Student Upriding; Universities Give Notice of Serious Artistic Intentions.  These galleries want to be players on a bigger stage.  University galleries push for higher profile.
Toronto Star  (Copyright (c) 2006, All Rights Reserved)
March 25, 2006
By Peter Goddard

 "This is cool," said Maryssa Kulyk, looking a few days ago at the two-storey-high puffs of white, tear-resistant Tyvek packing material and see-through vinyl floating just overhead.

That's cool with a catch, though. The 21-year-old University of Toronto geography major seemed a tad suspicious of all the white stuff - one of artist Max Streicher's humungous inflated sculptures, called Clouds (2004).

It didn't help that there was also the rolling boom of thunder indoors at U of T's Mississauga (UTM) campus - Tom Dean's sound installation Affected Thunder (2006) playing from speakers high above - when outside it was bone dry, sunny and well below zero.

"Yes, it's cool but still, it is becoming artsy around here," Kulyk concluded with fellow geographer-to-be, Renata Wasley, also 21, nodding.

She's right. "Equinox," the latest provocative group show (ending Friday) orchestrated by the Blackwood Gallery at UTM, is only the latest artistic intrusion in the day-to-day campus bustle.

In a nearby computer lab around the corner from Streicher's hallway-filling piece, the screensavers on each computer show Polar Wandering (2005), an interactive map-based GPS work showing British artist Layla Curtis's three-month trip from London to the Antarctic.

The international connection is the key here. The Blackwood Gallery is one of many college and university art galleries wanting to be taken seriously off campus as well as on - and off campus, in this case, means worldwide.

This is a perfect institutional fit with a much broader trend on the part of universities everywhere to attract internationally acclaimed academic stars. Needing to keep pace, the university gallery has to give evidence it too has an international reach and reputation.

This presents us with an entirely new phenomenon in art. Forget big fat museums designed by rich star architects, like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. The university is the hottest new casa del arte.

"Equinox" - which focuses on questions of nature and the environment - follows last year's "Database Imaginary" show at UTM, with its international collection of artists and curatorial talent. In 2003 there was "General Idea Editions 1967-1995," a Blackwood- organized show by curator Barbara Fischer. It toured for two years at university galleries across the United States, starting at California State University in Los Angeles.

Fischer - probably the hottest curator in town right now and new head of U of T art programs on the St. George campus - will likely eventually assume some supremo U of T curatorial status to coordinate all of the university's art activities, including those at the Doris McCarthy Gallery on the Scarborough Campus.

So gone are the days when the university gallery was an old boys' club, with borrowed portraits on the wall and the once-a-year graduating class show. The university gallery wants to be a player on a bigger stage. "The challenge is to recognize what are the students' issues of the day," says new Blackwood curator Seamus Kealy, "but at the same time build a program that has an international focus."

Phillip Monk, curator of the Art Gallery of York University in the just-opened Accolade arts complex, is even more blunt. "It's our intention to be the best contemporary art gallery in Toronto," he says. "We are not a student art gallery."

Monk arrived at AGYU with international art stars in tow. His 2003 debut show had pop sex diva Peaches in a video loop duet with Iggy Pop. In 2004 he programmed Jeremy Blake's haunting haunted- house caper, Century 21, the final segment of the artist's Winchester Trilogy. The exhibition by acclaimed Dutch artist Fiona Tan wraps up tomorrow. Next up is an installation by Stan Douglas, the internationally recognized, Vancouver-based video maker, starting April 20.

Any university is a ready-made artistic laboratory or playground for the visiting artist in a way a museum can never be. "Here new media, painting, sculpture and communications all collide together," says Kealy. For Monk, "the virtue of the new (Accolade) building is to bring all of the (art) departments, music and dance, together. We will bring in artists who will be able to take advantage of the theatre department, for instance."

So already there's fallout as traditional art schools are feeling the university squeeze play. The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) is going massively public these days, with a variety of colloquia and lectures - Monday's lecture at OCAD by Sarat Mahara, the South African-born art and cultural commentator, is part of its President's Speaker Series - plus a series of ongoing student installations at 64 Steps Gallery (1164 Queen St. W.) called "OCAD on Queen."

Art students haven't lost sight of what's going on either, and want in on the action. For years, Ryerson University's annual New Media graduating class show was an in-school affair mostly for other Ryersonians. This year's edition, ending at 5 p.m. today, comes with a flashy new title, "Fuse The 2006 New Media Festival," and a defiant new purpose.

"We're taking it outside the Ryerson community," says Melissa Gullo, 25, a fourth-year New Media student. "We don't consider this a school project any longer. It's an art event."

Other university-related shows worth noting

York University MFA Exhibitions are underway at York's Glendon Campus, 2275 Bayview Ave, with Lise Beaudry's work being shown until April 8. Art from Alison Judd will be at the Accolade West Gallery on the main York campus, 4700 Keele St. from April 3 to April 8 followed through April by other students' work at the same gallery. Also throughout April more York grads will be showing at downtown sites including the Drabinsky Gallery, Lennox Contemporary Art, Peak Gallery, and at 273 Augusta Ave.

"Return, Afghanistan," a photography show about contemporary Afghanistan by Afghan photographer Zalmai Ahan is at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto at Scarborough, 1265 Military Trail until May 12. Curated by the Aperture Foundation, the images show the affect of international politics on the daily life of the country.

Work by student artists at Georgian College in Barrie and from Sheridan College's advanced illustration course is at Gallery 1313, at 1313 Queen St W., until April 2.

pgoddard @