Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Resisting the Creation of Forgotten Places: Artistic Production in Toronto Neighbourhoods

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Resisting the Creation of Forgotten Places: Artistic Production in Toronto Neighbourhoods

Article excerpt

Introduction

Places are constituted by more than tangible material realities; places are constituted by vernacular memories. In this article, I explore the relationship between 'vernacular memory' (Osborne 2002) and geographical place through the narrative reminiscences (1) of a selection of contemporary Canadian visual artists. I focus in particular on three downtown Toronto neighbourhoods that have the potential to become 'forgotten places' of artistic production: Yorkville, King Street West and The Junction. Through an examination of these three neighbourhood case studies, I demonstrate that spatially grounded narratives help to constitute these urban neighbourhoods as places of artistic production even when they may not be composed of 'landmarks that provide spatial and temporal coordinates for remembering' (Osborne 2002, 1903). It is artists, I argue, a social group with strong emotional and physical ties to place, who have the potential to challenge the material and imaginative disappearance of places at the neighbourhood scale.

The artistic knowledge of Toronto neighbourhoods that I invoke in this article is drawn from a selection of semi-structured interviews with Toronto visual artists conducted between July 1999 and April 2000. (2) Over a 10-month period I interviewed eighty professional visual artists. These forty men and forty women reflected on the multi-layered relationships that they have with Toronto neighbourhoods, the local art scene and the spaces where their artistic labour is grounded. In order to obtain a diverse group of male and female artists to interview that maximized the range, coverage and variability of different ages, career stages, studio arrangements, work locations and lifestyles, I initiated several different points of contact. I began by regularly attending exhibition openings at art galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes across the city. These events familiarized me with the active public exhibition outlets, and introduced me to the artwork and the names of artists currently exhibiting in Toronto. Gradually, I developed a mailing list of artists from which I sent an introductory letter and survey questionnaire (that was designed to provide essential background information on the study participants). In addition to this preliminary means of forging indirect contact with artists, I interviewed staff at arts organizations, commercial galleries and business improvement associations who worked closely with artists; posted notices soliciting interview candidates in art supply stores and in buildings with high concentrations of studios; and placed a paid classified advertisement in a widely read membership newsletter of Visual Arts Ontario. Taken together, all of these sources provided a core group of informants, who in turn provided referrals of their own.

I selected artists for this study on the basis of their commitment to fine art as a central life activity and as a publicly proclaimed profession. All of the study participants identified themselves as professional visual artists: they had exhibited professionally; they had practiced art professionally for anywhere from one to fifty-six years; they worked an average of thirty-five hours per week on artistic labour; and the majority of the sample had a fine art degree from an art college or university. The artists ranged in age from twenty-four to eighty and they practiced a variety of art forms, including sculpting, printmaking, photography, painting, mixed-media, drawing and installation. Three-quarters of the artists had a studio in the home (whether it be in an attic, a basement, a garage, an apartment, a condo, a co-operative or a warehouse), and as I have discussed elsewhere (Bain 2003), these studios were distributed across Toronto in a range of different neighbourhoods with marked concentrations in the downtown and smaller clusters in the west and east ends of the city. In this article, I focus on the narratives of artists who at some point in their professional careers have lived and/or worked in one of the following Toronto neighbourhoods, which are in danger of becoming forgotten places of artistic production: Yorkville, King Street West and The Junction (Figure 1). …

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