Review: David Kaye Gallery

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Studio Magazine

April 2006 – December 2018
1092 Queen Street West, Toronto

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David Kaye Gallery, Tery Pellettier display in front window.

At the end of 2018, the David Kaye Gallery in Toronto closed. This closing will have a direct and significant impact on Canadian contemporary craft. There are other galleries showing craft, but showing, promoting and selling fine craft presents a distinct challenge, requiring specific skills and understanding. Contemporary craft is not a subset of art; in exhibiting it, craft cannot be treated as just a type of sculpture. Good craft gallerists understand this – and there are few of them. To present craft well and to do so in a commercial setting such that collectors and general viewers can appreciate the work takes a rare talent. There are good and excellent commercial galleries in Canada, but the David Kaye Gallery was unique.

So this closure must be acknowledged and understood. There is an immediate impact in Toronto and Southern Ontario but the ramifications and implications are far broader. The closing is a national loss not only because the David Kaye Gallery represented artists from across Canada, but also because of the manner in which the gallery presented a type of artistic output that needs a very special type of support. What David Kaye made evident is that, given this support, Canadian craft can make profound impacts on all material culture. The resplendent contributions of well-created craft can alter the cultural identity of all our communities and make the most of our world.

In preparing this article, I talked to many people about the David Kaye Gallery but I was fortunate to have extra time with six people in particular; it is from these six that I quote directly, though their comments should be understood as representing a whole community. Where it isn’t clear whose comments I’m quoting, in order to not disturb the flow or intimacy of the remark, I have put a mark to identify the speaker: [B] for Betty Ann Jordan, [D] for Diana Reitberger, [L] for Léopold Foulem, [M] for Melanie Egan, [R] for Raphael Yu, and [S] for Susan Warner Keene. I should also note that I have used first names not because I can claim close acquaintance with all the people included here, but because of the deeply personal tone of all the conversations I had. David Kaye’s gallery and David Kaye himself evoked the very best of the creative personality. I wish to convey and celebrate that spirit.

From April 2006, the David Kaye Gallery operated out of its single location at Dovercourt and Queen Streets in Toronto. The gallery showed a wide range of media – ceramic, jewellery, textiles, photography, printmaking, painting and glass. But there were no disciplinary boundaries, and this novel fluidity was one of the hallmarks of the gallery and one of the defining elements that made it a crucial light in Canadian culture – this is only one reason the gallery will be so sorely missed. The gallery was about 1,000 square feet with three areas: the East Gallery and the West Gallery where exhibitions happened with the Alcove Gallery in between where a variety of work was shown.

The gallery and its unique vision ran for twelve years, but the history is larger. Though the gallery and owner should be thought of separately, the story of the gallery is, of course, also the story of David Kaye himself.

David Kaye is a textile artist. It’s important to remember this before and after everything else since it informs so much of what defined his gallery. After initial training at the Ontario College of Art (1972) and the University of Guelph (1978), David earned an MFA from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art (1980). He then worked with important Swedish textile artist Helena Hernmarck and then with celebrated Canadian textile artist Micheline Beauchemin in Montreal. Susan Warner Keene was a book editor at the time but was just becoming aware of textiles. Susan had seen David’s early work at the Ontario Craft Guild on Prince Arthur Avenue – around 1974 – and was in awe: “I thought, if I could do anything nearly as good as that…well, I have to go to the Ontario College of Art.” It was not until her scholarship show a few years later that Susan actually met David – “this quiet young man, who had made a point of coming to see the work.” By this time David was developing his eye and his interest in sharing the work of other artists: “It surprised him to find himself working with the idea of presenting work.”[S] Betty Ann Jordan sees David’s own textiles interest in this growth into gallery work: “He displayed a warp-and-weft-type sensibility, curating many artists from disparate backgrounds, working with widely varying materials, into an integrated whole.”

By 1984 David was working with Suzann Greenaway at her fabled Prime Gallery. “Suzann and David were a great team.”[S] Prime was the maker’s gallery in Canada at a time when craft was a suppressed footnote in artistic culture. Suzann and Prime advanced the perceptions of anyone with sincere interest in real creativity. “Prime set the standard. They really tried to teach people about quality and about new work.”[S] Ceramics collector Diana Reitberger is the perfect example. She collects what she likes but she discovered this love almost by accident when, out for a stroll, she saw Suzann hanging her sign for Prime Gallery. “I was actually looking for bookshops, to be honest.” This turned into an ongoing passion. Raphael Yu, whose collecting style is much more strategic, also met David at Prime: “The quality of the work and artists, as selected, were the elements that drew me to collecting in the first place.”

David left Prime when the gallery was sold and went to work at Bau-Xi fine art gallery in Toronto for a while “but he missed working with tactility, with material – he wanted to show work that had that other aspect.”[S] Again, Betty Ann Jordan emphasizes David’s “deep commitment to the haptic pleasures of material-based creation. The sense of touch foregrounded in his artists’ work…Touch as a way of knowing.” When Prime changed hands, collectors like Diana lost interest. But they soon found it again when they found the new David Kaye Gallery in April 2006.

Vase sculptural 1668, Léopold L. Foulem, Céramique, 2014, H. : 30,0 cm; l. : 22,0 cm; P. : 15,5 cm

This was the cloud-parting moment for material arts lovers and makers. Now collectors knew where to go, artists knew where they wanted their work to go, and the general public – whether they knew it or not – had the opportunity to discover the overwhelming power of craft.

From the beginning, the gallery had a clear intention: “He was always showing brand new work. Some wasn’t easy – it wasn’t toned down because it was a commercial gallery…It was an important gallery.”[M] This honest embracing of the potential complexity of making came with a refusal to either condescend on the one hand or apologize on the other. Viewers were introduced to work as directly from the artist as possible. At the same time, David understood that you can’t just bash people over the head with complex art, especially when there’s a business to run. Melanie Egan puts it bluntly: “It’s hard running a commercial gallery: you have to hustle.” David understood this balance implicitly. He had great jewellery, for example: “people would come to buy a birthday present or something and then see amazing shows. He was always excited when people – artists and clients – were pushing out into new things.”[S] Melanie’s example was that David would “show Bruce Cochrane’s more sculptural (and expensive) work but then also his mugs.” Through all of this David was “able to balance pressing commercial needs with long-term relationships with artists and collectors.”[M]

So, if interdisciplinarity was the first marker of the David Kaye Gallery, sincerity was the second. For the collector, this is crucial: “The most important thing is that we have a really good rapport. I find it easy to talk to him. We talk about art but also about anything and everything. It’s rewarding and so much more than a commercial transaction.”[R] But the gallery’s sincere relationship with the artists was paramount, even for the collectors. Diana recalls David’s eye for how to present the artists: “He would always get what the artist was trying to express. He really was a curator of the highest degree.” All the artists I spoke to shared this feeling; they all spoke of David’s clear and firm understanding of their intentions and how to best represent them. Collectors and artists alike repeated that he made the work look so good (better, sometimes, than the artists thought it could). “He spoiled us” was a regular comment. Léopold Foulem, for example, spoke of David’s professionalism and the sense of collaboration he brought: “His unwavering dedication and personal involvement with his artists were extraordinary.” Susan summarized all of this so aptly: “The gallery was his creative project. Every show was an installation.”

Certainly the David Kaye Gallery was for Canada’s greatest established craft artists, but it was also a place of development. “He not only had heavy hitters but also more accessible and developing work.”[M] David’s eye was of course exceptional. Nurturing talent and helping artists who were still finding their way was part of his commitment to the community and the culture as a whole. A third marker of the David Kaye Gallery was belief in the bigger picture. “He really cares,” said Raphael, “not only for the artists but also about the arts community as a whole. We would talk about the specific merits of the object or artist but we would also talk about the contributions to the community and the practice.” Léopold spoke in terms of David’s promotion of craft as art, along with “an incomparable and dedicated knowledge,” and that it went so much further, engaging the whole community. The gallery played a significant role in Canadian culture. Betty Ann, who has spent her career as a guide into Toronto and Canada’s cultural scene, said that whenever she has needed to introduce international journalists to the Canadian craft scene she’d “just take them round the David Kaye Gallery.” Betty Ann knew that the gallery was the essential representation of the best Canadian work: “He was always in the gallery and would graciously open his doors the many times I would knock before opening hours.”[B] David also knew how to bring people in – he always had representatives of institutional collections in the gallery, again developing the community presence and identity of craft in Canada and beyond.

David worked with deep integrity and commitment to his profession (running a gallery is, after all, not a get-rich-quick endeavor), and this spilled into extensive volunteering and engagement. He was engaged with all sorts of other ventures, all part of developing the community and culture of creative work. For example, David sat on the board of the Toronto Outdoor Exhibition for many years and dramatically improved the quality of the craft work shown there. For ten years he ran the Textile Museum’s annual Shadow Box fundraiser and made it the amazing venture it became.

Steven Heinemann, Radarlove, 2017. Slip-cast earthenware, 99 l X 33 w X 8.9 d cm.

Still, it was all rooted in the artists. “He really wanted artists to develop – to give them space. He was always excited for the artists.”[S] Some artists would ask for advice; some would (and could) challenge his comments. But he knew how to sincerely connect with their ambitions and abilities – “he was wholly interested.”[L] Other galleries might prod more, expect more work or have opinions about avenues for artistic development (especially in the commercial direction). But David trusted the artists. That is not to say that he didn’t know how to say “I think it’s time to have a show.” David’s personality is such that he knew how to provide the right pressure at the right time. This is a case study in supporting the individual and the community.

The same went for collectors. Diana is a busy person and so she might easily miss a show in her too-busy calendar. But occasionally “David would call and say ‘you have to see this’. If he called it was because it was important.” The call was prompted by David’s sincere love of sharing the work, not just as a sales call.

These are the traits of a good and successful gallerist – along with all the other essentials that go into running such a challenging enterprise. I heard often of his good eye, his problem-solving eye. And then there was the rigorous attention to detail – it was a personal, invested interest in the details at every level. When he was running the Shadow Box fundraiser, for example, he would be meticulous in commissioning the boxes (ensuring that they were well made and that the price fit the fundraising needs). “Though the hanging wire would be precut, if you showed up (late) with your work and the wire wasn’t done quite right, he would redo it – even if no one would really notice.”[S] The collectors also invoked this attention to detail. Raphael gave the example of David’s invoices which would contain all the extensive details of the object and the artist. This may sound minor, but elements like these not only make for good record-keeping but they also show collectors the level of care and investment the gallerist has in the work. Such are the details at the core of the much broader belief in community – after all, it was the same collector who also said of his relationship with David: “We’re building something together…and I didn’t realize it until he announced his retirement.”[R]

When I asked about David sharing the news of his closing, I repeatedly heard: “I burst into tears”, and then: “I miss him”. So a fourth, though probably not final, marker of the David Kaye Gallery, was personality. Some of the people I spoke to have known David closely for more than 40 years; others have known him only professionally or distantly. All of them spoke of him as a friend. The relationships were all personal and caring: his manner as a gallerist was not gregarious or loud. “He’s quite a reticent person. Gallery people are sometimes big personalities and they make their personality part of it.”[S] But David, though profoundly and personally invested in every aspect, didn’t let his personality imprint onto the gallery, the exhibitions or the artists – it was all about facilitating the individuals he represented. “He has a dry sense of humour and a laconic temperament, but whenever he was speaking about the art in the gallery he would light up – the passionate advocate – transcending his natural reticence.”[B] This is the balance and wisdom of a true gallerist’s personality – powerful, sincere, but light and diaphanous.

Léopold Foulem described the closure as “catastrophic”. Melanie called it “a huge void”. “Because it was devoted to contemporary craft and art it’s a huge gap…and there’s no one in the wings.”[M] “The fact that he’s retiring means that many important good artists have lost their venue and right now there is no credible gallery like David’s.”[R] “He was the conduit for this kind of work. My selfish thought was, ‘Now where am I going to get this kind of work?’.”[D]

The gallery was a personal place for many people – certainly for all the people I spoke to. “It was almost like a community centre.”[R] I heard a lot about the interactions the gallery facilitated – between artists, between artistic media, between artists and collectors – and about the exhibitions themselves: “David’s openings were wonderful. They were a real gathering place for artists of different disciplines. He encouraged that interdisciplinarity. The closing is a sad loss of that potential for connection.”[S]

Susan Warner Keene, Visible Hemispheres #9, 2016. Handmade paper (abaca, cotton rag, linen thread, abaca fibres), 72.4 l x 72.4 w x 3.8 d cm. Photo by: PETER NEWMAN

Susan Warner Keene, Visible Hemispheres #4, 2016. Handmade paper (abaca, abaca fibres), 63.5 l x 63.5 w x 5 d cm. Photo by: PETER NEWMAN

There are a variety of reasons – some public and obvious, others private – for David Kaye closing his gallery. It is definitely not only about money, but running a business, especially in a market like Toronto’s Queen West, has financial challenges. Raphael is a community-minded collector whose self-interest in the work echoes out, like David’s, into a deep appreciation of the need for broad cultural support. Raphael sees that this means money, and that there are people like himself interested in the community: “I would want to hear from someone interested in taking on a challenge like this.”

Others I talked to mused that there might be a way to reshape how private/commercial galleries operate – informed perhaps on the one hand by public institutions and on the other by the European gallery model or the restaurant model in which investors and sponsors one-step removed from the presentation of the work underwrite specifics costs. This presents a significant challenge compared to the charity/non-profit model as being without tax benefits and with the possibility of only commercially breaking even. But, for collectors and others, such financial support morphs into taking part in something important and pleasurable that is also of direct benefit to their own collections and experiences in their communities. How this might work or what the future holds awaits another gallerist and another day.

For now we look out at what has been and reflect on the values of David Kaye, the artist and his gallery. A commercial gallery connects cultural works with a buying public. The better the work, the better the gallery. But to be a truly great gallery, the work cannot just be sold – it has to be communicated, expressed, shared. The unique galleries are the ones that do this with sincerity and personality, but then also share something important with the whole community – beyond those who are able to buy. The David Kaye Gallery combined these traits with a passionate belief in media arts that transcended any disciplinary labels. All of these ideas might be codified and the lessons might serve as a mission for a future successful fine craft gallery. But such a list would only go so far: the gallery was David Kaye’s gallery and that additional, defining ingredient lies behind a veil. David’s own presence cannot be duplicated.

When I told David I was writing this article, he looked at me with a genuine wince and said, “Oh I really wish you wouldn’t.”

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Studio Magazine

Leopold Kowolik

Leopold Kowolik is an instructor in the Craft and Design program at Sheridan College (since 2012). He has degrees in history and art history from the University of Chicago and the University of Edinburgh and is currently pursuing his PhD at York University in Toronto. Leopold has written extensively on craft and material culture and its theoretical and political underpinnings and has worked in public and private galleries in the US, UK and Canada. Leopold has sat on national, local and amateur art juries as well as serving as an external MFA examiner. Leopold was the Editor in Chief of Studio Magazine from 2011-2019.