I posed this question to myself and the universe at large recently, and here are some things I have come up with!
1. Research coop galleries in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal and apply for membership to galleries on the resulting list.
Coop galleries are a good way to get exhibitions and your work in front of people independently of the commercial gallery market.
While commercial galleries can be a good thing, I struggle with them on a couple of fronts: I have not had any good responses from them to date, and I also find that the work they show tends to be totally poisoned by the need to be The Next Hot Thing, which in turn is dictated by the need to sell. While I wish to have my professionalism and the caliber of my work recognized and paid for, I am not in the business of making wallpaper and I refuse to be anything less than authentic in the images I make. The way I understand and approach art seems to be at odds with the world of hipsters and being-seen people. I deal in matters of the soul, they sell art the same way they sell jeans.
Coop galleries are a great antidote to anyone at violent odds with commercial galleries, and they work thusly: you apply, and if the selection committee likes your stuff, or at least doesn’t hate it, you pay a monthly membership, may do some volunteer work, and get to participate in group shows and have a solo show once in a blue-ish moon. I like the idea. The members split expenses and get to run the show instead of kissing curator ass. I am terrible at kissing ass, and I like to run the show.
2. Research publically funded art festivals and fairs where self-representing artists can participate, and apply to the ones on the resulting list.
I already know of two excellent shows in Toronto, the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition and the Queen West Art Crawl. TOAE draws literally thousands of people. QWAC draws hundreds. All those folks come very hungry for art, appreciate the hell out of it, and buy it. At my booth during QWAC, I received the most gratifying thing an artist can have, and that is people tearing up in front of the artwork. I am not kidding. People responded so strongly and put so much mental energy and heart into engaging with the work that even if I never get a single line of print reviews or a single commercial gallery show, I have still done what I wanted to do as an artist and truly reached people.
So, the answer to my question is in part “do what has already worked wonders” and that is, participate in art festivals and fairs. Incidentally, I have sold work every time I have done so, at the price I wanted, and paid 0% commissions on the sale.
3. Write an exhibition proposal and submit it to artist-run centres in every Canadian province.
Artist-run centres are not quite the same beast as coop galleries – the centre administrators don’t exhibit there, if I understand correctly, they simply curate. So basically, artist-run centres are actually curator-run centres, but are not commercial in purpose and usually publically funded. The nice thing about those is that they often pay the artists to show there, as opposed to the artist paying to be shown. (A nice reversal, that! Imagine if actors had to pay to be in a movie or a play, or athletes paid out of their own pocket to compete at elite sports events – the fact that it works this way in the artworld is a thing that is Wrong and Should Not Be).
The less nice thing about artist-run centres is that they consider viewers coming from something as plebeian as the general public beneath their notice. They are designed to impress other curators, which means that everyone is knee-deep in art matter that cannot be understood without an accompanying essay, which must be no thinner than 3 inches and must use no fewer than five of each of the following terms: “strategy”, “interrogation”, “anthropomorphic”, “codifying” and “to critique”. When you mention things like “soul” and “emotion” and “heart”, these folks put a bag over your head and duct-tape a bell to your hand so that people can flee from you whenever they hear you approach.
It’s still worth trying, simply because they have to come up with something year-round, and have spaces that must be filled. I’ll just have to run my proposal through the artspeak generator until I can no longer understand it myself.
4. Complete an art portfolio website that doesn’t have to scrounge for space from my design portfolio site. Enable an ecommerce function while I am at it.
5. Compile a list of public galleries and submit the exhibition proposal to them as well.
Public galleries are yet a third type of beast. They are regional art and cultural centres, library galleries, local museums that exhibit contemporary work and so forth. They are funded by tax dollars as opposed to grants, and have both a higher visibility to the public than artist-run centres (every opening I went to at an artist-run centre was attended only and strictly by other artists, and was depressing), and also higher accountability, because if utter bullshit is on display, someone is likely to complain.
Well. I have some work to do, don’t I?