When David Liss moved his family to Toronto 10 years ago to take on the position of artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, it was a tiny no-budget gallery in North York. During his tenure at MOCCA, it has grown to be a significant cultural institution in the Toronto art scene. Under his direction the gallery has strengthened its board, solidified its staff and proven itself to be current and cutting in its exhibitions.
The current exhibition, Empire of Dreams, deals with issues of our artificial world - buildings, roads etc. - and asks probing questions about the nature of the man-made facades that have come to represent humanity's dominion over the natural world.
Liss likes asking big questions and through MOCCA he is getting, little by little, closer to the answers.
What is your day job?
I'm the artistic director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.
What neighbourhood do you live in?
The Junction! The Junction is the neighbourhood in Toronto. I am a walking ad for the Junction. What I like about it is its diversity; it has a cultural, social and economic mix of people. There are a lot of kids in the neighbourhood too. I've got young children, eight and ten years old, it's a fantastic neighbourhood to raise kids.
There's access to organic grocery stores and meat stores within walking distance, which is important to me. I'm very happy that I don't need to pile into a car and drive to a big box grocery store in order to do my shopping; it's still an affordable neighbourhood too, with a great community spirit and I'm still only 20 minutes away by bicycle. The Junction rules! The Junction is next level in Toronto.
How often does your job take you outside of the city?
Quite frequently, but I'm the artistic director as well as the curator and we have a very small staff so for me to get out from behind my desk into studios and galleries even in Toronto is a challenge.
I've been doing curatorial projects for the ARCOmadrid fair in Madrid for five years now. We've been doing a trip, three years in a row, to visit artist studios in Havana, Cuba. Next year I'm the curator of the Montreal biennial, so I've been going back and forth to Montreal quite a bit. So yeah, there's a lot of traveling involved.
Also, I have colleagues all over the world that I need to meet with to understand the issues and trends of the day. It is quite a challenge to stay on top of an always-shifting discourse from the local to the global. I find that to be the most exciting part of my job, but I also find it the most challenging - it's this constantly renewable resource that is the human imagination and it fascinates me. It's why I got into the game in the first place.
Do you have any travel tips?
Well, beer is a good thing to keep handy. But really, you know airline travel has gotten a lot more complicated and unpleasant over the last decade so patience, I suppose, is one thing to keep in mind and a sense of adventure - oh and healthy food, that's very important too, eat healthy food.
Aisle or window?
It depends on the length of the flight, for long flights: Aisle. It's a little easier to get up and walk around now and then. If the person sitting in the aisle falls asleep I always feel bad waking them up. I do love the view though, but of course I take the train a lot too. I love train travel, to and from Montreal and also in Europe too I take the train a lot. It's a much more relaxing way to get around.
Aside from friends and family, what do you miss about Toronto when you're away?
I don't know, I've got young kids so I do miss my family, but I'm never really gone long enough to miss anything really. And you know if you're in New York or London or Madrid for a week or 10 days, what's to miss? You've got to live in the moment. That's actually another good travel tip, don't get too bogged down with what's behind you, stay in the moment.
When you're away, do you see things in other cities you'd like to adopt here?
Always. Constantly. In the media and in the mainstream and even within the art community itself, I wonder if the city really appreciates the scope and the scale and the quality of work that's being produced here in Toronto. I don't see that celebrated or encouraged in the same way we do with our writers and our musicians and our filmmakers.
Why do you think that is?
Well, contemporary art exists outside of consumerism for the most part and for that reason, there are fewer resources to promote art. Within the media and the entertainment industry, it's very competitive and the media is very biased towards advertising. The day that contemporary art can advertise as much as the film and music industry is the day that contemporary art can be more widely covered in the media.
The thing is, in the music industry they're trying to sell CD's and concert tickets and in the film industry they're selling movie tickets, so you're trying to move larger numbers of units at a smaller price. In contemporary art, take Liam Crockard's piece Remedy Et Centera (pictured above), there's only one of them, and it costs a lot of money.
So contemporary art exist outside of the consumerist paradigm that is the mainstream. That's why I think here in Toronto, it gets under recognized.
Do other cities do a better job of respecting their artists?
Oh yeah, sure. If you go to Montreal, New York, London, Berlin, culture and contemporary art is a little more widely understood, celebrated and participated in. I think English Canada still runs a little behind the curve in terms of the value of culture and its relationship to our identity.
I think French Canada understands that a little more fundamentally than we do here. And I do think in Canada there are a lot of things we haven't woken up to--some of the cultural realities and cultural possibilities. The contemporary art industry, between 1995 and 2008, evolved into a multi-billion dollar global industry and that just blew past Canada like a freight train.
I mean, you have celebrity contemporary artists in Britain, and I don't necessarily advocate for that, but it shows a value society places on its artists. That actually plays out in society in positive ways, negative too, but certainly there are positives.
Is there a Toronto style?
Yeah, there is a Toronto style; it's called "global" or "inter-cultural."
The most incredible thing about the art world here is that it cannot be summed up in 30 words or less - it cannot be conveniently branded. On the other hand it makes it kind of hard to sell and position.
Where you have, for example, the Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism - that has really identified Vancouver in a convenient way that has helped the Vancouver arts scene, or at least those photoconceptualists, succeed. In Winnipeg there's Marcel Dzama and the Royal Art Lodge doing this kind of rural/comic/folk style, and Winnipeg has become quite well known for that.
Toronto is just so eclectic, I mean it has strong photoconceptualist and comic, folk-ish art as well, but the community in general is ahead of the curve in terms of inter-culturalism. I'd say its just one of the most diverse, eclectic, pluralistic and amazing art scenes of any city anywhere.