Propeller Art Gallery turns 25

Interview with Frances Patella (FP), Partnerships Chair & Artscape Liaison in the occasion of PAG 25 by Emese Krunak-Hajagos (EKH)

Frances Patella at 20/20, March 24, 2016. Photo: Meghan O’Callaghan

I remember visiting the newly opened Propeller Gallery on Spadina one sunny Saturday afternoon in 1996. The light from the window made the place hot and it was so small that the attendant sat halfway out in the hallway. Through its 25 years the gallery came a long way in terms of location, membership and artistic improvement.

Late 90s members L-R: (first row) Alberto E. Martorana, Carlos G. Navia, Orna Gang, Pearl Van Geest, (second row) Yeche Gagnon, Maja Kulenovic, Marija Barac-Jandric and Solomon Thurman. Courtesy of Propeller Art GalleryEKH: What was your original vision of the gallery in 1996? Do you think you fulfilled it?

EKH: What was your original vision of the gallery in 1996? Do you think you fulfilled it?

FP: I was not one of the originals, but the vision was to have a space to show your work and have support from other artists of the group.  I think that vision has been fulfilled and then some!

EKH: The first sentence in your mission statement: Artists empowering Artists emphasizes an active artists’ community where members exchange ideas and help each other grow artistically. Please explain the meaning of the mission statement and give some examples of how it is realized.

FP: “Artists empowering artists” came out of a session where Propeller members were invited to set the stage for the next few years – a bit of a polish to our brand, so to speak.  We realized that we had numerous members who had years of experience in the arts and we wanted to share that experience in order to help “propel” artists to succeed in their endeavours.  We wanted to give artists who didn’t have experience in gallery showings a place where they would be supported, from curatorial selection, to hanging a show, to having a successful opening and show. There were many members who had shown in commercial and public galleries and knew the challenges that come with those venues. We wanted a place where we didn’t have to conform to the commercial galleries visions of what was art that sells. But we also wanted to encourage artists to go out and have commercial representation, especially once they got their feet wet at Propeller, which numerous artists were able to do. We didn’t want to limit what artists could do as numerous commercial galleries did have restrictions.

L-R: Pieter Bakker, Miru Kim, Heather Gentleman and Keijo Tapanainen at Heather Gentleman’s exhibition at the Queen Street West location. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

Faye Mullen installation / Performance by Faye Mullen from the Im/AGE: From “Bust” to “Boom” to Zoom” Exhibition, January 21 – February 1, 2009. Photo: Joseph Muscat

EKH: How do you select your members? What do you think is about the gallery that draws young artists to apply?

FP: We have developed criteria to select members – basically we look at the originality of the work, the technical aspects and the overall quality of a series of work. We have a group of members, different for every selection meeting, who view and vote. I think our approachability, our gallery space, our paid Director and our members draw other artists to apply.

EKH: How do the exhibitions get organized as you hardly ever have solo shows? How do you select the two artists for a dual show? 

FP: We do have solo shows, however many artists choose to exhibit with one or two other artists, mainly for financial reasons, or more exposure to different people. The artist who signs up for a solo show has the option of inviting others to show with them. If it’s a group show, the lead artist(s) would then submit a proposal for the selection members to consider.

Michelle Letarte: Malta & Gozo and Philip Hare XoXoX, November 5 – 16, 2014 (left) and Ross Winter: Through a Glass Darkly and Photo Works 3, May 7 -18, 2014 (right). Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

EKH: Could you please tell us more about your collaborations with other galleries and art organizations? 

FP: We have had numerous collaborations and that comes about due to an artist member having the initiative to approach other galleries or venues, submitting a proposal and carrying it out.  We have shown as a selection of our members in art fairs, including Art Toronto, galleries outside Toronto, for example in Oakville, other venues, like the Metro Condo, the Theatre Centre, the Zoomer conference, restaurants among others.

Zoomer at CNE, curated by Moses Znaimer (right), October 31 – November 1, 2009. Photo: Joseph Muscat

Frances Patella and Gwen Tooth are installing Propeller’s booth at Art Toronto, October, 2014. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

EKH: Propeller Gallery was a great place on Queen Street West (2001-2014) with many wonderful exhibitions. One of my best memories are of the annual Black and White Balls. What are yours? What shows were the most outstanding at that location in your opinion?

FP: I also loved the Black and White Balls, initiated by former member Heather Gentleman, the dressing up, the fun. I also loved our annual Salon shows, initiated by myself and Keijo Tapanainen. We had so many people attend the Salons and B&W that we spilled onto to the street.

Queen Street West entrance with Salon 4, January, 2010. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

Black and White Ball, February 7, 2013. Photo: Fox Martindale

I was also fond of the annual curated exhibitions – those were the most outstanding as guest curators initiated numerous themes that were very well received by the community. One example was the exhibition curated by Moses Znaimer where we had champagne in real champagne glasses (Moses later donated the glasses to Propeller).

TAKE 5 SHOW (L-R): Lisa Johnson, W.W. Hung, Keijo Tapanainen, Pieter Bakker, Jim Bourke. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

Love Art show artists (L-R): Peter Barelkowski, Jane Murdoch Adams, Dan Dodds, Keijo Tapanainen, Pat Dumas-Hudecki, Frances Patella and Dominique Prevost. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

EKH: Abell Street wasn’t the best location at first because of the ongoing construction on the street. What did you do in order to overcome that disadvantage and in spite of it run a successful gallery? I am sure the Off the Wall auctions is one of your most successful events to draw interest to the Abell Street location.

Abell Street entrance, Off the Wall Gala, December 12, 2019. Photo: Xiaotong Cao

Abell Street location, installation view with the double rooms. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

FP: We lost quite a few members when we moved to the Abell location as the street outside the gallery was closed and a bit of a mud pit. Thanks to Joseph Muscat, who was able to initiate a huge rent reduction from Artscape, (who had promised us a clear and open street) we were able to hang on until the construction was done.

Joseph Muscat at 20/20, March 24, 2016. Photo: Meghan O’Callaghan

We then had a members’ drive and encouraged numerous artists to join us.  Off the Wall was initiated by myself, after I attended a fundraiser organized by my daughter, Simone Collins, at Queens university. That initiative was called Cezanne’s Closet and students and teachers donated their work to the cause. Last year was one of Propeller’s most successful Off The Wall, thanks to the hard work of the OTW committee.

Visitors at the Off the Wall Gala, December 12, 2019. Photo: Xiaotong Cao

Unmade / Group show curated Jill Price, June 26 – July 14, 2019. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

Salon 14, January 22 – February 2, 2020. Courtesy of Frances Patella

EKH: Hopefully everything will go back to normal or the “new normal” as the gallery reopens on August 5th. What are your future plans?

FP: We have had a couple of successful zoom openings and we have just opened to the public again. Propeller keeps going because there is a real need in the community as more commercial galleries close their doors. We are adding services to the membership, like the online openings and online store. New members bring new ideas and hopefully we will be able to keep going for another 25 years.

Installation view of Elizabeth Greisman, After The Fact is Emotion, August 26 – September 13. 2020. Courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

*Propeller Art Gallery, 30 Abell Street Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sun 1 – 5:30 pm. Social distancing will be observed.

**For more information about the rich history of Propeller Art Gallery please visit: PAG 25 Living History at

  1 comment for “Propeller Art Gallery turns 25

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *