Interview with David Liss: Putting Contemporary Canadian Art On The Map

David Liss is the artistic director and chief curator of MOCCA, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto. During Toronto’s International Art Fair, Liss talked to M-KOS about the current landscape of the Canadian art scene, in an insightful and refreshingly outspoken manner.

M-KOS [MK]: Could you introduce our readers to MOCCA and how you started getting involved in this art centre ?

David Liss [DS]: MOCCA started in 1999, it was reformed from the Art Gallery of North York, in the north part of Toronto. At the time it was a privately run gallery space, showcasing Canadian art. But for reasons that were well covered by the media back in those days, that enterprise went bankrupt. It was a big theatre complex, a performing arts centre with a small gallery inside it. That entity collapsed and the gallery was set to close but the art community of Toronto lobbied the city to keep the gallery open. So they did keep it open but the budget was greatly reduced, and the director and staff left. I started there at the end of 2000, coming from Montréal to figure out what to do next with this, the newly named, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. One of the first things in my discussions with the hiring committee was, given the name of the institution, that I didn’t think it was relevant in the 21st century to have a parochial or nationalistic view of contemporary art. So I restructured the mandate and the mission of MOCCA to include Canadian and non-Canadian artists.

So in group exhibitions like the one you see now, there are 22 artists showing but only two of them are Canadian. We had a solo exhibition by Carolee Schneeman, a New York artist that has an interesting history of exhibiting in Canada. She had a studio for several years in Montréal so we focused on some of the work she produced in Canada. Often we see non-Canadian artists in a group show along with Canadian artists, and the mission there is to have Canadian art and culture included in a global discourse. So that’s how we started to go through some of our strategies. Things in North York worked quite well so I proposed moving the gallery. Three years after I started, we moved here to Queen Street West, to what we call the West Queen Street Art and Design District. That opened us up to a higher profile, visibility and more relevance in the community. We have a modest facility now but our idea is to have the facility match the name. As well as the two main exhibiting areas here, we’ve done some traveling exhibition and a big show of Canadian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Shanghai in 2002. We were involved in a performance art festival in Taiwan, and traveling exhibitions to Germany and France. I was also doing curatorial programs for the ARCO fair in Madrid, for numbers of years. We had an exhibition at White Box space in New York City and Dumbo Arts Centre in Brooklyn. So you know, I see our facility here as this kind of nucleus of ideas and energy which extends to beyond the concrete walls. We’ve done performances here in the courtyard, we collaborated with Toronto institutions and exhibitions and projects that we participate in internationally.

MK: Is MOCCA a public institution now?

DS: Yes, it is a public institution now. The City of Toronto did agree to take on MOCCA under a very minimal funding structure, VERY MINIMAL. The first year I started, I was here by myself [Laugh] and by that point, and because I’m an artist myself, I was doing a lot of hands on thing. When I started by myself I’d forgotten how to make things like a label for the artwork [Laugh] and I had to start learning from scratch. We built an institution from scratch and now it is an credited Canadian museum, we renovated this current facility, in compliance with the Canadian Conservation Institute, and Canadian Cultural Properties, and we have a climate controlled facility. We are small but we have all the musicological requirements to be an accredited Canadian Museum. It is a public institution that is about 50 % funded by government sources and 50 % by corporate and private support, which is an unusual balance for Canada.

Artun “Left or Right” (2010) viedo still, a part of the exhibition “¡Patria o Libertad!” at MOCCA. Courtesy of the artist.

MK: Can you tell us about the current exhibition? [At that time of the interview, but now finished]

DS: The exhibition is called “¡Patria o Libertad!”, we had a guest curator called Paco Baragán from Madrid, he’s one of these globe trotting types of freelance curators doing projects all over the place, quite prolific. He’s also authored some books. I’ve known him for a number of years and when he proposed this idea of patriotism, liberty, global identity. I thought it was very timely of this world of unprecedented migration in human history, and what we’ve seen this year in the Arab Spring, and these kinds of revolution, but also evolution of the human species, as time goes on in the 21st Century. Of course when we programmed the exhibition 2 years ago I wasn’t necessarily thinking that it was going to be for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But our show did open during that time and the point was certainly noticed by some of our audience who thought we had planned that way, but we didn’t. 9/11 aside, it was interesting that it is the 21st Century and this idea of globalism is still working itself out. We have 22 artists from 18 countries with, as you can see from the exhibition, has various approaches and ideas about identity, that’s what the show is all about.

MK: So this exhibition represents well your mandate?

DS: The main thrust of our mandate here is to accommodate, to show work by artists that are dealing with themes and issues that are relevant to the contemporary human condition. I wouldn’t necessarily say we have an issue-based mandate but I think here in our downtown Toronto location, we are not tied to academia like the university galleries, or the art market. We have quite large audiences here, as you can imagine being downtown, there are quite a varied mix of people. Probably 80% of our audiences are not, so-called, initiated to the art world, unlike some of the university galleries for example. They have an academic community.

MK: Do you have a lot of passers-by?

DS: We have, here in summer time, the majority of our audiences, 90% are actually tourists, people from all over the world. So I think the way for us to communicate to our audience is by themes and issues that they might recognize, in this [exhibition’s] case, with patriotism, liberty, and global identity. We also had an exhibition on food, for example, a kind of critical look at the food production systems. And for the last four years, we’ve been the primary exhibition space for the CONTACT Photography Festival. They’re always wanting to address issue that are current in photography.

I would argue that photography is the pre-eminent medium of the day. By this time today [3pm] we have already by seen, directly, or even unconsciously, thousands of photographs. And it’s possible that we have seen no paintings. Of course this is partly because everybody has camera on their phone these days.

Robert Burley, “Implosion of Buildings #65 & #69” (2007), CONTACT photography Festival 2008 at MOCCA. Photo by Miles Storey. Image via Torontoist

MK: What about video? Do you agree there’s a blurriness between video and photography as a medium.

DS: Most of the Contact show we’ve had included video elements. But the point is that our relationship to photography is now quite different than it ever has been in our human history. Another exhibition we’ve done was about hockey, a big theme in Canada, we did an exhibition on fashion, again with a critical point of view, from the angle of manufacturing and personal identity.

We also have a platform for art from Toronto, it’s odd to me but here no one seems to focus on Toronto art. Art has a very interesting history here, the different gallery systems showing different art: artist-run centers, art-coops, university galleries, public institutions. Toronto’s art-scene is huge and it’s not well presented in the media, at all. The size of the scene here I would say is one of the top 10 largest in the world, you may want to argue on the quality [laugh] but the quantity of it, all across the board, is huge. Is it important and significant? I don’t know. But it’s a fantastic community here and also a great history. Looking at the history of 80s’ art, especially Queens Street West, and in the 70’s of course, there was General Idea, and in the 60’s, artists like Michael Snow, for example. But nobody looks at that here.

Toronto is a modern city, and it always seems to me that it’s looking at the next thing. Which means it’s never looking at its history and I don’t think it’s even looking at NOW. It’s always waiting for the next thing, like an endless carrot. But people want to see what’s going on in Toronto now. Every two years, we have a showcase of what’s on in Toronto, but not just the best of the best, I don’t like that position. We pick a theme to put things in perspective and make connections between the artists, the art and the people that look at it. We cannot concern ourselves with just the art audiences. Although we have had exhibitions like abstract painting and neo-conceptual work, these kind of things that are easier for the initiated audience to digest. But largely we deal with themes and issues that are relevant to today.

David Liss at MOCCA booth, Toronto International Art Fair 2010 with Alex Mcleod “Prismatic Planes” (2010) commissioned for Art Toronto 2010 MOCCA Benefit Editions. Image via Flohaus

MK: Tell us about your presence in Toronto Art Fair.

DS: The Art fair I don’t think is a highly specialist event, the art world is a very tiny world, even though people like us think it’s the centre of the universe. These conventions are exciting moments for the public. I know some people here in Toronto, the one art thing they’re going to do in the year is to go to the fair.

Our relationship with that fair is interesting because we started off with participating with several public institutions like the AGO and the Power Plant, and the art gallery of York University. We were given a free booth at the fair, but we were not allowed to participate in the market. So the first few years we were commissioning artist projects to develop weird performances, bizarre intervention, things that were adding to the discourse beyond the market discourse. We were spending quite a bit of money, however I happened to notice that the other public institution participating in the fair were actually making money. The fair’s opening party is to the benefit of the AGO, the power talks are a financial benefit to Power Plant, and meanwhile MOCCA, the smallest institutions in the fair were the only one spending money and giving breaks to the artists. And with all due respect to the fair and the people of Toronto, the projects that we were doing for the artists had no residual, no spin off. It’s a small art fair, really, there’s not a presence of major international galleries here, let’s face it. And I got a little frustrated that there was no media coverage for anything we did. For all the effort we put in, at the end of the four-day curatorial programs, there was nothing. Other art fairs in Miami or Madrid always have some kind of effervescence that leads to something else or other opportunities, which doesn’t happen here. So we started to produce, MOCCA and the TIAF, now commission an artist to produce a benefit print. So we are now, for the third year in row, we are making money. [Laugh] I’m sorry to report, although I’m not sorry to report…

MK: Is this specific to Canada, you think ?

DS: TIAF is an important fair for a lot of the galleries and a lot of the collectors, and lots of fun. Canada is a big country and it’s hard to see all your fellow curators and dealers all in one place at one time. In Canada it happens, pretty much once a year at the fair.

MK: Art fairs are pretty much a place where you can take the pulse of the market. There have been a lot of talks about the Canadian market. Do you think the market is a good way to assess art in Canada?

DS: There are art collectors in Canada and some very good ones. If you’re looking at it in comparison to the multi-billion dollar global industry that the art market is, I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is a Canadian art market. That’s actually overstating it. Canada only has 30 million people, that’s a smaller population than California, and only double the population of New York City. It’s modest in scale. There are so many amazing artists, in Canada and in Toronto, but if we speak in terms of market, the supply outstrips the demand.

MK: Would you say that there are two markets for Canadian artists, an internal one for the Canadian collectors and another, buying Canadian art through international sales?

DS: As a Canadian, I hate to admit it, but if artists come to me for advice and pose me the question about how to be a successful artist, make a living off your work or to establish a foothold in the international art scene, then I say it has to be done outside of Canada. I think MOCCA are working hard to try to change that and I believe some day it will change, but at the moment this is the reality of the situation.

MK: What are your next steps with MOCCA in making a change for pushing Canadian art on the international art scene ?

DS: We are already looking at our next facility. We started doing that a couple years ago and our plans are evolving. In the current building we are in, there are four tenants, and we are looking at possibilities of acquiring and expanding into the rest of the structure. We are also looking at other locations in Toronto, and trying to line up political and financial will, to expand MOCCA’s facilities to better serve the needs of the artists and community, and the “Industry”! [laugh] ■

952 Queen Street West
Toronto, Ontario
M6J 1G8, Canada

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Sunday
11 – 6 PM
Closed Mondays

Admission Fee:
Admission to the Museum is Pay What You Can.

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