New art exhibition is a love letter to Toronto's relic Galleria Shopping Centre

For their new exhibition, Toronto-based curators Aisle 4 invited nine artists to celebrate the Galleria Shopping Centre ahead of its impending transformation.

"It's for the Galleria first, and the general population second"

Galleria Main Entrance (Aisle 4)

A true relic within Toronto's ever-evolving landscape, the Galleria Shopping Centre stands at the corner of Dufferin and Dupont Streets much like it did when it was constructed as one of the city's first enclosed malls in 1972. But that will probably change soon. After being purchased by developers last August, the mall is potentially headed for some drastic changes. While the process is in the early stages, preliminary renderings suggest a highly modern mixed-use makeover.  Which won't simply alter the aesthetic of the Galleria's neighbourhood. The mall and the expansive lot it sits on has been acting as an informal gathering place for a variety of diverse communities for decades.

As a commemoratory action to this impending transformation, Aisle 4 — a collective of Toronto-based curators — invited nine artists to "respond to the Galleria Shopping Centre's current ecology, varied economies, and aesthetic eccentricities." The result is Gallery Galleria, an exhibition of socially engaged art projects that runs May 12-17 with an opening reception May 13 in the mall's centre court.

"We wanted to speak to the architecture but also the community hub that existed within it," Aisle 4's Patricia Ritacca — who herself grew up in the neighbourhood — said. "We thought that a lot of people must pass by the Galleria and not really know what it's about. They think of it as a derelict mall, a word that often comes up in media related to the Galleria. And yet, we were familiar with the space of the Galleria and we recognized that it's actually really thriving."

Galleria Entertainment (Aisle 4)

"It seems like everything about it shouldn't work but somehow it brings together all of these amazing, mixed communities," added Shannon Linde, another Aisle 4 curator. "Often when we come here, it's just bustling — even at odd hours of the day. It's an incredible ecosystem of people."

Linde, Ritacca and their co-organizers Emily Fitzpatrick and Renée van der Avoird actually conceived of the project back in 2014, well before the Galleria had been purchased. Their experiences over those two years essentially made them members of the Galleria community themselves.

Ritacca and her co-organizers would go play cards with the veterans at the mall's legion hall. They'd get their nails done at Elegance Salon, and have coffee at Happy Bakery & Pastry. 

"Even though the Galleria is a commercial space, what's incredible is that it's such a community hub," Ritacca said. "The elderly hang out and lot of the shop owners all know each other. They've been here for many, many years, some since the initial opening of the mall. And so part of our role as socially engaged curators is outreach. And it took about two years to really get to know the patrons and the tenants of this mall."

Oliver Husain, Galleria Cruise (production still), video, 2016 (Aisle 4)

"It's for the Galleria first, and the general population second," Linde said of the project. "We don't wan't people parachuting in and saying 'look at this funny mall' and then walking away and not thinking twice about it. It's more about the people here. There's going to be a very rapid shift in the neighbourhood and these people might not have the same home or social space offered for them."

Linde said the artists that they have been working with have been keeping the audience of the Galleria in mind.

"While the participating artists are very active in the contemporary art scene, and their works are rooted in conceptual practice, they are really thinking about people who would be in the mall and how they could engage with them in certain ways," she said. "Which is exciting."

The artists in the show include Golboo Amani and Marjan Verstappen, who each worked in collaboration with mall patrons, adopting different forms of commerce and distribution to "provoke public exchange and promote urban beautification."

Marjan Verstappen, Mall Walk, performance and photo installation, 2016 (Yuula Benivolksi)

Collaborative duo Sarah Beck and Shlomi Greenspan and Vancouver artist Roy Arden all aimed to "appropriate the representative aesthetic of the Galleria's displays," integrating their work within the mall's interior spaces.

To celebrate the site's architecture, Adrian Blackwell will have a sculptural work in the atrium that acts as a forum for public gathering, and which reflects the social atmosphere of the mall. 

Fraser McCallum sifted through Toronto's archives for public displays of appreciation for the shopping centre since its redevelopment was initially proposed.

And finally, "the sensory environments and ephemeral actions of the Galleria" will be altered, celebrated, and documented through two works: Oliver Husain's receptive video installation and Jessica Vallentin's "interior intervention." 

Collectively, the works are intended less as a criticism to what will become of the Galleria as a love letter to what it has been.

"Change is inevitable and this site has held on for much longer than a lot of people thought it would," said Linde. "And so it's not like 'development is all evil.' I think it's just the fact that it's a huge landmark that's very unique, and can resist what much of the rest of Toronto has become — very homogenous."

Gallery Galleria. With works by Golboo Amani, Roy Arden, Sarah Beck & Shlomi Greenspan, Adrian Blackwell, Oliver Husain, Fraser McCallum, Jessica Vallentin, and Marjan Verstappen. Curated by Aisle 4. May 12 to 17 at the Galleria Shopping Centre, 1245 Dupont Street, Toronto.