The Feminist Art Gallery fights back with fabric

The anti-gallery is everything the art world isn’t, namely non-discriminatory
Joanne Latimer
Feminist art gallery fights back with fabric
Ana Escobar

After they learned how to crochet from YouTube, Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue made four banners that read “We can’t compete,” “We won’t compete,” “We can’t keep up,” and “We won’t keep down.”

“You can do a lot with a crocheted Granny square,” deadpans Mitchell, artist and co-founder of the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), which is located in a 450-sq.-foot garage in Toronto’s west end. The banners were taped to the walls of London’s Tate Modern in May, after the gallery owners were invited to speak at a conference and host a workshop. The installation provided a caustic counterpoint to the slick Damien Hirst blockbuster next door. The point of the Feminist Art Gallery is to give voice to those who are underrepresented— feminists, queers and minorities—in mainstream art institutions.

Mitchell and Logue, an artist and the other FAG founder, were so ambivalent about the Tate invitation they decided to “share the power” and bring eight artists to their “Axe Grinding” workshop. That meant exposure for people like Toronto film and video artist Christina Zeidler. “Whatever brick we can throw through the back door to let people in, we want to throw it,” says Mitchell, who wants “to celebrate the place of discomfort associated with the feminist killjoy.”

For Zeidler, FAG is a grassroots success that has reinvigorated the arts scene. “They’re a breath of fresh air and a touchstone for the community,” she says. Helena Reckitt, who moderated a question-and-answer session with FAG at the Tate, says there is something funny and festive about the gallery, “even though they come from a place of complaint.” Reckitt, a former curator at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London, the same school Hirst attended 25 years ago.

The Feminist Art Gallery is an anti-gallery. Artists do not submit proposals, and Mitchell and Logue practise what they call “feral curating,” where they canvas friends and acquaintances for suggestions on artists to show. The art isn’t for sale, but artists receive a fee from private donations raised through its “matronage program.” Each show opens with a dinner party, cooked in their kitchen. Guests wear name tags with the name of another feminist or queer artist written below theirs. This homage is called “FAG-ging it forward.”

This is what bigger art institutions lack—they are not self-reflexive, says Art Gallery of Ontario assistant curator Georgiana Uhlyarik, a respected proponent of women’s art. They’re not as nimble as private galleries when it comes to collecting. Uhlyarik, who recently spearheaded the acquisition of a painting by abstract expressionist Alexandra Luke, says spaces like FAG are more necessary than ever now. “Things have gotten better for women artists, with more grants, more exhibits and more faculty posts,” she says. “But the same old sexist attitudes from the ’60s and ’70s are still prevalent.”

The Feminist Art Gallery weighs the risks and benefits of traditional markers of success, such as collaborations with mainstream galleries and even this magazine interview. In February, they put on An Audience of Enablers Cannot Fail with the Power Plant and the Art Gallery of York University, which, as “matrons,” paid for the screening and discussions of film and video from the British Cinenova collection selected by local activists, artists and curators. The mainstream galleries respected the community buy-in, and got some street cred out of the deal.

Mainstream and alternative art spaces can intersect and benefit from collaboration, says Erin Silver, an art history instructor at Concordia University. “I stay away from the ‘us versus them’ approach, because that polarization doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. A project like FAG is, in a sense, an artwork, an ideology, a political mission.”

As for the magazine interview, FAG decided to give it a whirl. “We visualized some tween who has experienced misogyny or homophobia reading this article in the dentist’s office when they go to get their braces tightened,” says Mitchell. “They could read it and see the potential for change and happiness. We’re using Maclean’s to FAG it forward.”