The fleeting prestige that comes with being an older and unsuccessful artist.

When I was younger, ambitious and stupidier I attended many art openings in an effort to be seen and network (That was the closest thing we had to LinkedIn in those days).

At these art openings, also know as a vernissage, I would be typical of the majority demographic – mid twenties, scruffy and knew most of the people around me. There would be some thirty somethings, and they were usually the directors or curators of that particular space. Then there were middle aged and seniors folk: too well fed, too clean for an arts worker and dressed way too nice for a real art opening, and thus were easily identifiable as family of the artist(s).

Then there were the scruffy middle aged attendees. They were childless, and their body language and ease of socializing demonstrated a blasé attitude about being there. They  tended to look at the art for a little longer, and tended to ask questions to the artists/ curator that were a bit more personal and pertinent. They actually read the artist statement. If they lingered, it was a good metric that the exhibit was interesting. If they only briefly attended the event, then that was a good metric that the show was lacking somehow. They might know other people at the opening, but didn’t seem to particularly care.

I was fascinated by them.  In my mind, they were famous artists (sometimes they were) or important curators (also not uncommon, but usually overvalued) or perhaps the mythical art collector looking to acquire new work from hot young artists (almost never).  I would watch them like a hawk, trying to not be obvious that I was watching them, as I noted where they were looking and for how long.  What was their art like? What fabulous people in fantastic places did they know? What secrets did they know to be successful in the art industry? Maybe they sat on those juries that awarded grants to artists. Back in those days, even if you talked to these people and they were artists, curators or collectors (aka have a “real” job that pays well because it is outside the arts) they could tell you whatever they wanted and you would have no idea if it was true or bullshit, and even if was true whether is was simply shit. Or maybe they were simply downplaying their importance. Like I mentioned above, there was no LinkedIn or Facebook and Canadian Art magazine was still as limited in scope and expensive as it is today.

Twenty years later I am older, not as ambitious and still stupid. However, I realize now that I am now one those people – often the oldest person in the room, an object of mild professional curiosity and even sometimes assumed to be wise or influential. Suckers. In many ways, the age difference does not matter among the artist community but sometimes it takes some younger artists awhile to figure this out.  Until they arrive at the truth of the meaninglessness of their own ambitions, they can pretty much check whether you can help their careers instantly.

It’s a fleeting prestige being an older and unsuccessful artist at an art opening.

Older and younger mysterious me.

Which version of me looks more interesting – the older or younger? Or just creepier?

(Please note I do not actually think I am “unsuccessful”, I am very excited about my work and opportunities, but the POV is from the younger me who had a different idea about these things.)

Gallery space: the final frontier of not being the centre of attention in our society

This notion occurred to me suddenly the other day as I was looking at my TV-less living room. Setting up a room with a TV is easy – you stick the box where a window won’t wash out the screen, and place chairs, couch and coffee table around it.

Then I thought about Target stores and retail chains like them who seriously, hard-core study the shit out of how best to maximize space and opportunity centered around the movement and product focus of shoppers. This experience is centered around the desire and ambitions of the shopper – obstacles and distractions are minimized.

In fact, almost all of our shared public experience is based on us, as individuals, and we have come to expect it.  Other obvious examples of our public space expectations can be found in movie theatres where every step is a measured science; or the airport – where people are managed very closely, as we all know; casinos are carefully set up to avoid being able to see out a window, as our attention is drawn to the games and lights. Highways are centered around your individual need to drive and even schools are built specifically to manage your studies, your leisure time and every other facet of your behaviour in that space. The point is, almost everything in our society is a science of space that centres around you, most often for entertainment, shopping or work. This is the normal we subconsciously register to evaluate whether a space, i.e. a company or organization, is worthy of our participation in it.

Except for many contemporary art galleries that is, as they are not typically spaces designed for entertainment and the visitor is *not* the most important presence in the room.

I think that explains a lot about the views most people have about contemporary art practice.

You see, most people avoid most galleries like the plague. Many times I have heard about people not “knowing enough about art” or “feeling stupid” by visiting a gallery. They feel awkward, even exposed as their footsteps echo faintly in a white cube with some inexplicable object that continues to mystify long after the befuddled visitor in question has left. This fight-or-flight feeling they have is a result not being in a space designed around “the consumer experience” people are used to – this is a space designed around something else and not them. Simply put, they are not the most important thing in the room, and most people instinctively hate this because it goes against everything they have been raised and taught to expect. They are *entitled* to be entertained, and anything else in a stage like context that fails to effortlessly amuse like the punch-line of a a knock-knock joke is a failure of the creator.

You and I realize of course this basic kind of uncomfortableness and confrontation through contemplation is a rare and precious gift preserved from the history of art and museums (though mainly the ones that do not contain dinosaur bones or kid edutainment zones). Most people, unfortunately, cannot separate entertainment from art. They are very, very different things but this line has also blurred, as evidenced by the behaviour of large museums and galleries.

Places like the Art Gallery of Ontario are about entertainment more than the kind of smaller, public art spaces I am talking about. “block buster” shows such as King Tut, Picasso and other very recognizable household names bring out the masses that would not set foot in anything smaller, less advertised or with any less unpredictability (i.e. newer) of what they are going to see. Most people will prefer to pay the $17 to get in, after being in a line-up and coat-check and then jostle shoulder to shoulder to see a work for 8 seconds – the man objective int his kind of situation is to see all the rooms before you leave so you get good value for the price of admission.

This process is entertainment and is safe because it is familiar. I am convinced an art experience for most people involves the validation of a crowd and an admission charge because this puts the individual back into a familiar process that centres around them, and is validated by a large community of regular, middle-class folk just like you who are also paying money and lining up. To me, this explains the appeal of Art Crawls, Nuit Blanche and art-in-the-park type of events – there is a safety in numbers and participating artists often put great effort into performances and displays that do entertain briefly as clutches of gawking families shuffle by.

Contrast this with a smaller independent or public gallery that has no admission charge and is mostly empty should somebody visit it. Maybe this is not good art because you don’t recognize it, so you have no pre-conceived notions to understand it immediately. Imagine it’s just you and a stranger in a room with a work of art and the stranger knows you are stupid, unsophisticated and always will be because of the wrong way you are standing or looking at things because there is no obvious consumer process to engage in. If you paid, then you can act anyway you want because the customer is always right.

Also, incredibly,  many many people don’t know that almost no gallery actually charges admission – a symptom of the conditioning of big entertainment in our society.

The woes of the public art world would be solved if most people went to their local gallery once every couple of months. Unfortunately people have an assumption that good art, like entertainment, is a window into another world. They simply do not understand the dynamics of looking into art that is a mirror, and especially if they are not front and centre in the reflection.

Questions from the public while volunteering at an artist-run centre

Sit here. Answer questions.

I am gallery sitting for a couple of afternoons at an artist centre I volunteer at. Ideally, I would be able to work on some web projects while enjoying the quiet ambiance of a beautiful group exhibit in a white cube space… except for the last three hours there has been non-stop visitors with questions and ideas.

Not unusual for an attendant in a gallery space to deal with a curious public and aspiring artists. Some of them are common “FAQ”s – I’ve listed them below for reference:

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Artist Rob O'Flanagan signing his own exhibit guest book

The exhibit comment book – an untapped resource

My friend Rob O’Flanagan, a wonderful painter and writer, recently had an exhibition of paintings in Guelph, Ontario.

A few days ago he posted on facebook a transcript of the comments from his guest book – and I have to admit one these lines was my contribution. I’ve always found comment books to be full of creativity and dry wit – practically a collaborative dada poem.

Find the full text below:

Artist Rob O'Flanagan signing his own exhibit guest book

Artist Rob O'Flanagan signing his own exhibit guest book

We got pregnant!

Mutual of Omaha.

So this is art???

Life is exciting…even if I can’t draw.

How sweet it is,

commie artist sex trap.


Once upon a time,

there was a delicious and deeply

sensual man whose manhood

was threatened by vaginas!

Ones with teeth.


Can’t believe that my job

got replaced by a human.

Robots need love too!

They want to be loved by you.


Hey. You there. DO IT!

YOU are beautiful.


Your art inspires me to

be wacky and crazy.

So much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

Always turn your face

to the sun.


More will be revealed



the truth about art – it’s a fucking pain in the ass to go to an exhibit

You know it’s true.

It’s like shopping in a mall, walking and standing on hard floors looking at things while people and security look at you. Somewhat taxing as you are in a space that is supposed to look like you are looking and not know you are being looked at by salespeople, security and the occasional admirer.

Same pressure I think as standing in a gallery space where it’s only purpose is for you to look like you are looking at something. The attendant always knows if you get it the art or not, even if they aren’t looking at you. They know.

Getting to even few shows can involve significant travelling logistics. It’s a fierce lifestyle to visit a gallery even once a week.

Problem is much good art does not function outside of this kind of white cube space, and the kind of people and organizations that exhibit this kind of work will take the space where they can get it.

Problem is looking at pictures from home just does not cut either after a while. I’ll have to blitz the galleries next weekend.

What a pain in the ass but as with many things, often we don’t feel like to doing it but end up loving it.

One artist current; boos to the rest of Moos Gallery – a review

Triptych Sockets by Kagame Murray

I was not offered an  hors d’œuvre, and that was the second most disappointing aspect of the current exhibit on at Moos Gallery’s M2 project space on Queen and Bathurst.

I was mostly disappointed at least because I was expecting all the work to be as interesting as Kagame Murray’s work. His close up camera work is a careful study of important junctions, or extensions, of human communication. A kind of anthropologist morphed into artist with healthy dose of rock star (“I spend 16 years in New York” he explains), Murray is a virtual Justin Bieber compared to the creaky and tired old work that surrounded him.

But back to the hors d’œuvres … there only seemed to be one small square white plate of food cubes available. As I understand myself to be of no importance within a crowd of rich and aimless art patrons, I sat back and watched as what seemed to be potential buyers or friends were spotted by the host and she stomped across floor and missioned through the crowd on a sortie to deliver a snack to that particular person. Then she would stomp straight back to the safety of being behind the bar with most of the plate intact and safe from the hungry mouths of the great upper-middle class that swelled the ranks of the crowd that night.

And another thing that set off my alarm bells about this place – the beer cost $7 a bottle. This is not an airport or intermission at the opera. It’s an art opening, and you need to be buzzed in from the street and go up an elevator to even get in – it’s not like some rugby team is going to pour in and you need to discourage drunken hazing by setting prohibitively expensive prices for your beer (at least for independent art bloggers). Maybe they don’t realize that trying to sell bad $10,000 paintings kinda means you should have free drinks and accessible cheese cubes otherwise you are sending a message that $7 is a lot of money therefore you should think twice about spending $10,000.

There are a lot of galleries to visit in Toronto, so I don’t think I will bother with M2 again – unless Kagame has a solo show and I can bring my own food and drink.

Daily Art Beat | AGO banks on “eduartainment”

Art Gallery of Ontario spares no expense in charging expensive entry fee

Read today in the Globe and Mail how the AGO is banking on the upcoming “Maharajas: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts”  show to make up for the lackluster attendance for a “Drama and Desire ” theater & artists themed exhibit.  I suspect many people figured if they are paying $18 to see theater props they might as well attend a live theater production instead and get more bang for their buck.

This does nothing to assuage the very real criticism that the AGO a) charges way too much for visitors because b) they need too in order to pay for all this cool stuff that they spent so much on in the first place so you would be willing to pay way too much to see it.

I’ve worked as an installation designer for museums and a common term for designing a display or exhibit to be more entertaining than educational to attract more people (so it incorporates lots of bling and interaction and pop-culture references) is termed “edutainment”.

However, the colossal resources behind the AGO have enabled it to take edutainment to a whole new level by planning exhibits that are brilliant and rare collections with an equal dose of marketability and international appeal – eduartainment.

That’s super-cool, but the problem here is that I (and many others) would also like to see a gallery in the GTA full of local, national and international contemporary artists that is free to go to whenever I wanted to.  Any ideas what we should call it? Probably should not call it a “museum” as those seem host broad, international cultural exhibits and place more of an emphasis on architecture than galleries. Public galleries are called “galleries” because they obviously focus more collecting, archiving and exhibiting talent from the city, province or country they are mandated to represent and can generally move to new locations and spaces when needed.


tip: last time I checked, entry to the AGO for an adult is $18.  Anyone over 12 is considered an adult. You can pick up free AGO family passes at your local GTA library, and Thursdays after 6 are free