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Pop-up galleries help artists ‘do it yourself’

Walking through Centretown near Bank Street on a Saturday, you don’t normally find people huddled around paintings under a tent top. It’s rainy and mid-October, but that doesn’t discourage passersby from stopping to look at the art, displayed on wood pallets in an empty parking lot.

This one-day art-for-sale exhibition in an unconventional space represents part of a new movement—temporary “art galleries”—that has swept Ottawa and other cities in recent years. Such galleries are called pop-ups, and despite their impromptu nature, they seem to be here to stay.  Pop-up galleries have attracted artists from Toronto, Montreal, St. John’s and other Canadian cities who want to take sales into their own hands and show their work without help of traditional galleries. Often this is because galleries will take a cut of half the sales, and it’s not always easy for emerging artists to sign with a gallery at all.

Artist Cynthia Münster stands next to her paintings at the Support Local pop-up gallery, Oct. 18, 2014. [Photo ©Lesley LeRoux]

Artist Cynthia Münster displays her work for sale at the Support Local pop-up tent on Florence Street, October 2014. [Photo © Lesley LeRoux]

One artist featured in the October pop-up, organized by then-Somerset Ward candidate Martin Canning, says she was intimidated by the thought of bringing her work to a conventional gallery. As a photojournalist for iPolitics, Cynthia Münster says she paints more as a hobby and hasn’t displayed her work much. “I’ve always been kind of shy about it,” Münster says. “I’ve shown in cafés and in a tennis club, but I’ve never actually approached galleries because I figure you have to have a more consistent body of work.”

Münster got involved with the pop-up gallery through a former colleague who worked on Canning’s campaign. Although pop-ups typically are indoor spaces leased by the artists themselves, Canning and his team wanted to showcase local talent with a display right on the street. As part of local blog Apartment613’s “Support Local” month, they partnered with Antique Skate Shop to secure the empty parking lot next door for free.

“What we were hearing on the doorstep was a lot of people are expressing concern about opportunity within the artistic community to share their ideas, and also looking for a space to create,” Canning says. “There’s this particular niche of visual artists that contribute to the creativity and local aesthetic that needs to be celebrated.”

Democratizing the sale of art

Across the pond, London has been churning out pop-ups for several years now, with support from ventures like Pop Up Gallery, which launched in 2010 to help emerging artists find vacant spaces around the city to exhibit their work. According to Diane Cardwell in a 2009 report for The New York Times, New York City started to see more storefront pop-ups as the recession pushed commercial landlords to seek new ways to rent out unoccupied spaces. Eventually, Canadian artists like Bill Rose of St. John’s began to take advantage of this phenomenon. In 2012, after severing ties with the gallery that had represented him, Rose created the pop-up movement ARTocracy with the help of his agent, Peter Coombs. The name apparently refers to the democratization of opportunity for artists who seek to sell their work outside the gallery system.

“Selling the work is important, but so is promoting your work,” Rose says. “The last gallery I was with had 50 people they were representing, and I didn’t think that they really had enough staff to represent everybody properly.” With this in mind, Rose and his agent took representation on themselves and have hosted five ARTocracy pop-up galleries in a hotel in St. John’s, with another planned for May.

‘I would like to see more people do it. Get your stuff out there.’    – Ottawa artist Alison Fowler

As for Ottawa, pop-ups have been around for three years now. A group, Pop-Up Gallery Ottawa, was formed in 2012 and has been running events every December just before the holidays. It began when artists Katherine Jeans, Andrew King and Alison Fowler, being no longer represented by galleries, decided to plan an exhibition themselves. They held their first pop-up in an unoccupied house in Westboro.

Alison Fowler at her studio in front of one of her poppy paintings, “All That We Perceive,” which was up for sale at Pop-Up Gallery Ottawa. [Photo © Lesley LeRoux]

Alison Fowler, co-founder of Pop-Up Gallery Ottawa, at her studio with her poppy painting All That We Perceive. [Photo © Lesley LeRoux]

Fowler, a full-time artist with a studio in the area, explains the method to planning a pop-up. First, their group picks an area where they want to hold the event—typically around Wellington Street West, which draws a community of art buyers—and looks for unused indoor spaces. “I do find that people are very curious about, ‘Where are you going to go next?’” Fowler says. “So it’s almost like a little bit of a vibe that you’re creating, especially in the art world. You want people to keep guessing.”

The group targets locations that have been up for rent for a while and pitch the pop-up idea to the real estate agent at the last minute, a month before the event. Fowler calls this process a gamble, but says it’s the only way they can get a space for a few weeks at a decent price without signing a year-long lease.

This past December, Fowler, King and architectural landscape artist Eryn O’Neill held the pop-up in a street-level retail space on Richmond Road. Among the three artists, they sold 37 paintings—a result that Fowler says they were happy with. She says they were thrilled this time to find a building owner who gave them the space for free for two weeks. As a result, their only overhead costs were in buying refreshments and renting tables and glasses for the opening night. Typically, Fowler says, a space can cost several thousand dollars: last year, the artists spent $4,000 plus tax for one month for the Westboro retail space that now houses the Kardish health food store.

‘The time is right because of social media.’ – ARTocracy co-founder Bill Rose

While organizing a pop-up takes some negotiating savvy to secure a location (not to mention the initial hunt to find one), artists must swallow other costs traditional galleries take care of, such as food and drink for the opening reception. Fowler recommends that artists band together in a group of at least four to six, to divide the costs and attract a greater range of visitors if each artist has her/his own following. “I would love to see more people do it: like, get your stuff out there. The more exposure, the better. Just don’t be cheesy or cheap about it,” she says. “If you see a spot or space or anything, just ask. Even if it’s a restaurant or a clothing store or something, the worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no.”

Power to the people

Ward candidate Martin Canning (left, with volunteer Bailey Reid, centre) at the Support Local pop-up to showcase Ottawa talent. [Photo © Lesley LeRoux]

Rose and Fowler agree that social media sites like Twitter help get the word out, contributing to pop-ups’ success in recent years. “I think the time is right for it now because of social media,” Rose says. “I think there’s been a revolution, and it’s because of the digital age that we can promote our work every day on Facebook and constantly build a brand.”

These factors contribute to a culture that allows pop-up galleries to thrive, particularly in a pop-up’s first few days, when, Fowler says, most of the sales happen. Therefore, she maintains, even short-term pop-ups, like the one that ward candidate Canning arranged for the Saturday afternoon in October, hold potential to be of real help to emerging artists.

One volunteer with Canning that day, Bailey Reid, says pop-ups give people a chance to re-imagine public space. The otherwise vacant gravel lot that they used was made vibrant for four hours, attracting potential art buyers. “Today, for us to do this was really pretty easy, and there’s lots of spaces in Ottawa where pop-up stuff can happen,” Reid said amid the small crowd surrounding the pop-up tent. “I think pop-up anything is a cool opportunity.”