About the AGYU
Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) is a socially minded public non-profit contemporary art gallery that is a space for the creation and appreciation of art and culture. It is an affiliated and supported unit of York University, with key funders including the Canada Council for the Arts, the Province of Ontario through the Ontario Arts Council, the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council, foundations, embassies, other cultural institutions, and through our membership.
Throughout its 32-year history, AGYU has always operated at the forefront of contemporary artistic, curatorial, and art institutional practices. It has honed and expanded its mandate to establish a unique history and place as an art institution by using the following guidelines when defining its program of exhibitions, lectures, performances, publications, screenings, education and outreach activities, and residencies:
- Responding to Canadian artists, developing first major exhibitions/publications.
- Presenting international artists within a local context and bringing Canadian artists into international conversations.
- Providing challenging and innovative educational and curatorial projects.
- Amplifying the civic role of art galleries through advocacy; engaging large, yet under-represented communities through long-term engagement.
- In acknowledging that York University occupies colonized Indigenous territories, and out of respect for the rights of Indigenous people, and as part of our role to honour, protect, and sustain this land, have built a close relationship with our host Nation, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation through collaboration on artistic projects for over a decade, and will work to maintain this relationship into the future.
- Sustain a community-based engagement through our programs from educational workshops to large-scale, participatory initiatives, using socially-engaged processes that serve general and specialized art audiences, students, artists, and youth in our surrounding Jane–Finch neighbourhood.
- Developing major publications of scholarly books, monographs, catalogues, artists’ books.
- Committed to anti-racism, working to eradicate institutional racial biases and develop accountable programs that support Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.
Since the AGYU’s inception, York University’s art collection has been under its supervision and care. The collection currently houses 1700 works, growing substantially over its 32 years to include prominent donations of works by Norval Morrisseau and Andy Warhol as well as incorporating grand commissions such as 18 permanent outdoor sculptures. The collection includes over 200 prints and sculptures by renowned and influential Inuit artists including Kenojuak Ashevek and Kananginak Pootoogook as well as paradigmatic work by Canadian “Automatistes” Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas, and includes American Modernists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland. 2020 marks a shift in the AGYU’s collecting practices, which envisions a closer and more critical tie to the AGYU’s contemporary exhibition and commissioning program, which more closely aligns to our civically engaged mission. This redirection is marked by the acquistion of RISE by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, a complex and layered film installation that was commissioned by AGYU through extensive community engagement and participation.
In 2020, the AGYU under the purview of York University is undertaking a capital expansion to build a multi-site art institution, comprised of a new stand-alone purpose built facility and the AGYU’s current exhibition spaces. This expansion was initiated through a generous $5,000,000 gift donated by keen supporters of the arts, Joan and Martin Goldfarb. The new gallery will amplify the work being done by the AGYU, enhancing its community engagement and critical path in working with contemporary artists to question its colonial structural and historical framework . Essential to the new gallery is York University’s art collection. The new gallery will necessitate a reframing of the collection, which will increase access and expand scope to enable the development, activation, growth and care of the University’s collection with research, student engagement and community support in mind.
Our history as a practice of continually rethinking roles and responsibilities of cultural institutions.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.”
2019 – Margins as centres
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.
On October 25, 2019, York University announced a generous $5,000,000 gift donated by philanthropists and art collectors Joan and Martin Goldfarb. This substantial gift is set to fund a stand-alone art gallery, which will be the new home of the Art Gallery of York University. Planning is well underway for this capital expansion, which will build a multi-site art institution on the University’s Keele campus for late 2022. A stand-alone art gallery combined with the AGYU’s current space will form a unified art institution that will magnify the breadth of AGYU’s scope, re-envisioning of the University’s art collection while also enabling greater access to contemporary artistic and cultural programming for the University and the surrounding community.
2020 – Situational Understanding – In the transferral of a generic and placeless notion of museums and galleries, situational understanding is an approach that prefaces place – ‘the where’ one is experiencing the artwork, and as such, tethering the meaning of an artwork or artistic process to the history of the institution it is presented within – addressing the institution’s colonialist structure, its demographic or geographic location. And also ‘the when’, which is durational, and concurrent, that all parties (artists and audiences) are gaining a shared and accumulated knowledge, – “what has happened in this place is shared.” This references the institution’s commitment to working with artists and communities through long term engagement, as well as the sustained engagement in issues, such as Waging Cultural a long-term study of artists’ income in Canada. This durational commitment to artists and issues forms shared knowledges that can be reacted to and built on by the Institution, the artists we work with and the audiences we engage.
Jenifer Papararo joins York University as Director / Curator of the AGYU. Papararo has a long history of collaboration, working as a curator and institutional director in the field of contemporary art exhibition, production and publishing for over 20 years.
Under the pandemic and the need to limit the spread of Covid-19, restrictive measures closed AGYU’s gallery spaces and in person programs. Staff working remotely continued to engage artists and audiences through live online performances and presentations. AGYU’s long serving Education and Collections Assistant, Allyson Adley worked in partnership with Scarborough-based R.I.S.E. Edutainment Director, Randell Adjei and Jane Street Speaks Founder, Nathan Baya to present Remote Control, an online social media forum for performance. The program was initially planned as a four-week series but was extended to over 16 performances due to its success. Assistant Curator, Michael Miranda continued his work researching and addressing the economic precarity of artists in Canada. He advocated for change in the requirements individuals needed to receive finical government support through the CERB program to include the unique economic situation of artists, and organized and moderated an online panel Cultural Policies meet Pandemic Follies: The CERB and independent artists as a discussion with Jessa Agilo, Maegen Black, Kelly Hill, and Konstantin Kilibarda.
With the violent death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US and Regis Corchinski-Parquet in Toronto and too many others, the racial biases of the police and all public institutions have been brought to the forefront in a moment of reckoning. Within this moment art institutions have been held accountable for their perpetuation of racially discriminatory practices and their lack of anti-racist action. Many art organizations put out anti-racist statements as a response and call to action. In a discussion with all AGYU staff including workstudy students and summer student employees, AGYU collectively decided not to issue a statement but to develop programs that supported BIPOC artists. From internal conversations about the role of art institutions and our responsibility to respond to the needs of artists, we developed Lead Time a mentorship program in support of emerging BIPOC artists. We also developed the Community Resource Program that focused on supporting artists who are active in the fight for social justice and the struggles for Black and Indigenous liberation. As such we invited three community leaders Amoya Reé, Keosha Love, and Jayda Marley, in recognition of their ongoing contributions to the field of art and activism, to assistance in defining the scope and shape of an initiative of their design that the gallery would fund and support. This initiative led to the event Truthsgiving and a food distribution initiative.