Intrepid gallerist Jessica Bradley has brought contemporary art to the sports-bar wilds of Dundas West and Dufferin. With her new outpost, she sets her sights farther north.
Running an art gallery in Toronto can be a difficult, risky proposition, akin perhaps to breeding show dogs or owning a restaurant dedicated to Flemish cuisine. Soon, however, Jessica Bradley will be running two.
Bradley’s the former curator of contemporary art at the AGO, where she worked for nine years; she was at the National Gallery in Ottawa for eight years before that. In 2005, she opened a storefront gallery near the corner of Dundas West and Dufferin, a sleepy area once known only for its surplus of Portuguese men’s clubs. In short order, Bradley amassed a roster of young, acclaimed Canadian artists, including the painter and sculptor Shary Boyle, the Berlin-based multimedia experimentalists Hadley+Maxwell, and Derek Sullivan, who had his first Power Plant solo show last fall (full disclosure: he’s my brother-in-law). If she had any aesthetic mandate, it was diversity, and her shows have shuttled between the whimsical, the conceptual, and the hilariously strange.
Over time, the ’hood acquired a certain chic patina as well. With condos metastasizing along Queen West and Ossington, and commercial rents skyrocketing, it’s become even more desirable. Two other prominent art venues relocated to the strip last summer, and Clint Roenisch Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, both now on Queen West, are rumoured to be contemplating the same move. “Dundas finally came to me,” Bradley says brightly.
This week, she opens a second gallery in the even more far-flung interzone of Carleton Village, a working-class district serviced by an erratic bus route. Currently, the area’s most visible resident is the Stop Community Food Centre. Bradley won’t be shuttering her Dundas gallery any time soon, but the new 2,700-square-foot space—dubbed the “Annex”—is much larger and better equipped to display ambitiously scaled sculptural work. Its first show, which opens Oct. 26, will feature works by Daniel Barrow (renowned for his bittersweet live animations) and the Toronto-born, New York-based sculptor and painter Julia Dault, among others.
On an overcast day in mid-September, Bradley drives me from Dundas to the Annex, which is located at 74 Miller St., part of a short stretch of industrial buildings sandwiched between Old Weston Road and Davenport. Bradley, who’s 64, is swathed in a camel-coloured wrap, and wears a starchitect’s round, tortoiseshell glasses. With her white-gold hair, silver ballet flats, and a fondness for large brooches, she sometimes glitters like a walking, talking jewellery box. Some of Bradley’s artists describe her as a den mother, but she can be affectionately brusque. “I hate dealing with contractors,” she says, walking through the dusty space, a former furniture refinishing workshop. “On this, I am the contractor.”
Bradley wasn’t necessarily looking to expand her empire. “My vision was always something intimate,” she says. “But it felt like the right moment in the development of the gallery. The artists would benefit, and you develop with your artists.” In the last few years, they’ve developed dramatically. One member of her stable has won the Sobey Art Award, while several others have appeared on the shortlist. And Shary Boyle might be the city’s most beloved artist at the moment: A selection of her delicate porcelain figures is now on display at the new Louis Vuitton store in Yorkville, and she’ll represent Canada at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Boyle’s been with Bradley since the original gallery opened, and was drawn by her curatorial and international background. “For me, it’s never been as much about collecting as about connecting—with institutions, artists, and writers—outside the local,” Boyle says. “Plus, Jessica’s really into shoes.” What makes Bradley exceptional as a gallerist is her appetite for risk and curiosity about new work, something she attributes to her previous life as a curator. “You have to be ahead of what everyone’s seeing,” she says, “and you have to be persuasive.”
Back at her office, Bradley lights a scented candle and tears open a bar of Belgian chocolate. “I’m weirdly evangelistic about contemporary art,” she says. “And there’s lots of excitement around it in this city. But we don’t market ourselves well enough.” She brings her hands together as if in prayer and interlaces her fingers. Each finger represents a component of the community—artists, collectors, curators, and critics—separate, but perfectly meshed. “That’s a healthy art scene,” she says. Then she shows me what Toronto looks like: her hands become twisted, barely linked claws.
Given such a fragmentary scene, Bradley’s real-estate decisions seem even shrewder. Because she’d rather her money not go into someone else’s investment, she’s made a point of buying her buildings outright. (She paid somewhere in the mid-$300,000s for her Dundas space, getting an equity loan against her house. Miller Street didn’t cost much more.) Asked if she thinks the Annex will have the same gentrifying effect her first gallery did, or whether the consequences of that gentrification concern her, she shrugs. “It’s the way of the world,” she says. “Artists are the pioneers.” When we were in her car, she paused just south of Davenport and pointed to a pair of recently renovated, cheerfully painted row houses on the block—an illustration of the neighbourhood’s already shifting demographic. “There’s still nowhere to get coffee,” she said. “But it’ll happen.”
Jessica Bradley Annex opens on Oct. 26. 74 Miller St., 416-537-3125, jessicabradleyinc.com.