The Arty Semite

Toronto Jewish Arts Center Takes Up Trendy New Digs

By Michael Kaminer

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When the Koffler Centre of the Arts lost its North Toronto home five years ago, it made a virtue of necessity. Rather than replace its gallery space at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre — which closed to make room for a huge new complex — the Koffler launched an ambitious off-site program that took its smart, edgy programming into venues all over Toronto.

Now, the Koffler’s finally settling down, but in a very different milieu. After an intensive competitive process, the Koffler became one of 10 arts and culture organizations to win a space in Artscape Youngplace, a massive “community cultural hub” in a converted century-old former school in the happening West Queen West neighborhood.

“It’s an end to our nomadic period,” said Tony Hewer, the Koffler’s director of communications, and part of the small team leading the transition. “And it’s an incredible chance to get the Koffler brand to new audiences.”

The move downtown also represents a symbolic shift. While the Koffler continues to offer arts instruction at north Toronto’s Prosserman JCC, where audiences tend to favor more traditional programming, the heart of its artistic programs will beat downtown, where tastes tend to the eclectic. (The Koffler’s offsite exhibitions have included “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated.)

“Our programs will still have Jewish DNA,” Hewer said. “And our mandate won’t change. The Gallery has always had a focus on Canadian and international contemporary art of particular interest to the Jewish community.”

Curator Mona Filip agreed. Change of venue means “our context is going to be different, with a different immediate community to engage with,” she said. “The gallery will have same mission and vision as a cultural provider to the Jewish community in Toronto, and at same time, to create a bridge to broader multicultural community.” Filip and Hewer led the Forward on a preview tour on a recent Sunday. With the opening just a week away, plumbing fixtures had yet to be installed; the Koffler’s mod Scavolini office furniture was to arrive the following day.

The Koffler launched its bid for Artscape tenancy under Lori Starr, its former executive director, who left to lead San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum early this year. While a search continues for a new director, the Koffler’s now led by interim director Cathy Jonasson, whose Toronto firm StudioLab helped rebrand the gallery during Starr’s tenure. Board chair Tiana Koffler Boyman — whose parents founded the institution — and vice chair Jill Reitman are also spearheading the transition, Hewer said. The 2,500-square-foot space, designed by Toronto interiors firm Dekla, will house both the gallery and administrative offices.

The Koffler is the first organization “mandated to do work from a Jewish perspective” to win a spot in an Artscape building, according to Artscape president and CEO Tim Jones. For Artscape, which “makes space for creativity and transforms communities,” according to its mission statement, the Koffler’s offsite programs made it a good bet in competing for the Youngplace project, Jones told the Forward.

“Artscape Youngplace is a 100-year-old former public institution,” Jones told the Forward. “When we were developing a vision, it was important to everyone that the organizations and individuals that were part of this place would bring a dimension of public programming and public engagement. We looked for organizations that had a track record of doing it, and the Koffler was a natural fit. They had a need for space. They’d done great work throughout their history. And they’re now an anchor tenant for the whole project.”

Indeed, the Koffler Centre of the Arts gallery is the first thing visitors see when they walk through the imposing doors of the century-old school building, which underwent a $17 million renovation. The Koffler, and Artscape Youngplace, are preparing to open their doors on November 19 after private parties the night before.

“We’re in the Library,” the Koffler’s inaugural exhibition, will play off the gallery’s history as the school’s library, Filip said. Seven Toronto artists created work specifically for the show, including Jewish artists Barbara Astman and Ido Govrin, both Toronto-based. The Koffler is slated to open a blockbuster show by Tel Aviv-based artist Sigalit Landau, who represented Israel at the Venice Biennale, in January.


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