Interview with Mia Nielsen, Director of Art Toronto

Interview with Mia Nielsen (MN), Director of Art Toronto by Phil Anderson (PA)

Mia Nielsen. Photo: Franco Deleo

PA: It must have been difficult to engage in a re-invention of the art fair. What was your biggest challenge?

MN: We settled on the new direction for the fair in the spring, creating a hybrid event where the whole program will be online with the addition of in-person exhibition viewing and socially distanced events across the country. This format allowed us connect communities across the country and create a unique experience for an international fair. To support the show, we have an incredible program of over 80 virtual and in-person event, so managing the depth and breadth of the program is the biggest challenge, it’s way more programming than we have had in the past. But it’s really a wonderful challenge, because it’s allowed us to work with new partners and institutions including the CAG in Vancouver, the Esker in Calgary, PHI and MAC in Montreal, the National Gallery in Ottawa and many others. So exciting to see it all come together so beautifully.

PA: How does the hybrid virtual Art Toronto compare to other international art fairs that have gone virtual this year?

MN: Most international fairs that have gone ahead this year have been exclusively online. With exhibitors across the globe, it’s hard to find opportunities for connection outside the virtual space. One of the exciting aspects of Art Toronto is that it’s a regional fair with a national identity. With over 60% of our galleries based in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, we had a unique opportunity to galvanize the national arts community and connect the experience of the fair to the gallery locations to provide in-person exhibition viewing and events.

Corkin Gallery, Toronto

Bradley Ertaskiran Gallery, Montreal

PA: Was there an opportunity to share with other art fair directors’ ideas on how to engage the public in these strange times?

MN: Yes! One of the benefits of lockdown was the time to connect with colleagues and learn about how other shows are going ahead. It was great to get to know Elizabeth Dee of The Independent in NYC, we chatted a few times over FaceTime and she started a group chat where fair directors share strategies and challenges. Chicago is taking an interesting approach – rather than doing a virtual fair, they’re promoting a gallery hop weekend in their hometown over the scheduled 2020 fair dates.

PA: How accessible is the hybrid virtual art fair? Is there a charge to stream it? Is there a cap on attendance?

MN: The online fair is completely accessible! There is no cap for attendance and aside from the Preview benefit for the AGO on the 28th (tickets are $30 for a first look at the fair and a host of incredible programs) there is no charge to attend the online fair or the in-gallery events across the country.

PA: Are there noticeable advantages to having a virtual fair? For example, making it easier for galleries to participate without the expenses of shipping and employees working the fair?

MN: Indeed, shipping and installing exhibitions for a centralized fair is challenging, expensive and time consuming. Not to mention travel arrangements for visiting galleries or for local galleries having to be onsite at the fair and keep the gallery open at the same time. For exhibitors, this hybrid fair model offers a lot of flexibility.

PA: Are there other features that have been added to the virtual fair? Can you tell us about some of them?

MN: We have a number of new features this year. For instance, with have partnered with AGAC to list works from the fair on their app Collecting, using AR, it can picture an artwork to scale on your wall, a way to test out the concept and find the piece that will be a perfect fit for your wall. In addition, we’re hosting artist studio visits with Canadian artists living outside of Toronto such as Curtis Talwst Santiago (Frankfurt) and the Kinngait studios in Cape Dorset. In addition, we commissioned artist Jenn E Norton to create a virtual artwork, an AR sculpture that can be downloaded from Facebook or Instagram, so audiences can ‘install’ and share it with audiences online.

Curtis ‘Talwst’ Santiago in his studio, constructing one of his small artworks. (CBC Arts. November 4, 2015)

PA: Will the Art Toronto be more international this year because of the virtual nature of the fair and how many galleries are participating this year?

MN: We have almost 100 galleries this year, so close in number to what we’ve had in the past. There are some international galleries this year, like Chicago’s Monique Meloche (joining us for the first time), but most have a connection to Canada (in her case she is Canadian and represents fellow Canadian Brendan Fernandes who will be part of our Preview programming, in addition to some of the most important artists working in the US today) as well as Donald Ellis Gallery, with incredible First Nations art and artifacts, much from west coast nations. But as Canada’s art fair, we’re dedicated to connecting audiences to the incredible scene we have right here at home. That goes for national audiences connecting with the exhibitors across the country, as well as providing an entry point for international audiences to learn about art in Canada

Jake Troyli, Don’t Forget to Pack a Lunch! Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Image courtesy of the gallery

Portrait Mask of Dzila’Qons, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia,
Donald Ellis Gallery. Image courtesy of the gallery

PA: Do you think that the hybrid virtual art fair will have an impact on future art fairs after the pandemic?

MN: Yes, I think online strategies will be an important element for art fairs in a post-pandemic world. More changes could come too, we’re exploring ways to evolve the fair model to reach communities across Canada and beyond when we return to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Stay tuned to see how it evolves!

PA: What will you miss the most from the ability of having an actual physical fair?

MN: I love exhibitions, so having everyone in one place is one of the greatest pleasures for me. The serendipity of running into old friends, meeting new people, all while taking in great art – it’s such a special experience. That said, there are loads of things I’m really excited about this year – the virtual studio visits, conversations and events, the new galleries that are bringing some incredible work! It’s going to be a different way to experience the fair and I’m sure after this edition, there will be some things that I’ll miss when we return to a centralized exhibition.

Art Toronto 2019. Photo: Xiaotong Cao

*Exhibition information: October 28 – November 8, 2020, virtual and in-person installations and programming across the country. For more information please visit

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