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What the squirrels are doing about gentrification

By Sean Waisglass

Gentrification is a natural outcome of the ebbs and flows of a city’s artist community. It’s a common pattern: artists need a cheap place to live and work and exhibit. Neighbourhoods that fall into the dumpy and/or dangerous category have affordable rent. Artists move into neighbourhood. Neighbourhood absorbs the city’s creative folk, thrives, and generates buzz. Well-financed galleries and their kin look to get in on the action, property values rise, vanguard artists move out.

Residing on Queen St. West, a long-time main artery of the city’s arts community, Toronto’s Park Gallery is one of the last casualties of the second phase of the street’s gallery-borne gentrification. It’s located on a string of blocks that has evolved into the city’s hottest gallery district in the past few years, succeeding the more central strip to the east that has long since buried its arts-friendly past in favour more commercial ventures like clothing and furniture stores and pricey restaurants.

“I’ve always loved this neighbourhood,” said Park’s director and mastermind Julia Burton. “I had a connection to it growing up. Coming to (to the arty part of town) was an adventure-it wasn’t like anywhere else in the city. It’s inspired me, and made me feel there were possibilities. It’s so perfect for me to have a gallery here and continue what (the founding galleries) did here.”

But that continuation is coming to an end. After riding a twelve-month wave of abnormally cheap rent, the almighty dollar has quashed what may be the last gallery on the strip that followed the agenda of the neighbourhood’s original avant-garde. Burton, 34, and an artist herself, scored the storefront space for less than half the typical rent for the area, but once the owners caught wind of the building’s burgeoning value, they jacked up the fee of Park’s subletting de facto landlord.

The absence of financial pressure was key to Park’s agenda, so the rent increase made Burton decide to wrap up the experiment at the one-year mark come April of 2006. “I could treat it with a wonderful fearlessness,” assessed the hung over but nonetheless chipper Burton the day after the opening party for Park’s last show. “It was kind of nice to have a situation where I could take more risks. If I had to pay $2000 a month, there was no way-I’d have to have had a business plan, and would have probably been a more boring commercial gallery.”

Instead, the charmingly downtrodden wood-framed window-fronted gallery hosted exhibits that featured such un-chic subject matter as hockey, poo (it’s a long story), and, for this last show, squirrels. The modest gallery also featured such events as clothing swaps, art-making parties, and a holiday “general store” show in which buyers could pluck art off the walls and walk out with their purchases.

The down-to-earth and unconventional look and approach of Park amidst a throng of some of the city’s newest powerhouse galleries drew local talent in like a vacuum. “It looks so old in here,” Burton explained. “The window displays aren’t slick. You have to be a bit of a risk-taker to come in. People would come in when I opened up and ask, ‘What’s going on in here? Are you a gallery?'”

“I think the artists got it the most, and were the regulars who’d come back, and who understood it and were the most comfortable with it,” said Burton. “I realized my favourite thing is to have a gallery for artists…and for it to be a way for artists to meet each other. Artists need each other’s support, and to be inspired by each other.”

“If I had a bad month and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? I made no money!’ I’d have an amazing day where an artist would come in and go, ‘Oh I love the space! I’d love to show here!’ You can really feel that it offers them something-some kind of inspiration or some kind of alternative. And that would totally make my day. I knew that I was onto something.”

Burton and Park’s emphasis on artists-as-community rather than art-as-commodity allowed for an unconventional curatorial approach. “It was almost more the people rather than the pieces,” she explains. “I would see the art that they’d made, but a lot of people would make me stuff for the show here. So I didn’t know what they were going to show up with.”

“(This type of gallery) is needed in the city,” continues Burton. “If I didn’t run this, I’d probably be looking for a space like this to go to.” And apparently the local arts scene felt the say way: the previous night’s party for Park’s “Neighbourhood and Squirrels”-themed final show was packed wall-to-wall. Burton wanted the last exhibit to celebrate both the neighbourhood that the gallery resides in, dubbed Parkdale, and the furry little denizens of the local parks themselves. Most of the final show’s works featured squirrels (particularly the albino versions of local legend) in some manner.

This was no whim: Burton’s oeuvre is dedicated to squirrels. Her woodblocks painted with squirrel silhouettes and popular self-designed “squirrel-lover pride” t-shirts were set up in the back room/studio of the gallery. The woman adores the critters.

And within this adoration, a wonderful parable reveals itself. Examining Burton’s account for her admiration of squirrels, one can’t help but draw parallels to feisty little Park Gallery (which she plans to reopen in a new location come the fall) and its relationship to the commercial and oft-snooty art scene that has successfully usurped the formerly bohemian neighbourhood: “They’re urban animals,” says Burton of her beloved squirrels. “They live with us. They don’t care that we’re here-they’re going to find a way to survive. Squirrels are part of your day-to-day goings-on. If you go and feed them, you get a different perspective of them. They’re these neat little beings that we share the city with, and they’re here to stay.”

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