Interview with Jamie Angell (J.A) by Amy Luo (A.L)
A. L: You opened Angell Gallery in 1996. But before that, you worked as a hairdresser and even briefly in the fashion industry in New York. What made you gravitate toward the art world and eventually open your own gallery?
J. A: When I was at Vidal Sassoon in Yorkville, I worked as an assistant to one of the hairdressers there who took me to gallery openings. I remember being enthralled by the art, and so I started reading about artists and hanging out with artists. I didn’t know exactly what a dealer was at the time, but instinctively, I knew that I could be a facilitator to bridge the gap between the artist and the audience.
When I was 32, I moved to Paris. My partner there was an academic, an artist, and my tour guide. We used to go to museums and gallery openings at least three times a week. So I saw a lot of art in the two and a half years that I was there. After Paris, I moved to New York for a while, and took in more contemporary art there. In 1995, I moved back to Toronto and became acquainted with the Queen West area. Artscape opened up, and I became friends with a number of artists there. Meeting these emerging artists was a real impetus for opening a gallery. I wanted to support the art community in Toronto and belong to something bigger than myself. There was a space available just a block over from Artscape, and I rented it and opened the gallery. It was a leap of faith, not calculated at all. My attitude was that if you want something bad enough, you’ll figure it out.
When I opened the gallery, I went to top dealers in Toronto and asked them for advice. And each and every one of them said it was going to take ten years. That was a benchmark to me. I figured that if I could stick it out for ten years, I could make it.
A.L: How did you build up your list of contacts and clients after opening the gallery?
J.A: I was very fortunate to have a friend who had an amazing mailing list, which she gave to me to use. I also went to a lot of gallery openings to meet people and see how the shows were done. I got really involved in the neighbourhood community, sitting on different committees to help develop and promote the area. One of the initiatives I was part of was for a local AIDS fundraiser, and many of the people on this committee are still friends or clients to this day.
A.L: As someone very involved in the West Queen West neighbourhood community, what do you think of the dramatic development and transformation in the area in the last decade or so? Do you think that Angell Gallery and the early local art scene have been catalysts in transforming the neighbourhood?
J.A: I think Katharine Mulherin, Stephen Bulger, Zsa Zsa Gallery and myself were among the first crop of galleries to open in the area. I think we did help the neighbourhood’s gallery scene evolve, even though it was a slow evolution. I knew the current owner of the Drake, who had networked with the art community in the area and re-opened the hotel in 2004, which was a big thing for the neighbourhood. This area used to have a lot of grit, which it has since lost. But I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing; as a gallery, you grow as the neighbourhood grows. You don’t want to stay the same.
A.L: Angell Gallery’s website says that you initially opened with the mission to support emerging and mid-career artists who take risks in their work and challenge the critical norms of contemporary art-making. Does this still characterize the main goals of your gallery now?
J.A: My mission statement has always been the same, to show artists who take risks in their work. We show emerging and mid-career artists, because early on in their career is when artists really need that support. When I moved in February, 2010 into this current space (12 Ossington Avenue), from our original location, I made a conscious decision to turn the front east gallery into a space where I show more alternative and perhaps non-commercial art. I’ve shown sound, performance, and digital works. That room is important to me, because it gives me a chance to show art that’s risky. It might not be great in terms of revenue, but it generates interest in these works and opportunities for artists that I believe in. It’s also important for the gallery’s overall vision.
A.L: The gallery recently presented its second group exhibition of digital art, which is certainly riskier from a commercial perspective. What are your thoughts on the growth of new media arts and their viability on the contemporary art market from the perspective of a dealer?
J.A: I’ve been showing digital art since 1998. I’m excited too see artists work with something new. Is it viable? Well, if I believe in something, I’ll make it work. I’m not going to make a living off of it, but the video and digital works we show do sell. And I’m fortunate to have been able to build a clientele who believe in my vision and support it. About two years ago, Alex Kisilevich introduced me to Rafael Ochoa, whom he had met while studying at York University. I knew we had to show him, so we transformed the video room into a mini-gallery and gave him his thesis show. I sold the first edition of each of the five works to one collector, and other collectors bought works from that show as well. You still don’t see a lot of digital art, but eventually I think it will become more popular. Phillips in New York had its first digital art auction recently. It took a long time for photography to become a viable art form too. So I believe in new media art, and its possibilities.
A.L: When considering emerging artists, there’s always a level of risk and uncertainty because they are only in the early stages of their career. Many of the young artists you’ve picked up have gone on to do very well. Kim Dorland, for example, has gained international prominence as a painter. How do you make decisions about who to represent or show at the gallery? Do you keep a close eye on the market and press, or go largely by intuition?
J.A: I definitely go largely by intuition. I often meet artists who walk into the gallery, and also through other artists. Aside from talent, I look for artists who I think will have longevity. Determination and persistence are key aspects to success as an artist.
A.L: Right. I think that the idea that it often takes ten years to make it doesn’t just apply to gallery owners, but also to artists.
J.A: I truly believe that. An artist’s work typically doesn’t get fully resolved until they move from emerging to mid-career, which if often in their early 30’s. It sometimes takes a long time to see your vision unfold.
Beyond persistence, when I meet artists I also look for business sense and ambition. I look for artists who understand that it’s not just about sitting in the studio producing work, but those who understand the bigger picture: marketing, going to openings, and going out and looking at art. They have to be involved in the community, because that’s how things happen.
A.L: In May, the gallery held a group show called “I Love Paint” that was curated by Kim Dorland. This exhibition of painting was shown at a time when most other art spaces were exhibiting photography-based works as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Was the timing of the show a conscious decision?
J.A: I was initially planning on showing Alex Kisilevich in May for CONTACT, but I wasn’t confident that he would be quite ready. So I decided to move “I Love Paint” ahead of it and show that in May instead.
A.L: But the show turned out to be extremely timely – one of the painters in the show was Gavin Lynch, and a week after the show ended he was announced as a finalist for the 2014 RBC Canadian Painting Competition.
J.A: It’s funny how the timing worked out. I met Gavin through Kim two years ago. I saw potential in his work but didn’t think he was quite ready at the time. When Kim presented the idea for this year’s “I Love Paint” show, I loved the idea. Kim curated the entire show, and I think it was a real generous move for him to introduce a whole group of new painters to Toronto who may not otherwise be shown here. Gavin was in the show, and his piece was fantastic – it was a perfectly resolved painting. I took Gavin on and had him send me several more paintings, and they sold immediately. Timing is definitely important as a dealer; you need to keep the momentum going. And I’m thrilled for Gavin’s success, because he’s a hard worker. He has a family, and it’s a huge commitment to have two kids and to go and do your MFA. We’re going to be taking Gavin to the Toronto International Art Fair, and we’ve scheduled him for an exhibition in March of next year.
A.L: Angell Gallery has been a regular participant at the Toronto International Art Fair. You’ve also had booths at international fairs like Pulse New York and Miami. Art fairs have certainly been proliferating and growing in influence. How has your experience of art fairs been and how important do you think it is to have a presence at these fairs?
J.A: Art fairs are a big expense and generally you don’t make any money. Fairs have helped artists take off, so it’s great for the artist. But some of the artists then leave the gallery, so it only benefits the gallery if the artist stays with us. But fairs are also helpful for branding and for meeting new collectors. The Toronto International Art Fair has generally been very good for us.