Walking along Hunter Street you easily might miss the small black-and-white sign in the doorway next to Catalina’s, in the building that houses the studios of many of Peterborough’s finest artists. It marks the home of Evans Contemporary.
The staircase up to the third floor of this unrenovated heritage building has an air of tawny, dissolute glamour, accentuated by a not entirely unpleasant, well-cured, half century of cigarette smoke embedded in old plaster and wood. Paint peels in the hallways and the roof leaks. As you reach the top of the ultra-wide staircase, a door leads through a vestibule to two brilliantly white spaces. Slim fluorescents light its high ceilings and the art installation is sparse. You’ll wonder if you’ve somehow been teleported to New York City’s arty Chelsea district or a gallery in a renovated warehouse in Berlin. But no, this is Peterborough.
For the past three years, the nationally respected gallery has operated out of a private home in the Avenues, but now occupies rooms that had been untouched since the 1940s, until artist Paolo Fortin transformed them.
For painter Fortin, Evans Contemporary is an extension of his practice. He draws on his connections from international arts residencies, installation work at the Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery, and his fine-tuned personal aesthetic to present the best in international contemporary art, including the work of local artists.
The focus is on artists who are slightly left of mainstream, about to hit their stride. Fortin is knowledgeable and engaged in what distinguishes a commercial or academically manufactured artist from the more complex discourse of postmodern art, and he exhibits work that would be notable even by Toronto or Montreal standards. The gallery garners a frequent nod from Canadian Art Magazine’ s must-see recommendations.
However, Evans Contemporary operates outside of any standard non-profit or for-profit models. Ineligible for most available public funding, it relies primarily on private support and Fortin’s sweat equity, but has been known to sell with a commission structure that favours the artist.
The model is not singular. Contemporary art dealers, artist-run spaces, artist collectives, and indie artists, tired of the relentless insecurity and caveats of governmental funding and of the inflationary but value-distorted art market, are redefining the gallery.
In Toronto there are nomadic, D.I.Y. galleries like Younger than Beyonce; activist galleries like Whippersnapper, which encourages non-institutional education through peer-to-peer mentorship; artist collectives like VSVSVS, which engages in collective art making, as well as hosting a residency program, a woodworking shop, and a formal exhibition space; hole-in-the-wall hybrid galleries like 8eleven which “operates outside of commercial or bureaucratic constraints” and whose website looks identical to Craigslist.
Arguably these ventures represent an upending of the power dynamics of the gallery-artist relationship. Art as a product is incidental when galleries and artist communities become agents of social change.
Chicago artist Theaster Gates rebuilds under-invested neighbourhoods by transforming abandoned buildings into multifunctional cultural spaces. “Artists have the capacity… when we gather we can do things that nobody else in the world can do—we can do this out a series of nothings, a series of abandoned buildings or out of detritus, a little paper, things that people would discard,” says Gates. “People wanted to be wherever artists were.”
In Berlin, artist advocacy group Allianz bedrohter Berliner Atelierhäuser works to ensure that government policy prevents developers from selling rental property without compensating artists who invested in and upgraded it, while boosting the cultural capital of a neighbourhood.
Italian curator Claudio Zecchi speaks of a new paradigm where we view “creativity as tool rather than commercial exchange.” Along with this goes the need for a new paradigm to support the arts.
Evans Contemporary has set the bar high for Peterborough—a regional gallery with an international purview, providing quality exhibition space for artists, preserving heritage architecture, and adding educational vitality to the community. Outrider galleries like this one may in fact be our last bastions of authenticity, simultaneously preserving and generating cultural value.
Evans Contemporary is located at 129 1/2 Hunter Street West, or visit them online.
Photo credit: Paolo Fortin, used with permission.