Couple plan gallery space to help Indigenous street artists get better prices for their work
'I've lived on the streets and . . . I think art actually saved my life,' says gallery co-founder
After seeing a lot of Indigenous artists in Toronto sell their artwork on the street for much less than what it's worth, a couple plan to open a gallery to feature those artists.
Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, who is Anishinaabe from Wikwemikong, Ont., and her partner Nanook Gordon, who is Inuvialuk from Inuvik, N.W.T., have been raising funds to open Native Arts Society, an art gallery and studio space.
"We're going to offer them a lump sum of money to come and feature their art, which is a huge deal for somebody who's living on the street or underhoused or incarcerated," said Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Gordon founded Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, an initiative that focuses on helping people living in encampments, those struggling with substance use and people who have barriers to accessing social services.
It was through their volunteer work with TIHR that Gordon asked a group of Indigenous people who were living on the street if they wanted to create art.
"We both have our own experiences, like struggling with substance use, struggling with our own traumas, we're both intergenerational [residential school] survivors," said Olson-Pitawanakwat.
"I've lived on the streets and, you know, I think art actually saved my life."
They went out and bought supplies and the idea was popular enough that they decided to turn the idea into a regular activity.
"Everyone enjoyed it and we started doing it weekly," said Gordon.
Since then, they have become a broker for many of the artists who are creating work.
The couple said they don't plan on applying for government funds or grants because they fear that it will affect their ability to control decision-making.
Instead, they are crowdsourcing funds to pay for the space, selling merchandise and getting art donations from artists like Christi Belcourt to raise money.
"I really, really love this idea," said Belcourt, who is Métis.
"It's a space that recognizes the artist's existing and established skills and talents. It provides them a space as artists to build community. It provides income and a safe space to create and be inspired by other artists."
While the space for the gallery and studio is currently under renovation, Olson-Pitawanakwat and Gordon hope to open it in October.