About the AGYU
The AGYU believes that a contemporary art gallery should serve an aesthetic and social function, that it must be fluid and flexible and transform itself through reciprocal engagement with artists, communities, and the world as it changes. We are committed to the production, interpretation, and presentation of contemporary art in all its manifestations, including exhibitions, public programs, education projects, residencies, social practice projects, and scholarly books on art. The AGYU seeks to extend the social role of the gallery through:
1. sustained engagement with underserviced communities though education and public program projects, large-scale, participatory initiatives, and socially-engaged processes that serve general and specialized art audiences, students, artists, and youth in our surrounding Jane–Finch neighbourhood;
2. nurturing collaborative practices across our various artistic platforms, as a staff, and with artists and communities 3. our residency program, which is targeted at the creation of long-term, complex performance and exhibition projects and that support underrepresented forms of artistic production that use art as a social and political tool. At AGYU, we have transformed “outreach” into communities into a practice we call “in-reach,” where different forms of production, cultural protocols, and social economies are brought into the gallery in order to change the way in which contemporary art is conceived and produced.
We believe new forms and submerged modes of production and cultural expression open contemporary art up to new audiences and institutions to new practices. This includes acknowledging our occupation on colonized Indigenous territories by actively contributing to the on-going work needed to reckon with shared colonial histories and understand their present-day manifestations. Our decade-long collaboration with the Mississuagas of the Credit First Nation has had a profound impact on our practices of decolonization and serves as a foundational commitment to the change required by the institution.
1988–2002: Kunsthalle model
Originally a departmental gallery, in 1988, under Director Loretta Yarlow, the AGYU evolves into an autonomous public gallery. Programming is reconceived as a European-style kunsthalle and the gallery is positioned as a research laboratory. AGYU is commissioner of the Canadian Pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale (Rodney Graham). A publication program of catalogues documents in-house exhibitions.
2003–2005: Responding to Artists
In 2003, Philip Monk becomes Director and guides the AGYU into a fluid institution responsive to artists’ practices. Early years focused on building experimental programs and new approaches to audience engagement. Without abandoning international commitments, AGYU reaches out to an alienated local art community. Through innovative offsite programs, the curatorial team begins to sweep OAAG awards.
AGYU professionalizes itself through new kinds of audience development: marketing, publicity, fundraising, etc. Marketing is rethought as a form of programming, interpretation, and advocacy. A new mobile art venue—The Performance Bus—brings the downtown community joyfully to openings; artists begin designing the AGYU’s newsletter. AGYU establishes program of award-winning publications. NOW magazine gives its “Best of 2005” award to AGYU in the newly devised category of “most exciting curatorial vision.” Under Monk, AGYU commits to writing Toronto’s art histories through major exhibitions and publications.
2006–2009: out there
2006 marks the opening of AGYU’s new, climate-controlled, 3000 square-foot gallery, including proper collection and prep facilities. It develops a corresponding philosophy about the role of a public gallery within an educational context. Site and philosophy are brought together as AGYU begins to re-articulate itself through a new vision and motto: out there.
Begun as a cheeky response to the gallery’s so-called “distance” from “the centre”, it quickly becomes an operative concept that sparks a radical reimagining of the role of a contemporary art gallery. AGYU launches innovative new education programs directed to youth in surrounding neighbourhoods. They advocate for Canadian artists, producing the most comprehensive study on the economic status of contemporary artists through Waging Culture (2007– ).
In 2008, Emelie Chhangur becomes Assistant Director/Curator—a newly designed management and curatorial role responsible for conceptualizing this new out there vision through collaborative and socially-engaged practices. The new team applies principles of artists to their own working practices and to the ethos of the institution. Working from a Canadian POV, the curatorial program engages artists from emerging art centres (South America, the Caribbean, South Asia, etc.) relevant to audiences comprising the multicultural context of the GTA.
In 2009 the AGYU commits to working with underrepresented art communities through collaborative practice. Curatorial focus turns to working with artists of colour, artists who are Deaf, have disabilities or are living with mental illness, Indigenous artists, artists who self-identify as 2SLGBTQIAP, newcomer and new-generation artists, and artists working in underserved areas of the city. AGYU establishes a decade-long partnership with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation constituted through a three-year participatory project The Awakening, which culminates in a major performance staged in the AGO’s Walker Court (May 2011).
Part of the Jane–Finch neighbourhood, AGYU turns public and pedagogical engagement toward extending the social role of the gallery, creating collaborative projects that bring non-art publics into core programming. A residency program focused on artistic-curatorial experimentation and commissions leads to long-term participatory socially-engaged projects that challenge institutional practices and the ethics of one-off projects.
Working differently with communities changes AGYU’s values. Chhangur transforms outreach to “in-reach,” where different forms of production, cultural protocols, and social economies are brought into the gallery to change the way AGYU conceives of and produces contemporary art. Projects serve social and civic functions whereby the institution itself is challenged to play an active role. Long collaborations with nearby communities (Jane–Finch) and those further away (Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation) supports incremental change through careful-listening and slow-making.
AGYU garners attention as one of the most innovative contemporary art galleries in the country and leading art publisher. In 2014, AGYU is officially recognized as a leader in Ontario as finalist for the prestigious Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
2015–2018: Civic engagements
In 2015, AGYU commits to long-term projects with artists and communities. The largest, socially-engaged project AGYU has undertaken (150 core collaborators and five organizational partners), Ring of Fire marks a new stage in the AGYU’s ongoing institutional transformation as a socially progressive and civically oriented gallery. This two-year collaboration with Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Disability Dancers, Capoeira athletes, and young spoken-word poets from Jane–Finch, Regent Park, and Malvern culminates in a 300-person street procession from Queens Park to City Hall, opening cultural programming of the Parapan American Games. Bringing together all programming innovations (education, curatorial, public programming) into a single initiative, it created an experiential, hands-on, learning opportunity that critically investigated relations between participatory art practices and community arts practices, developing new working methodologies that supports artists with disabilities.
AGYU uses this new knowledge to once again change its own working strategies and sets the context for socially-engaged curatorial practices. In 2017, the AGYU is a finalist for the City of Toronto’s Diversity Award.
In 2018, when the subway opens at our front door, AGYU retires the out there vision and legendary Performance Bus. Director Philip Monk retires, and Emelie Chhangur is appointed Interim Director/Curator. In this next chapter, AGYU brings together everything learned over the past decade—socially progressive methodologies, well-established commitment to the multiplicity of art, culture, and community—and foregrounds residencies as a core practice of “in-reach.”
Now: Margins as centres
By 2019, AGYU is known for producing long-term collaborative projects that bring individuals and groups with no (apparent) affinity together to explore forms of hybrid expression and aesthetics in Toronto. AGYU fully embraces our hybrid identity as a university-affiliated-public-gallery—at once civic, activist, pedagogical—with a program that commits to learning from what this syncretic point of view might holistically impart as institutional practice.