Art Toronto returns with a focus on bringing the Canadian perspective to the world

New for this year: curated exhibitions, an expanded public-art program … and a Divya Mehra installation so big that it had to be carried in on two forklifts.

After two pandemic editions, the fair is back with fresh purpose. Director Mia Nielsen tells us what's new

Visitors to Art Toronto 2022's opening night walk the floor at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It is a concrete-floored space broken up by white-walled booths filled with artwork. A site-specific installation by Joseph Tisiga appears in the foreground. The floor of the installation is covered with green astroturf. A puppet-like life-size human figure reclines at the centre. It's surrounded by terra-cotta coloured forms that tower over it. Small grey sock puppet figures with teeth also sprout from the astroturf.
Visitors to Art Toronto 2022's opening night walk the floor at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Oct. 27, 2022. A site-specific installation by Joseph Tisiga appears in the foreground. (CBC Arts)

The era of the pandemic-pivot is finally over, or at least it is for Art Toronto. The country's oldest and largest international art fair returns to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this weekend, and after two years of virtual and hybrid programming, they'll be doing things 100 per cent IRL. 

Will it be a throwback to the Before Times? Not quite. Yes, in some ways, it's very much the event you remember: a sort of trade show of contemporary art that gathers commercial galleries from Canada and around the world. More than 90 exhibitors will appear at the fair this year, looking to connect with collectors and curators who'll be treading some 17,000 square metres of hall space. But beyond the art-world dealings, there's also talks, daily tours and a spate of programming including an exhibition that puts Canadian art, and the role of the fair itself, into context.

That reflective side of the fair is something director Mia Nielsen has been cultivating since she joined Art Toronto in 2019. At that year's edition, Nielsen introduced a public-art program, a section that's evolved and expanded for 2022. Large-scale works by Joseph Tisiga, Divya Mehra and Native Art Department International are among those featured, but the all-new development for 2022 is a "Focus" exhibition that offers a sort of museum moment amid the marketplace. Titled "held open," the show assembles 16 works that have been selected from participating Art Toronto galleries, a mix of new and historical pieces. Recent works by Toronto-based artist Nadia Belerique, for example, are bookended by photographs from Nan Goldin and General Idea.

Photo of various contemporary artworks installed in a white-walled space.
Installation view of held open, the Focus exhibition at Art Toronto 2022. (Art Toronto)

Marie-Charlotte Carrier is the curator of the exhibition; originally from Quebec City, she currently works at the Hayward Gallery in London. The show has a relatively open premise, she tells CBC Arts, but in gathering both new and historical works, she's telling a story about "the ways we relate to one another and the non-human." She'll be leading tours of the exhibition daily. (Further details are available on the Art Toronto website.)

The addition of a curated section that purposefully turns its attention to Canada — its galleries, artists and curators — is an idea Nielsen's waited three years to launch. "An exhibition structure within an art fair is very unusual," she told CBC Arts. We reached her by phone to learn a little more about her vision for the fair.

Photo of various contemporary artworks installed in a white-walled space, the location of Art Toronto 2022.
Installation view of held open, the Focus exhibition at Art Toronto 2022. (Art Toronto)

CBC Arts: The Focus exhibition "held open" is a new initiative this year. What was the original idea behind launching that section? What did you want to add to the Art Toronto experience?

The Focus section used to be about looking out into the world, you know — like bringing back an experience from a different country or geographic location. 

When I started in 2019, and got to know the exhibitors a little better, something that struck me was the extraordinary quality of the work that they were bringing.

That extraordinary quality you mentioned: I don't know if you can distill it, but what were you seeing from Canadian exhibitors that punches above our weight?

Ooh, it's not necessarily something that's easy to answer in a word. There are so many artists who are being recognized in a big way. Esmaa Mohamoud is one of them. Caroline Monnet is another, just kind of off the top of my head. Rajni Perera — she just had this huge show in Glasgow.

Canadian art used to be thought of as regional. Maybe it's globalization, maybe it's social media, maybe it's that many artists are physically getting out of Canada for projects, for residencies. But Canadian art is participating in an international dialogue that is very dynamic. Five Canadian artists were in the Venice Biennale this year including Tau Lewis and Shuvinai Ashoona [who was awarded a Special Mention]. And you see that in the fair. 

Photo of a gold quilted robe on a life-size figure.
This piece by Nep Sidhu is among the Canadian works appearing in Art Toronto's public art program, curated by Mia Nielsen. (CBC Arts)

So seeing what's happening internationally gave you even more impetus to launch an exhibition about what's happening here in Canada instead of looking outwards?

Yes, exactly. 

With the Focus exhibition I wanted to create an opportunity to elevate that conversation and let these artists bring in works that are ambitious, that are museum quality — and new. 

It's really taking a broad look at the exhibitors that come to the fair and bringing together a group of artists from different regions.

Photo of textile cut-outs suggesting human figures and body parts. Art work by Alicia Henry that's been hung on a white wall inside Art Toronto 2022.
Installation view of work by Alicia Henry, as appearing in Art Toronto's Focus exhibition, held open. (Art Toronto)

These works would already be seen — they would already be represented in the fair. But the exhibition itself creates this moment of pause.

One thing: the works are not exclusively Canadian, but they're all by artists who are represented by our galleries. Nan Goldin's work is in the exhibition as well as Alicia Henry's. A curator came in — Mary-Charlotte Carrier — and pulled threads on themes that she saw across the show floor.

Now that the exhibition is up, have you discovered any interesting perspectives or highlights? 

Sharona Franklin was really interesting to me. She was someone Marie-Charlotte introduced me to, and the works she made for the show have not been seen before.

The themes that [Carrier] is exploring in held open — I thought it was a really beautiful and poignant concept. There's a real interest in exploring vulnerability, particularly in the work of Sharona Franklin — her gelatin sculptures — and how Sharona's work speaks so much to the disabilities she manages. 

Art by Sharona Franklin. Canadian thistle jelly with heliopsis and baby's breath on a papier mache armature. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

The Focus exhibition isn't the only curated section at the fair. You've curated the public-art program, and as you've said in the past, growing that program is a priority of yours at Art Toronto. Is the launch of the Focus exhibition part of that vision?

Yeah, I would say it's a nuance of that vision. You know, one of the things that I think is really interesting about Art Toronto as a fair is there are a number of important institutions from across the country that acquire from the fair. The AGO, of course, the National Gallery, the McMichael, the VAG, the Musée de beaux arts in Montreal. And so with the public installations and with the exhibition, I thought, here's an opportunity. There are museums coming to acquire here. Let's put something really exciting in front of them.

Detail of Assemblage en bleu (Sphinx) by Celia Perrin Sidarous. The piece is one of three works acquired by the AGO at Art Toronto 2019. (Instagram/@agotoronto)

So one of the latest additions to the program is a really ambitious work from Divya Mehra. It's a sculptural installation that's 10 by 20 feet. It had to be moved in with two forklifts! It's a really impressive work, and I think that one of the exciting things about coming to the fair is that you do get this hybrid experience where there are works by new artists — young artists, emerging artists — alongside historic works, alongside these huge installations.

So are major institutions the main audience you have in mind when putting the public-art program together? 

That's part of the audience, for sure. There are a lot of curators — independent curators and those affiliated with institutions who come from across Canada, but also some from the States too. They come to Art Toronto to do research and just see what's going on, and so I think about that audience too. Like, what can I show that's really inspiring? 

In the case of Divya's work, it was a sculpture that was in storage and here's an opportunity to put it in front of this huge audience. Think about going to Nuit Blanche and seeing monumental work and how exciting and inspiring that is. I want to speak to the uninitiated. I want to give them an opportunity to see works that are inspiring — that you wouldn't necessarily see in a commercial gallery, a private gallery, and also works that are defying the expectations of a commercial art fair. Like, you know, it's not just a painting over the sofa. 

Close-up photo of a smashed gold 1987 Jaguar Vanden Plas sportscar, the centrepiece of an installation by the artist Divya Mehra.
Here's the Divya Mehra piece in question. Presented by Night Gallery, its title is: "I am the American Dream (still just a Paki)/Seminar Series on Race, Destruction and the many afterlives of a Paki: A private talk for one by your less than ideal Representative, 2010-2017." (CBC Arts)

It's interesting to hear you talk about "uninitiated" curators. Between the public art program, and the Focus exhibition, it seems the fair feels a responsibility to make a statement: "this is what's happening in Canadian contemporary art."


Do you see that as the fair's responsibility?

Well, I think the fair has an opportunity there. What you're tapping into is a personal interest of mine. What is exciting to me about this role is that as the director I have an opportunity to look at the entire exhibition and think, how does this represent art in Canada and art from a Canadian perspective? How does Canadian art fit within an international framework? What is going to be inspiring and exciting for Canadian audiences to see? 

Photo of a white-walled booth displaying artwork, erected in a concrete-floored convention centre hall.
The Cooper Cole booth at Art Toronto 2022. (Art Toronto)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Art Toronto. Oct. 27-30. Metro Toronto Convention Centre.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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