Unless you live in Toronto, it’s difficult to grasp the cultural, commercial, and Jewish significance of Honest Ed’s. Opened in 1948 by Ed Mirvish — the American-born son of Lithuanian immigrants — the 160,000-square-foot discount emporium has become a kind of landmark for its casino-like exterior, mind-numbing array of goods, and retail showmanship epitomized by trademark signs touting irrationally low prices.
For mid-20th-century Jewish immigrants who lived nearby, Honest Ed’s was a kind of beacon, melting pot and shopping destination rolled into one; for Asian, African, Caribbean, and other newcomers now, its role hasn’t changed. With that in mind, the Koffler Centre of the Arts — a Jewish arts institution whose mission is “to bring people together through arts and culture to create a more civil and global society” — invited six Canadian artists to mine Honest Ed’s history and identity through “interventions” throughout the store.
“Summer Special,” which opened this week, isn’t an explicitly Jewish show; in fact, only one of the artists, Sarah Lazarovic, is Jewish herself. “We like the fact that sometimes our exhibitions are about implicit or inferred Jewish content and we like our viewers to try to decipher and determine it for themselves,” said Lori Starr, the Koffler’s executive director and the vice president for culture at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The exhibit is the 13th in the Koffler’s series of off-site exhibitions, which has inserted sometimes-provocative art in venues as diverse as a condemned building, disused photo-processing hut, and an old synagogue. (Full disclosure: the Koffler presented my Forward-sponsored show, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Gladstone Hotel gallery in 2011.)
Koffler curator Mona Filip, who organized the exhibition — and spent weeks installing it among mystified Honest Ed’s shoppers — agreed with Starr. “I think of Honest Ed’s is a reflection of Toronto itself, as a meeting place, a point of convergence of diverse histories, experiences of immigration, and stories of establishing a new home in this country,” she told the Forward. “The exhibition also brings together the two intersecting histories of commercial sign-making and artistic exploration of signage, the two legacies of the Mirvishes as business and cultural entrepreneurs, notions of private and public exchange, and a diversity of voices and cultural backgrounds among the artists included.”
Those artists include Toronto’s Corinne Carlson, whose artisanal letterpress postcards share a rack with Honest Ed’s usual stock of four-for-99-cents Toronto souvenirs in Honest Ed’s electronics department. Barr Gilmore, another local artist, scrambles part of the store’s name into “The Son,” a huge round sign on the store’s back exterior wall covered in flashing lightbulbs that mimic Honest Ed’s riotous exterior. Robin Collyer, another local artist, hijacks one of the store’s Bloor Street display windows with nonsensical price tags bearing absurd, arbitrary dollar figures.
Lazarovic, for her part, enlisted Honest Ed’s own team of full-time sign-painters to repurpose crowd-sourced slogans about Toronto that she solicited on Twitter using the hashtag #TOmotto. Hanging from the first-floor ceiling, they’re almost indistinguishable from Honest Ed’s usual placards, whose messages include “Please, please do not open packages” and “MENSWEAR for the latest in FASHION!” in red and blue watercolor cursive.
Among Lazarovic’s 32 additions: “Home of the World’s Tallestish Freestanding Structure,” “New York Run by the Swiss Chalet,” and “Free 12-pack of Baby Raccoons with Every Visit.”
“We need more collective mottos, and these are spot-on,” Lazarovic told the Forward at the exhibit’s opening party, held next to the store’s second-floor unisex hair salon last week. “Usually my art has something Jewy in it, but not this time. Honest Ed’s is really a multicultural place. It’s crazy; you never find such an eclectic crowd anywhere.” Lazarovic added that while she was installing her work, “people kept asking me ‘Where’s the pants?’ ‘Where’s the tuna?’”
David Mirvish, the son of Honest Ed’s founder, entertainment entrepreneur, and Toronto powerhouse in his own right, attended the opening-night festivities. So did Russell Lazar, the store’s general manager since 1968. What would Ed Mirvish have thought of the Koffler’s “interventions,” the Forward asked Lazar? “Wouldn’t he love it? This would be for Ed,” said Lazar. “It’s wonderful to bring the art inside and outside the store.”