With the recent passing of the annual “I Love My Gallery” auctions and gala I was given pause to think about whether I do, in fact, “love the Gallery Stratford.”
After considerable reflection I’ve concluded that I feel indifferent at best. In order to love (or hate) my gallery I would have to feel some kind of connection to it in the first place, yet I do not.
I’m not someone who has lived in Stratford all his life, I am someone who moved here because I fell in love with this city, and when it came time for my wife and I to buy our first house and start our family, we made the conscious decision to settle here.
Having our kids grow in a city that not only survives on, but cultivates art was a boon to our young family. Sadly, we found that although Stratford does survive on art, it arguably does not “cultivate” it.
The Gallery seems to be stuck in perpetual adoration of the elitist tenets of conceptual minimalism that have dictated its exhibiting mandate for what I would guess to be the last 40 years or so. It seems to me that the Gallery bows to pressure from its funders who are primarily baby boomers born into the world of abstract expressionism, post-modernism, minimalism, and post-minimalism.
Later, rather than accepting that these eras, well curdled, and 20 or 30 years past their respective due dates, were being shaken off by a collective of new underground artists, they continued to push to have minimalism held aloft as the cutting edge.
They continued pressuring cities to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to erect sculptures in public squares that couldn’t possibly be understood by the unwashed masses paying for it via their tax dollars, or arguably by the people erecting them.
However, the new generations see it through fresh eyes. Kids in Stratford’s high schools are whispering to each other and chuckling because they’ve discovered that art can have humour, it can laugh at itself, it isn’t what they’re learning in class, and it isn’t just the Mona Lisa, which incidentally famed “lowbrow” conceptual realist Robert Williams once quipped commands less measured units of visual investigation than something dead in the street.
Whether or not he’s right in that (I suspect there is a certain measure of his caustic wit at play here), anyone with an ear to the ground knows that the most important art of the last 20 or 30 years isn’t being celebrated by galleries like ours here in Stratford.
The most exciting work isn’t found in Jeff Koons and his various imitators, it isn’t in the thousands of Group of Seven style landscape paintings that continue to sell so well in this part of the world, and it isn’t in the equal number of artists continuing the tradition of “it’s so inaccessible it must be good.”
It’s in the figurative “low” arts like folk and outsider, as well as artists inspired by “lowbrow” culture, comics, cartoons, and kitsch.
If we want students graduating from Stratford high schools to stick around this city and create great art, we need to show them that we respect change, and that we are ready to nurture the growth and development of their vision, even at the risk of alienating some of the old order.
It’s time for a gallery like ours to stop catering to its benefactors and show that Stratford is a leader on the Canadian art landscape that can produce tomorrow’s must-know artists, and that our gallery can act in the interest of great contemporary art and not just self-preservation.