify as feminist. There had long been a resistance to being pigeonholed as a feminist artist, but the tide seems to be changing. Mitchell recommends that you should always put that you are a feminist artist on your CV. FAG doesn’t take any hardline definition of feminist art. “We hope to create and build a context for artists whose work speaks to contemporary feminist ideas and challenges dominant forms of representation. There is no single response to the question, ‘What makes a work feminist’ — feminism can encompass a variety of different ideas including gender, race, class, ability and sexuality.” Kobayashi feels comfortable with being a feminist who is making artwork, “I have tried not to be super didactic in what I’m doing.”

Kobayashi started making art work when she began attending York University is 2003. She had been a drama kid in high school, and she plays many characters in her videos. She is often the performer and director in short films, and remarks that this just sort of happened naturally. “It’s a lot easier than organizing a bunch of friends to come act for you.” At a showing of her works in the FAG courtyard, she thanks her parents for driving her around to make videos, and accepting her “doing weird things in the [Mississauga] neighbourhood where they lived.” Her advice to young artists is consistent with this style. “Have a sense of play and pleasure in what you are doing.” Part of what makes her work so funny and relatable is that she just makes what pleases her and worries about the why questions later. She also says it’s a good idea to have a few projects on the go at a time, and to “Go out and see a lot of art!”

Logue and Mitchell offer aspiring artists advice along the same lines. The pair mentions you need to be fearless, especially for female, queer, and trans youth, and you also need allies. “Look for the people who are doing the kind of things that you are interested in-, whether it is graffiti writing or public demonstrations or performance art or puppetry or script writing. Also look for the people who are engaging in the issues that you are interested in.” They recommend finding meaningful volunteer experiences. While they recognize that working without wages is not ideal, often the pay-off in mentorship, future opportunities, and even jobs is well worth it.

If you are in or visiting Toronto, you can find the Feminist Art Gallery on Facebook and at 25 Seaforth ave. (Be sure to check what gallery hours are, they’re usually open on weekends). No opening date is yet posted for the fall exhibition, which will feature the Community Action Project of AK Burns and AL Steiner.

On the next page are some recommendations from FAG for interesting things you can find online.

If you are an artist looking for opportunities to become involved click on the links below:

AkimboNo More Pot LucksInstant CoffeeFillip

If you are interested in feminist and community art spaces, here are some more resources:

LTTR was a feminist gender, queer artist collective that produced an annual art journal. The group was founded in 2001 by Ginger Brooks Takahashi, K8 Hardy and Emily Roysdon. Ulrike Müller joined LTTR in 2005 and Lanka Tattersal was an editor for issue four. • Ridykeulous is a curatorial collaboration that was founded in 2005 by artists A.L. Steiner and Nicole Eisenman. • Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner was a series of feminist gatherings in New York City through 2009 – 2010 that was initiated by Malin Arnell and Johanna Gustavsson.

To view photos of FAG and Alison SM Kobayashi’s work, see our slideshow below:

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