Letter to the Editors, Volume 53 Issue 8: Re: Evans Contemporary: Arts, Commerce, and the Downtown Core

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash.

Since the release of Nick Taylor’s article in Arthur about the issues surrounding the closing of Evans and its sister galleries, Star X and Coeur Nouveau, there has been a lot of talk and debate online about this sudden and seemingly unfortunate loss to the arts community in Peterborough and its downtown core.

I’m writing this letter to give my opinion on the matter, as a lot of artists, including me, feel that the article was one-dimensional and failed to include the other side of the debate. I spoke to local artist and change-maker Jeff Macklin on the phone about it and he agreed that many artists felt “left high and dry” by the statements in Nick’s article, including myself and Jeff.

To give some background on my experience with the arts community in Peterborough and its problems, I want to state that I lived in Peterborough for five years as both a Trent student and an artist who showed in Evans and frequently attended the First Friday Art Crawls, which are organized primarily by the Ad Hoc Arts Committee.

I was a keen supporter of the arts in Peterborough and organized many DIY shows in collaboration with regional Canadian bands as well as local emerging artists and musicians. I also grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and have a lot to say about the way my hometown is being framed in this debate as a poster child for gentrification and its impact on the arts community in that city.

The manifesto left upon the Evans website about its closing states the following: “We fear the potential damage which First Fridays could cause, and are aware of its conceivable move in the direction of the art crawl of Hamilton, that is to say, the exploitation of art in order to focus on commerce”. I understand that it is easy to use the example of Hamilton as a scapegoat for exiting out of this situation where it is feared that financial issues, such as reliance on external sources of funding, threaten the vitality of our thriving arts community. However, what it says is completely false about the way Hamilton’s arts scene functions.

On the gallery’s Instagram, Paolo once again brings up the Hamilton fallacy: “We feel that the increasing commercialization and exploitation of the arts began to diminish the quality of the event. It is easy to look to Hamilton for the outcome, where most of the arts organizations no longer participate in their crawl.” This is simply not true. Yes, Supercrawl (a free music festival in Hamilton) has become overly commercialized, but at no real cost in the opinion of many people who live there. Things are a lot more complex than “Hamilton > gentrification > art > bad”.

I spoke to my childhood best friend Abby, an emerging marginalized artist, about how the art crawls work in Hamilton as of late. She agrees that Hamilton has a lot going for it and the art crawls are great for the city in the way that they encourage youth and marginalized artists to get involved. Centre3, an artist-run and non-profit gallery and printmaking studio, is an example of how inclusive the community is and how involved they are in outreach. At an art crawl I went to in Hamilton last October, I was invited off the street by Becky Katz (local change-maker and avid arts organizer in Hamilton) to sign up for a months-long series of workshops on printmaking and sexual harassment targeted at marginalized youth, programmed out of Centre3.

Abby says she feels that artists and spectators are still as involved as they were before — it’s not like they are not as active as before gentrification. Many artists have moved to the east end of Hamilton where they can still find affordable rent while being close to many other arts amenities, as well as the James North neighbourhood where the crawls operate out of. Artists are resourceful, flexible to change, and still thriving in Hamilton. Maybe that’s a tip for the disingenuous Peterboroughians patting each other on the back on social media over Nick’s article.

To switch topics, another issue I had with the article and a lot of threads on social media (which I’m still trying to unpack) is the idea that arts and commerce don’t mix. In the specific case of Evans, it seems like working with higher-level forms of funding (i.e. municipal) is out of the question as it threatens the autonomy of artists over their creative visions as well as their ethics.

Evans wasn’t paying artists — take it from me as an artist who has showed at Evans and elsewhere throughout the world. I showed for free as part of a group exhibition at Evans in July 2016 of local artists. If I had wanted to show again there, I would have had to pay a submission fee for the proposal and then a few hundred dollars to rent the gallery. Just because gallery is run by artists doesn’t mean it’s an artist-run gallery — Evans was a commercial gallery, plain and simple. I can respect the hustle, but don’t call yourself anti-commerce and pro-artist’s financial well-being if you want to work that way.

The only way for an artist to make money from a showing in a commercial gallery is to make work that is sellable. Even then, the gallery still takes a cut of the profits, as would have Evans. How am I supposed to survive as an artist who makes work that can’t be sold straight off the wall where it’s hung? I’m a video artist — I rely on CARFAC fees and grants. And you know what? That’s not wrong. It’s not wrong to want to work with organizations to make money from my work.

And this leads me to talk about the other thing that’s being criticized: the new First Friday committee. It’s a group of artists who want to see the event live on. I think there’s a confused belief that it’s less of a small grassroots organization composed of forward-thinking artists and more of a sellout group giving the event away to the ravenous bloodhounds of the DBIA. According to Jeff Macklin, the only involvement the committee has with the DBIA is Terry Guiel lending a boardroom to the group for meetings. And so what if these artists want to create change by starting an ongoing dialogue between artists, landlords, and the City? At least it’s a lot more transparent and smart than artist exploitation (as I described of how Evans’ financial scheme operates).

First Friday, and art in general in Peterborough, do not belong to one single person, nor one single gallery for that matter. Although Paolo and Evans want to take the credit for it (see screenshot below), it’s simply not true.

Calla Durose-Moya

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