Where have all the Ossington galleries gone?
The short answer? Dundas West. Ossington Avenue still has all the right ingredients to be considered one of Toronto's hippest hoods, with great restaurants, shopping and even a little real-estate-related brouhaha that helps to keep neighbourhood talk lively and interesting. But the effect of all of this Ossington retail brawn and booze is rising rents, which tend to force galleries off Ossington once their leases are up. Of course.
A number of years ago, however, the area was ripe for gallery development. Still arguably in the up-and-coming phase, Ossington was a trendy alternative to rising rents on West Queen West with spaces that afforded actual room to showcase various types of exhibitions. For new galleries, it was a win-win.
And then, there were some who got in way ahead of the curve. AWOL Gallery is just one such example, laying its roots on Ossington Avenue over ten years ago. "There was nothing when we first came here," recalls AWOL co-founder Sandra Tarantino. "For us, affordability was the main thing. At that time, there were a lot of karaoke bars; it wasn't the trendy area it is now with restaurants and shops."
Said trendiness, naturally, drives up rent. And for many galleries, such as MKG127, which recently migrated up to Dundas West, the rising rent proves too much of a financial burden. "Basically, we were forced to leave; the landlord wouldn't renew our lease," says gallery director Michael Klein. "He wanted to open a bar or something."
MKG127 landed on Ossington back in 2007, a time when, according to Michael, the street offered a "weird mix of residential and commercial." He estimates at least half of the businesses operating on the street weren't there when MKG127 moved in. "Once the street got a bit of a reputation," he says, "people jumped on the bandwagon."
For some galleries, however, the financial pressure of setting up shop in an up-and-coming area is all part of a calculated risk. Gallery TPW is a unique sort of example, operating originally at 80 Spadina for 20 years before moving to Ossington in 2007, and more recently, to Dundas West.
"We just about doubled our operating costs when we moved from Spadina to Ossington," says TPW executive direction Gary Hall. "But we wanted to be more visible, and Ossington certainly achieved that." Gary says the long-range vision for the gallery has always been to establish its own building, a goal that he expects to meet in about two years.
"Our lease expired here, and our landlord wanted a significant increase — it was already more than we could afford. So we moved to a smaller space here [on Dundas] to save money on rent." Gallery TPW hopes to finally move into its own space on Queen West between Lisgar and Abell streets following condo construction on the block.
The effect of this slow migration on Ossington galleries still operating on the block remains unclear, but Angell Gallery manager Joey Chiu doesn't seem too perturbed. "It's a very close community, and I think it still will be despite some galleries leaving," she says. "It has been beneficial that so many of us have been so close together," she adds.
"Often, if someone comes in, we'll recommend they check out a certain exhibit at another gallery nearby." I ask Joey if the idea that Dundas West might be the next gallery "destination" offers any enticement to relocate. "Not really," she replies confidently. "If the rent gets too expensive, that would probably be our only incentive to move." Wait for it?