Christopher Régimbal Institutions of Regionalism: Artist Collectivism in London, Ontario, 1960–1990

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One Child

- James Reaney, Colours in the Dark, 1969 [1]

Writing in Art in America in 1969, Barry Lord called London, Ontario, “one of Canada’s four major art scenes,” declaring the city to be “younger than Montreal, livelier than Toronto, vying with Vancouver in variety and sheer quantity of output, … in many ways the most important of the four.” [2] From the 1960s through to the end of the 1980s, the unlikely city of London in southwestern Ontario drew the attention of the national and international art media for its energetic community of artists, filmmakers, novelists, poets, musicians, and activists who collectively became known as the London Regionalists, or more often and more simply, as the Regionalists. [3] Regionalism in London was the subject of articles in popular and art-specific magazines in the 1960s and 1970s and of a major touring exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada in 1966. Despite its name, Regionalism developed a profile of international significance when many artists from London began showing across Canada and around the world, including at the São Paolo Biennial in 1969 and 1987, [4] the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris in 1969, [5] and the Venice Biennale in 1972, 1976, 1978, and 1982. [6] As a testament to the influence of Regionalism in London, half of the artists represented in the contemporary Canadian art section when the National Gallery of Canada opened on Sussex Drive in 1988 had spent important parts of their careers working there. [7]

Scholars of art history and literature in Canada have often applied the idea of regionalism to the study of Canadian culture with the understanding that because of the vast size of the country, and the distances between its urban centres, artistic and literary movements have often fermented in relative isolation from one another. [8] In these cases, regionalism signifies the location of production, and often the relationship of that locality to centres of influence where the presentation, circulation, and reception of art takes place. More specifically, art historians such as J. Russell Harper, Charles Hill, and Dennis Reid have all used the term regionalism to describe Canadian painting in the 1930s and 1940s. [9] Harper, for example, discusses this era in the context of American regionalism, which itself developed as a refutation of European painting traditions in favour of American subjects and styles. Like their American counterparts, Canadian regionalists in the 1930s, such as Carl Schaefer and Charles Comfort, privileged scenes and subjects in their paintings that depicted the ordinary and local over the extraordinary, [10] articulating a relationship to a specific locality in the content of their work.

Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, Regionalism in London found similar expression in terms of artistic content and a local context, but it is difficult to discuss in consistent stylistic terms since the output of the movement was as varied as the personalities of its practitioners. What brought these artists together was, therefore, not a particular approach to art-making but instead a shared desire to produce work out of personal and local experiences. For Vancouver poet George Bowering, London Regionalism was the “performance of a social consciousness,” suggesting that its artists heard Toronto “speak of the Souwesto experience as regional and they cheerfully adopted the word, from inside their space, changing it from a mild insult to an affirmation of their cohesiveness.” [11] Such characterization situates Regionalism as a resistant response to the global phenomenon theorized by Australian art historian Terry Smith as the “provincialism problem”; that is, the perpetuation of an artificial centre-periphery relationship that reinforced New York’s hegemony over the rest of the art world. In his landmark 1974 article, Smith argued that provincialism binds non–New York artists within a cycle that dominates not only the reception of their work but the conditions of its actual production as well. [12] Being doubly provincial, not only vis-à-vis New York but Canada nationally, London artists embraced the provincialism that other art scenes within the country struggled against and assumed it as a practice.

One vital component of the ideology of Regionalism identified by Bowering was collectivism, about which he wrote: “I do remember the eager hubbub of those London, Ont. Regionalists, their homemade art galleries, ironic picnics, theatre workshops, their gladsome business. They gathered.” [13] In fact, London artists were among the earliest and most enthusiastic innovators of artist cooperatives in Canada due in part to the city’s small size, relative isolation, and conservative art establishment, which gave young artists few professional options to publish and exhibit their work at the start of the 1960s. In response to such limitations, a small group of London artists self-organized by founding three magazines (Alphabet, Region, and the Embassy Cultural House Tabloid), four cooperative galleries (Region Gallery, 20/20 Gallery, Forest City Gallery, and the Embassy Cultural House), a theatre workshop (the Alpha Centre), a pseudo-political party (the Nihilist Party of Canada), a film distribution cooperative (London Film Cooperative), and a national arts advocacy group (CARFAC), all within the thirty years covered by this essay. Significantly, London artists developed new cooperative structures around the ethos of Regionalism and in so doing gave form to a type of collectivism particular to London that artists across the country embraced and that contributed significantly to a reordering of the institutional landscape during the artist-run gallery movement of the 1970s in Canada.

Jumping off from Bowering’s idea of Regionalism as a performance of a social consciousness, this discussion explores the correlation between London’s artist cooperatives and the ideology of Regionalism to reveal how these two entities grew together out of local tactics to subvert provincialism into internationally significant movements. This assessment will consider the specific contributions of London artists to Canada’s larger artist-run movement, reflecting on how each artist brought Regionalism to bear on his or her own artwork and involvement in cooperatives. It will become apparent that in each case the artistic and bureaucratic roles of these artists coexisted to cultivate the Regionalist movement and influence the direction of modern artist collectivism in Canada.

A very locally coloured tree

In the first half of the 1960s, London’s cooperative galleries and publications were small and dedicated to decidedly local subject matter. The artists who administered them were young, and their limited means and boundless energy shaped the early direction of their institutions. Alphabet (1960–71), Region (1961–90), Region Gallery (1962–63), and Alpha Centre (1966–69) were where London artists first articulated the aims of Regionalism and put them into action. Analyzing the work and involvement of poet and playwright James Reaney and artist Greg Curnoe in these four organizations reveals an early version of Regionalism whose subscribers sought to use local materials and influences to produce art that transcended local significance—a transcendence they themselves called universality. In fact, the desire for universality was a primary concern of Reaney’s, who rejected the notion that Regionalism was parochial in a 1962 Alphabet editorial, which read: “I don’t believe that you can be world, or unprovincial or whatever, until you’ve sunk your claws into a very locally coloured tree trunk and scratched your way through to universality.” [14] Here, Reaney draws a deliberate association between the ideology of the Regionalist movement and a perceived need to surmount a provincialism trap.

The chosen platform for Reaney’s Regionalism was Alphabet, a semi-annual literary journal published between 1960 and 1971 from a small print shop in the Cities Heating building in downtown London. An early champion of poets such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Avison, Reaney published these then burgeoning writers in the journal, putting into practice an approach he articulated in its first editorial, writing, “Let us make a form out of this: documentary on one side and myth on the other: Life & Art. In this form we can put anything and the magnet we have set up will arrange it for us.” [15] For each installment of Alphabet, Reaney structured the issue around a guiding myth, such as Narcissus, Icarus, or Job, to which writers could respond creatively, as if inside Reaney’s magnet. For Bowering, Reaney’s editorial represented “the shortest and best definition of the regionalist’s art.” [16] Moreover, it launched his activities at Alphabet, and later the Alpha Centre, in practical terms while opening a way to reconcile his promotion of Regionalist myth and documentary with a desire to stimulate a corresponding social consciousness stretching beyond local concerns.

Building on his experiences with Alphabet_¸ Reaney founded the Alpha Centre in 1966 above a former legion hall on Talbot Street. There he ran the Listeners’ Theatre Workshop, which met regularly on Saturday mornings. Out of their improvisations, he wrote several plays including _The Donnellys trilogy (1975/1977), which told the story involving the mass murder of an Irish Catholic family by their neighbours in 1880 in Biddulph Township, eighteen miles northwest of London. [17] Reaney meticulously researched the details surrounding the murders and consequently developed a series of plays using a style that emulated the collective improvisations that took place at the Listeners’ Theatre Workshop. The Donnellys recounts the story of the eponymous family over their thirty-six years in Canada, ending with their gruesome murder, and presents the family as victims of systemic racism and violence who struggled to overcome a land ownership system that disadvantaged the immigrant farmers settling the region.

Reaney’s perspective on the folk story, well known in southwestern Ontario, varies from the usual telling of the “Black Donnellys” and casts the family in a struggle against the social oppression and irrationality of the institutions that dominated rural life. This perspective places his account within the Southern Ontario Gothic literary tradition, which often explores the hidden suffering beneath the outward dullness of rural life in the region. [18] His interest in myth drew him to explore the stories he would have heard growing up in southwestern Ontario while his interest in documentary compelled him to research those myths and present them in a historically informed way. Reaney’s Regionalism, outlined in the pages of Alphabet and put into action at the Alpha Centre, found its expression in the structure and story of the Donnellys. Despite Reaney’s anchoring of the story in local history and context, his telling of it is much greater in scope as a tale of human tragedy and community shame.

Like Reaney, Greg Curnoe’s early involvement with artists’ institutions explicitly charted the early doctrine of Regionalism in London and in his own practice. In fact, Curnoe is the artist most directly associated with the Regionalist movement. Upon returning to the city after failing out of the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in 1960, he became an early advocate of Regionalism. He co-founded the Nihilist Party of Canada, a pseudo-political group that organized annual picnics, and the legendary Canadian noise band the Nihilist Spasm Band, and was the driving force behind Region magazine and Region Gallery. Describing Region magazine as “chock full of items of interest from the forest city,” [19] Curnoe imagined the publication as a forum for London’s young artists and writers to publish experimental writing about local subjects, not always related to art. In its pages, for instance, painter Clark McDougall wrote about a reclusive St. Thomas-area farmer who had amassed a collection of empty Carnation Milk tins and fashioned them into a room-sized sculpture. [20] Through McDougall’s article, the work drew the attention of Pierre Théberge, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, who ultimately showed the assemblage at the Biennial of Native Art in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1969 as Canada’s official entry; the work won a prize at the festival and joined the National Gallery of Canada’s collection a year later. [21] Such idiosyncratic and regional cultural expressions were the kind Curnoe championed in the pages of Region, which offered a viable way for his work and publishing to valorize everyday life in the region.

Curnoe, along with Jack Chambers, Brian Dibb, Art Pratten, Larry Russell, Tony Urquhart, Bernice Vincent, and Don Vincent, founded Region Gallery on November 3, 1962, taking inspiration from Garret Gallery, a small cooperative run by OCA drawing and painting students in Toronto while he was a student there. Employing a DIY approach, Region Gallery’s members together sublet the front section of a framing shop at 521 Richmond Street, keeping the small gallery open during regular store hours. They applied to the Canada Council for the Arts for programming funds, but were unsuccessful as it did not support cooperative applications at the time. The gallery folded in late 1963 when the framing shop began keeping irregular hours, but despite its short life, the gallery created a space where young artists could experiment with forms of art-making unrecognized and unsupported by the city’s main public art gallery, the London Art Gallery (LAG). Not coincidentally, 1962 saw the first of two high-profile run-ins between Curnoe’s circle and the LAG. Led by Curnoe, many of the artists who established Region Gallery, as well as Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow, staged a happening that “wrecked” the LAG, as Wieland reportedly described it, making an enemy out of the gallery’s curator, Clare Bice. [22]

Opposition to the LAG was a driving factor behind the penchant for collective action in London in the 1960s. Region Gallery’s first exhibition featured work by its founding members, who were all in their twenties or early thirties and increasingly frustrated by the work celebrated in London’s official art circles, which Curnoe characterized as “completely smothered by out-of-date sophistication.” [23] It featured artwork along with objects collected by the artists, such as window frames, railway lights, and umbrella stands, that were meant to relate somehow to the idea of the region. A review in the London Free Press described the gallery as a “home [away] from home” where local artists can display “the things they are interested in and which may or may not appeal to people who visit public galleries.” [24] Thus, in response to the outmoded art scene sanctioned by the LAG, Region Gallery proposed a short-term and radical alternative, and set the stage for future collective experimentation in London.

While Reaney’s approach to Regionalism explored myths and what they meant to the local community, Curnoe’s approach, as seen in his writing and artwork over thirty years, involved mythologizing the local through anecdotes about life in London. For example, in a column he wrote for Region, Curnoe described going to various places in town with artist Brian Dibb to get vacuum cleaners and vacuum cleaner parts. “I now have 4 vacuum cleaners,” he wrote by way of a conclusion to the short piece. “The vacuum cleaners are called No. 1 Torrington electric vac, No. 2 Premier Duplex, No. 3 Beatty Storm Cleaner, No. 4 Royal.” [25] Daily observations such as these were often the subjects of his regular columns for another local publication entitled 20 Cents Magazine, many issues of which featured stream of consciousness reflections, whether on music as it aired on the radio, trips that he took, or reports detailing local events that he attended.

The matter-of-fact documentation of London in Curnoe’s writing for Region and 20 Cents Magazine is found in his artwork from the period as well. Early collages and stamp drawings were comprised of scraps of life from London—e.g., bus transfers, newspaper clippings, prescription cards, train tickets, and matchbooks—and took inspiration from the artist’s immediate surroundings, thoughts, and observations, including boys he knew growing up, words lingering in his mind, a walk through Victoria Park, or the distance from his studio to the post office. By the end of the 1960s, Curnoe began incorporating these details into large, all-text paintings such as 24 Hourly Notes (1966), a series of twenty-four panels onto which he recorded notes once an hour for a whole day. Some of the entries describe his interaction with friends, such as “Jim is here so is Dave, I called him John by mistake,” while others describe commonplace observations of a cold December day—“Sore ass, sirens, they’re at the Jack tar, now the fire trucks”—all in a dry tone resembling his Region articles.

In both his articles and artwork, Curnoe often took extra care to record the exact locations and the names of the people who inhabited his world, players in London’s cultural community, including other artists, members of the Nihilist Party and Nihilist Spasm Band, contributors to Region and 20 Cents Magazine, artists involved in Canadian Artists’ Representation, and board members of the Region and 20/20 Galleries, but also local residents and childhood friends. Curnoe was, therefore, not only an artist, but also a facilitator and social catalyst who brought people together and also inducted them, as critic Sarah Milroy would describe it, into “his pantheon of local heroes.” [26] Viewed and read over time, his artwork and writing created a vision of London through repeated references while Region and Region Gallery created a space where his vision of London could be performed. As such, Region and Region Gallery embodied more than just physical spaces where regionalist art could be disseminated. They were in fact social spaces where Regionalism could be willed into being.

A region of the mind

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, London’s cooperative organizations began looking to new audiences and communities, adopting more outward-looking mandates, while cracks began to appear in the idea of Regionalism as a closed system. Where Region Gallery and the Alpha Centre stubbornly clung to their local roots, the 20/20 Gallery (1966–70) and Canadian Artists’ Representation (1967–), offered platforms where London artists could participate in the national cultural arena. One of the precipitating factors for these expanded horizons was the exhibition The Heart of London (1966), curated by Pierre Théberge for the National Gallery of Canada, which featured the work of eleven London artists and travelled across the country, consequently solidifying London’s position on the national scene. [27] London artists began regularly being featured in the pages of artscanada and participating in exhibitions in Toronto and elsewhere in the country.

The 20/20 Gallery opened on the second floor of 68 1/2 King Street, around the corner from the Alpha Centre, and was helmed by a mix of working artists (Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Rae Davis, Murray Favro, and Tony Urquhart) and art supporters (John Davis, Geoffrey and Goldie Rans, Richard Shroyer, Ross Woodman, and Archie Young). In circumstances similar to those that led to the establishment of Region Gallery four years earlier, the foundation of 20/20 Gallery was preceded by a second high-profile run-in between London’s young, and increasingly influential, artists and Bice. In a show of contempt for the LAG curator, Curnoe, Favro, and Bernice Vincent removed their artwork from the gallery mid-exhibition after Bice barred a painting by John Boyle from the 27th Western Ontario Exhibition. The story played out in the local press and London’s young artists won popular support in the dispute. [28]

Positioning itself in direct opposition to the LAG, the 20/20 Gallery had a very specific mandate to showcase the work of London’s emerging artists, to present major solo shows by Canadian and international artists, and to support experimental works by local and non-local artists. [29] In a marked break from the precedent set at Region Gallery, 20/20 Gallery opened with an exhibition by a non-London artist—an exhibition of Michael Snow’s Walking Women paintings. Between 1966 and 1970, the gallery presented important solo exhibitions of local artists Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Paterson Ewen, and Robert Fones, as well as Canadian artists Serge Lemoine, Guido Molinari, and Joyce Wieland. Besides its commitment to support emerging and experimental artists through its exhibition program, 20/20 Gallery was the first gallery in Canada to pay artist fees and the first alternative gallery to receive funding from the Canada Council for the Arts—two significant milestones in the development of artist-run centres in Canada. [30] In this sense, 20/20 Gallery’s members sought to operate it as a professional space that could rival established public institutions in terms of its ability to receive legitimacy amongst artists working within Canada and elsewhere.

In stark contrast to Region Gallery, 20/20 Gallery’s members had larger ambitions for the geographic scale and artistic aims of their exhibitions as demonstrated by the presentation of Swinging London (1968) and a Bruce Nauman solo exhibition (1970). Organized by Tony Urquhart, Swinging London featured the work of twenty-four London-based artists and toured Ontario for two years, thus providing greater visibility to the exhibition’s artists within the larger region. Robert C. MacKenzie, editor of 20 Cents Magazine, observed that Swinging London was an attempt to demonstrate that the cooperative “could mount a show of its own artists without big-gallery initiative, and organize its circulation, and allow the exhibiting artists to be the only ones to benefit financially from its circulation.” [31] Nauman’s solo exhibition further illustrates the gallery members’ ambitions to look not merely inward but toward other contexts for art. Paradoxically, it was one of the only exhibitions at the gallery organized almost entirely by Curnoe himself, who was famously anti-American. [32] Indeed, only one month after Nauman’s exhibition at the 20/20 Gallery, Curnoe published a tongue-in-cheek nationalist manifesto entitled Amendment to Continental Refusal in the pages of 20 Cents Magazine. Statement #29 of that document reads: “All American art in Canada to be exhibited in a degenerate art exhibit & then to be auctioned off in the States.” [33]

This apparent contradiction between Curnoe’s anti-Americanism and his enthusiasm for working with Nauman suggests that his approach to American artists was more nuanced than his hyper-nationalist work at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s would suggest. Some insight into the provincialism trap that Curnoe was reacting against is helpful here for discussing the role that anti-Americanism played in his idea of Regionalism. The world of the provincial artist, Terry Smith argued, is “replete with tensions between two antithetical terms: a defiant urge to localism … and a reluctant recognition that the generative innovations in art, and the criteria for standards of quality, originality, interest, forcefulness, etc. are determined externally.” [34] Although Smith’s article was written in 1974, Curnoe expressed this anxiety concerning provincialism as early as 1966 in a short piece for Canadian Art magazine: “In the 60s the U.S. influence here is enormous,” he wrote. “After all, artists can only record and respond to what they are exposed to. That is why I live in London, Ontario. That is why [Michael] Snow and [Les] Levine have moved to New York. You either go to the source of the main influences or to the roots of your own experience.” [35] In this passage, Curnoe lays bare the correlation between the American cultural industry and his drive to Regionalism. In his mind, the provincial artist had only two tactics to resist the provincialism problem: to emulate the centre or to propose an alternative. Regionalism was his alternative.

Curnoe’s satirical drawing Ontario University Fine Art Teachers Manual © 1976 Global Teaching Aids, Des Moines, Iowa (1980) could very well be a literal illustration of Smith’s article. The drawing depicts the mind of an Ontario post-secondary student split between an international awareness fuelled by New York and other American cities and a provincialism fed by global art capitals such as Berlin, London, UK, and Paris. Curnoe portrays Toronto as a supplicant to New York’s internationalist hegemony while London and Ottawa appear to exert no influence on the mind of the student. The drawing illustrates Curnoe’s anxiety about American influence on Canadian art consciousness and sheds light on the fine balance that the 20/20 Gallery artists strived to maintain between local, regional, national, and international content. Swinging London and Bruce Nauman’s exhibition signalled a desire to be nationally and even internationally relevant without being part of a global art system that privileged international styles over local expressions.

Writer Ross Woodman addresses the nature of this balance and argues that London’s production in the 1960s was no more regional in its outlook than the work being produced in New York, writing: “the expansion of [New York’s] regionalism into an international style can no more be attributed to intrinsic aesthetic values than the U.S. presence in Viet Nam can be attributed to intrinsic moral values.” [36] The assumption was not that their regional experience was superior to any other, but that London artists should not subvert their local production to international trends that did not reflect their own experiences. In the same article, Woodman addresses the effect of provincialism on Regionalism in psychological terms: “Regionalism in London is essentially a region of the mind. … It subordinates geographical or historical origins to psychic origins, and thus both establishes and communicates a ground free of the fakery of the colonial scrim.” [37] Curnoe’s nationalist work rejects the soft colonialism of the American culture industry while recognizing it as part of the regional story. The 20/20 Gallery’s programming belied the national ambitions of its members who wished to connect their regionalist art to a broader audience while simultaneously having this art seen as equal to movements already recognized internationally.

Don Vincent, 1966
Young London Exhibition at 20/20 Gallery in London, Ontario.
L to R Bernice Vincent, Sheila Curnoe (standing), unknown artist kneeling w. striped shirt, Greg Curnoe (rear), Owen Curnoe in stroller, Charles Vincent sitting on floor.
Collection Don Vincent Photographic Archives, McIntosh Gallery, Western University, London Canada. Gift of Bernice Vincent, 2009

Painter and filmmaker Jack Chambers, who, along with Curnoe, was instrumental in the Region Gallery and the 20/20 Gallery, sought to apply the innovations of those two institutions to the national stage, specifically in the realm of fair pay for artists. In 1967, the year after the 20/20 Gallery opened and began paying exhibition fees to artists, Chambers received a request from the National Gallery of Canada to reproduce an image of one of his paintings. The request offered no payment and implied that they did not actually need his permission for the project. Chambers replied in a letter, copied to other participating artists, demanding fair payment for the reproduction of their work. [38] The debacle ultimately led to the development of Canadian Artists’ Representation (CAR), a national advocacy group for artists that is today known by its bilingual name, Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens. Chambers, Kim Ondaatje, and Tony Urquhart formed the first CAR executive, and, in 1971, the first CAR national conference took place in Winnipeg, where Chambers was elected president. Four years later, CAR successfully negotiated for payment of artists’ exhibition fees in all public museums and art galleries in Canada, an innovation established at the 20/20 Gallery that evolved into the national standard and set an international precedent. [39]

The expansion of London’s early 1960s collectivist ideology into a historic national campaign corresponds to Chambers’s approach to Regionalism, which used local subject matter to work through ideas and styles that he was exposed to in Europe and the United States. Owing perhaps to his time spent studying painting in Spain in the late 1950s, he was much more open to outside influences and did not share Curnoe’s anti-American position, travelling often in the United States before his death in 1978. Chambers’s late-career work, which he called Perceptual Realism, [40] was a reaction to American photorealist painting infused with the classicism of his European influences and distilled through intimate documentary-like depictions of his personal life. [41] Almost all of his paintings from this era were created from photographic and film documents, and his objective was to explore the universal phenomenology of perception. His rooting in documentary was a way to investigate the experiences of perception and his focus on a regional subject matter was a means to this end.

Chambers’s subject matter was domestic and deeply personal. His wife and children were often the central focus in his work, such as in Sunday Morning No. 2 (1968–70), but he also turned his attention to London, famously in 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968–69) and Victoria Hospital (1969–70). His family was perhaps never more intimately portrayed than in his 1970 film The Hart of London, which includes long scenes with his wife and two sons. Influenced by the pioneering American filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s childbirth films, including Window Water Baby Moving (1958), Chambers wove a childbirth scene together with newsreel footage and scenes he shot of London into a 79-minute meditation on death and rebirth. Brakhage would later call The Hart of London “one of the greatest films ever made.” [42] While the city of London and Chambers’s family are central to this work, his capacity to use local and personal stories to explore the structures of avant-garde film and American and European painting flies in the face of the kind of Regionalism espoused in the pages of Alphabet and Region, but nevertheless demonstrates that, by the end of the decade, the ideas that had fermented in the city in the 1960s were engaging with broader discourses in contemporary art.

The shifting geographies of Regionalism

By the 1970s, a new generation began making art and exhibiting in London, and new cooperative institutions evolved to reflect the changing community. For instance, Montreal-based painter Patterson Ewen moved to London in 1968 and completely reimagined his style. Young artists such as Robert Fones, Becky Singleton, Sandra Semchuk, Spring Hurlbut, and Wyn Gelyense began experimenting with conceptualism, filmmaking, installation, and sculpture in new and interesting ways. Ron Benner and Jamelie Hassan, two artists raised in London, travelled extensively throughout the Americas and the Middle East and continually brought global, social, and political discourses back to the city as new frames of reference for London’s artists. Two cooperative galleries, the Forest City Gallery (1973–) and the Embassy Cultural House (1983–90), emerged as venues for the next generation of artists who successfully sought new funding available to artist-run centres. More than any of the London cooperatives before, the Forest City Gallery and the Embassy Cultural House looked to global rather than North American subjects and artists in order to participate in a wider conversation about art. The Regionalism of the previous generation, as a distinctive approach based in local experiences, began to apply less to the work produced by the succeeding generation and to the direction cooperative institutions were taking in their exhibition programs. Still, as the city’s artists and cooperatives opened up to global experiences, the ideology of Regionalism continued as an undercurrent in work that often explored how global political issues affected a distinctly local social consciousness.

After the 20/20 Gallery closed in 1970, London was without an alternative gallery to the LAG until 1973, leaving a gap in the community. In the meantime, some artists organized makeshift, one-off exhibitions including The Warehouse Show, a cooperative sculpture exhibition held in June 1970, [43] and a week-long solo exhibition by Curnoe, who was by then an established artist, in a rented hotel room in February 1972. [44] Dave Gordon and Jamelie Hassan ran a small independent gallery in the front of a downtown bookstore in 1973, but found that the owner exerted too much control over their programs. After their dispute with the bookstore owner, Gordon and Hassan approached Bob Bozak, Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, kerry ferris, Robert Fones, Ron Martin, and Raymond Sedge to open the Forest City Gallery in a rented space at 432 Richmond Street. [45] Taking advantage of the new Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council support for parallel galleries, the collective’s members exhibited the work of many local and Canadian artists throughout the 1970s, and, in 1980 and 1984, they instigated exchanges with galleries in Mexico and Cuba, with Hassan initiating the 1980 exchange after meeting Gildo Gonzalez of the Agora-Fonopas Gallery in Merida, Mexico. To save on costs, all the pieces included in the exhibition were works on paper, and no more were sent than could be carried by a single person on a commercial flight. Ultimately, ten local artists sent work to Mexico and seven artists from the Yucatan sent their work to London in exchange. [46] Like Swinging London in 1968, London/Merida Exchange demonstrated that the community could produce an exhibition of its own artists, without the support of a museum, and promote local culture to new audiences on its own terms.

By reaching out to other peripheral centres, the members of the Forest City Gallery signalled a new direction in which transnational dialogues eschewed traditional art centres in favour of other regional experiences. In her correspondence with Gonzalez, Hassan outlines why she felt the exchange was important for the Forest City Gallery, writing: “We as an artist directed centre are concerned with the expression of art within our region as well as those areas such as yourselves, whose priorities are the stimulation of protection of culture within a certain geography.” [47] The framework for international dialogue that Hassan set up in the London/Merida Exchange carries through the rest of her career as an artist and as a facilitator, and represents a significant expansion of London’s deep-rooted Regionalist ideology to include a global exchange of ideas as part of the regional ethos.

In Beyrouth … is war art? (1980), an installation that Hassan executed at the Forest City Gallery the same year as London/Merida Exchange, the artist destroyed the back wall of the gallery in a simulation of a rocket attack and juxtaposed this violent intervention with photographs of actual rocket attacks in Lebanon. In discussing this work critic Dot Tuer writes, “The disjuncture between the place Hassan speaks from and a sense of being shaped by her travels to her parents’ homeland produces an ethical imperative to speak to the experience of war and repression as part of, and not distinct from, a Canadian context.” [48] Destroying part of the gallery that she helped to create physically connected Hassan’s life in London to her parents’ homeland in the Middle East. For Hassan, however, London is part of a global world and not separate from political violence even if it takes place halfway around the globe.

This desire to connect London to global political issues led Benner and Hassan to later resign from the Forest City Gallery, frustrated by an unwillingness of the artist-board to support programs that responded to politically pertinent issues at home and abroad. [49] In response, Benner and Hassan, along with musician Eric Stach, in 1983 founded the Embassy Cultural House (ECH), which became the meeting place for London’s post-1960s generation of artists. The idea for the gallery came from Hassan’s sister, who owned and operated the Embassy Hotel, a tavern on Dundas Street in the city’s east end, when she proposed the idea of operating it out of what was the ground-floor restaurant of the hotel. The artists of the ECH did not apply for operating funds, preferring the flexibility of producing projects through project grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council instead. Programming at the ECH reimagined and put into practice Regionalism by opening it up to global influence, situating London within the broader social and political world, as Hassan had begun earlier at the Forest City Gallery.

The Embassy Hotel was unlike contemporary artistic hotel projects such as the Drake or Gladstone hotels in Toronto. [50] For instance, unlike the clientele of the Drake and Gladstone, about 60 percent of the residents of the forty-room, $65-a-week Embassy Hotel were on welfare, fixed incomes, or in other financially marginal circumstances and living there on a full-time basis. Instead of facilitating gentrification, the ECH helped the neighbourhood resist it with ECH artists often working as advocates for the disenfranchised communities in the area by participating in a coalition of residents to protect heritage sites and prevent crippling development. The cooperative’s exhibitions and programs often examined how the global political concerns of the 1980s related to this economically depressed part of the city and its denizens. Speaking at the Dia Foundation in 1989, Hassan described their approach to programming as involving “an in-depth analysis … of critical concerns relevant to our specific neighbourhood and city, as well as to the national and international contexts.” [51] This critical focus on local concerns was manifest in several multi-part projects including a series of site-specific installations in the rooms of many of the hotel’s residents, a major exhibition and publication on the topic of the emergent HIV/AIDS crisis, and projects that highlighted work of Aboriginal artists and artists of colour. The ECH closed in 1990 after the relationship between the artists and hotel management became strained and Benner and Hassan resigned from the board.

Owing to far-reaching travel and global political causes, Benner and Hassan introduced new ideas of collectivism and forms of alternative institutions to London. Along with these changing institutions came new ways of making global art and politics relevant to local experiences, a reversal of the stated goals of Regionalism at the start of the 1960s. Even with these broadening horizons, the work produced in these institutions and by these artists never ceased to relate back to a local social consciousness. Regionalism’s recognition of the primacy of local experience had transformed through Benner and Hassan into a form of social practice concerned with the realities of life in London. Exchanges with South and Central America plugged these realities into a global exchange of ideas that rejected the United States’ hegemony in culture and politics. The Forest City Gallery and the Embassy Cultural House both enabled local artists to bring new conversations into the life of the community. And from those new conversations, new local cultural expressions emerged.

Regionalism, provincialism, and internationalism

The story of London’s collective organizations is part of a moment in Canadian art that saw the establishment of a cross-country system of artist-run centres and galleries, a history that is eloquently outlined in AA Bronson’s wide-ranging study From Sea to Shining Sea. [52] Bronson describes a scene in Canada at the end of the 1960s where museums and magazines were openly hostile to the work of young artists. “Knowing the impossibility of an art scene without real museums (the Art Gallery of Ontario was not a real museum for us),” he wrote in 1983, “we laboured to structure … artist-run galleries, artists’ video, and artist-run magazines. And that allowed us to allow ourselves to see ourselves as an art scene.” [53] The reordering of Canada’s cultural ecology in the 1970s was a grassroots phenomenon that took place across the nation as artists came up against rigid institutional structures that could not adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the visual arts. The unique brand of collectivism that developed in London in the 1960s predated that history by a decade and contributed to the national development of artist-run centres in two measurable ways. First, London collectives established a relationship with the Canada Council for the Arts that would set the model for how the first generation of artist-run centres in Canada were funded, and second, London artists introduced the idea of exhibition fees and fought to have them instituted across the country.

Similarly, London’s Regionalist movement evolved as part of a wide range of regional movements in Canada. In the 1960s artists in cities like Vancouver, Halifax, and Regina began contributing to a national conversation that had previously been dominated by Montreal and Toronto. Unlike regional movements in these other cities, Regionalism in London did not have a unifying aesthetic form; instead, London’s experimental artists pursued a wide range of styles and subjects. Distinguishing itself from an earlier American and Canadian regionalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Regionalism in London was less focused on simply representing local subjects than it was on creating new forms from the foundation of local experience. London artists embraced provincialism as a way of subverting its power, but that in itself does not make a movement. As curator Philip Monk writes, “Internationalism is a regionalism that people pay attention to.” [54] What made London’s Regionalist movement a regionalism that people paid attention to is that London artists went beyond simply embracing their provincialism and explored how their own imposed marginalization positioned them in an increasingly connected world. Their cooperatives gave them the means to do so.

This essay has outlined how London’s collective organizations were integral to the shaping of an ideology of Regionalism in the work of several of its artists across generations. It reveals how these artists set up cooperatives as incubators to foster ideas of Regionalism and how these institutions acted as social spaces where the community could perform itself. The structures of collectives in London evolved alongside the ever-changing ideology of Regionalism as new artists became involved and more interest began focusing on the community. As the ideas of Regionalism began reaching wider audiences at the end of the 1960s, London’s collectives influenced the direction of artist cooperatives in Canada, helping to shape the parallel system of galleries in the 1970s. In this way, these two unique and interrelated manifestations of local culture in London in the 1960s grew together to influence the national conversation.

Through their work and through their cooperative institutions, London artists willed their community into being; they created an image of themselves and transformed that image into reality. This process is what George Bowering was referring to when he called Regionalism a performance of a social consciousness. London’s collective institutions and publications were more than just meeting places that enabled this local movement to flourish; in a movement defined, as I’ve argued, by community involvement, they became transformative spaces. The discussion of Regionalism in London is therefore enriched when we consider the way that collectivism brought these aesthetically individual artists together to shape and be shaped by the priorities of the movement. This generative process is the most remarkable contribution of the London Regionalists to the Canadian and international history of artist institutions explored in these two volumes.


  • 1. James Reaney, Colours in the Dark (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1969), 90.
  • 2. Barry Lord, “What London, Ontario, Has that Everywhere Else Needs,” Art in America, September/October 1969, 103.
  • 3. Robert McKaskell, Regionalism in London: Art in the 60s, exhibition brochure (London: McIntosh Gallery, 1983).
  • 4. Greg Curnoe in 1969 (with Robert Murray and Iain Baxter) and Wyn Geleynse in 1987.
  • 5. The Nihilist Spasm Band played a series of concerts in Paris in October 1969, including three during the opening of the Sixième Biennale des Jeunes and one at the Galerie de France. The following week they performed two concerts at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, UK. See Pierre Théberge, “Confessions of a Nihilist Spasm Band Addict,” artscanada, December 1969, 67–68.
  • 6. Walter Redinger in 1972 (with Gershon Iskowitz); Greg Curnoe in 1976; Ron Martin in 1978 (with Henry Saxe); and Paterson Ewen in 1982.
  • 7. Mary Malone, “Portraits of Three Artists,” London Magazine, November 1988, 46.
  • 8. A recent and significant example of this type of scholarship can be found in Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada, 1965–1980, an exhibition and publication that explores conceptualism in Canada by focusing on regional manifestations in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, London, Montreal, and Halifax. See Grant Arnold and Karen Henry, eds., Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada, 1965–1980 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery; Edmonton: Art Gallery of Alberta; Toronto: Justina M. Barnicke Gallery; Montreal: Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery; Halifax: Halifax INK, 2012).
  • 9. A discussion of how regionalism is applied by these three authors can be found in Virginia Nixon, “The Concept of ‘Regionalism’ in Canadian Art History,” Journal of Canadian Art History/Annales d’histoire de l’art Canadien 10, no. 1 (1987), 30–40.
  • 10. J. Russell Harper discusses Carl Schaefer and Charles Comfort’s work in his chapter “Regionalism in the 1930s” in Painting in Canada: A History, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 304–13.
  • 11. George Bowering, “Reaney’s Region,” in Approaches to the Work of James Reaney, ed. Stan Dragland (Toronto: ECW Press, 1983), 3.
  • 12. Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem” Artforum, September 1974, 54–59. Reprinted in the Journal of Art Historiography no. 4 (June 2011).
  • 13. Emphasis in the original. Bowering, “Reaney’s Region,” 13.
  • 14. James Reaney, “Editorial,” Alphabet 4 (June 1962), 3.
  • 15. James Reaney, “Editorial,” Alphabet 1 (Sept 1960), 3.
  • 16. Bowering, “Reaney’s Region,” 6.
  • 17. The three plays that make up The Donnellys trilogy are Sticks & Stones (1975), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1976), and Handcuffs (1977). James Reaney, The Donnellys (Vancouver: Porcepic Books, 1983).
  • 18. William Toye, ed., “Southern Ontario Gothic,” in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 455–56.
  • 19. Greg Curnoe, “Editorial,” Region 8 (c. 1964–65).
  • 20. Clark McDougall, “Dan Patterson’s Carnation Milk Tins,” Region 5 (February 1963).
  • 21. County of Elgin Women’s Institutes Tweedsmuir Histories Archive.
  • 22. Nancy Geddes Poole, The Art of London (London, ON: Blackpool Press, 1984), 131.
  • 23. Greg Curnoe, letter to Helen Hodgson, c. March 1963. Greg Curnoe Fonds, Art Gallery of Ontario.
  • 24. Lenore Crawford, “Artists Find a ‘Home from Home’ At London’s Latest Art Gallery,” London Free Press, January 19, 1963.
  • 25. Greg Curnoe, “Saturday 4:00,” Region 4 (c. 1963–64).
  • 26. Sarah Milroy, “Greg Curnoe: Time Machines,” in Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff, eds. Dennis Reid and Matthew Teitelbaum (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001), 46.
  • 27. Participating artists in The Heart of London were John Boyle, Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, Bev Kelly, Ron Martin, David Rabinowitch, Royden Rabinowitch, Walter Redinger, Tony Urquhart, and Ed Zelenack. See Pierre Théberge, The Heart of London, exhibition catalogue (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1966).
  • 28. See “Three Artists Intend to Withdraw Exhibits in Gallery Dispute,” London Free Press, May 10, 1966, and “Three Artists Quit Show,” Toronto Daily Star, May 11, 1966.
  • 29. 20/20 Gallery press release, April 27, 1970. 20/20 Gallery Fonds, London Public Library.
  • 30. Greg Curnoe, “Five Co-op Galleries in Toronto and London from 1957 to 1992” (paper presented at an unknown conference, Montreal, October 1992). Transcript from Greg Curnoe’s artist file at the London Public Library.
  • 31. Robert C. McKenzie, “20/20 Gallery Closes,” 20 Cents Magazine, September 1970.
  • 32. The “Correspondence” file in the Greg Curnoe Fonds at the Art Gallery of Ontario contains several letters and postcards between Curnoe and Nauman from 1969 and 1970 outlining the coordination of the exhibition.
  • 33. Greg Curnoe, “Amendment to Continental Refusal,” 20 Cents Magazine, April 1970.
  • 34. Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” 3.
  • 35. Greg Curnoe, as part of “Ten Artists in Search of Canadian Art,” Canadian Art, January 1966, 64.
  • 36. Ross Woodman, “London (Ont.): A new regionalism,” artscanada, August/September 1967.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Poole, The Art of London, 143.
  • 39. “CARFAC History,” Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens, accessed January 7, 2012,
  • 40. Jack Chambers, “Perceptual Realism,” artscanada, October 1969, 7–13.
  • 41. Mark A. Cheetham, “Past the 401: The International Classicism of Jack Chambers,” in Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place, and Light, ed. Dennis Reid (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2011), 130–31.
  • 42. Stan Brakhage, “The Hart of London: A Document of the City,” in The Films of Jack Chambers, ed. Kathryn Elder (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 123.
  • 43. The exhibition featured sculptures by Don Bonham, Bob Bozak, Michael Durham, David Gordon, Robin Hobbs, Terry Hughes, Steve Parzybok, and Jeff Rubinoff. See Stephen Joy, “The Warehouse Show, June 1970” in artscanada, August 1970, 63.
  • 44. Victor Coleman, “Knowing the Surface,” artscanada, February/March 1972, 71–72.
  • 45. The story of the founding of the Forest City Gallery is told by Bernice Vincent in Bernice Vincent, “Bernice Vincent on the Origins of the Forest City Gallery,” in Forest City Gallery 1973–1993, 20th Anniversary Issue (London, ON: Forest City Gallery, 1993), 12–16.
  • 46. The participating London artists were Ron Benner, Greg Curnoe, Christopher Dewdney, Lise Downe, kerry ferris, Jim Gillies, Jamelie Hassan, Sam Krizan, George Lagrady, and Bogdan Zarski.
  • 47. Jamelie Hassan, letter to Mr. Gildo Gonzalez, April 3, 1980. Forest City Gallery Fonds, McIntosh Gallery, University of Western Ontario.
  • 48. Dot Tuer, “At the Far Edge of Home,” in Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words (London: Museum London; Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2009), 22.
  • 49. In a 1993 interview Hassan stated, “I felt that the kind of political/activist work that I was doing—and wanting to see more support for it in the Forest City Gallery—that there was not a particularly good reception to that kind of work and that any kind of programming that had been done at the Forest City Gallery, throughout the seventies, around these issues had been brought in mostly by myself and Ron Benner.” See Jamelie Hassan, “Interview with Jamelie Hassan,” interview by uncredited interviewer, November 25, 1993, transcript, Embassy Cultural House Fonds, London Public Library.
  • 50. In 2010 I published an article in Fuse Magazine about the Embassy Cultural House. See Christopher Régimbal, “A Fire at the Embassy Hotel,” Fuse Magazine, Summer 2010, 12–15.
  • 51. Jamelie Hassan, “Planning: Power, Politics, People,” Dia Art Foundation discussion, in If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism. A Project by Martha Rosler, ed. Brian Wallis (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), 247.
  • 52. AA Bronson, From Sea to Shinning Sea (Toronto: Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 1987).
  • 53. AA Bronson, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists,” in Museums by Artists, eds. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983), 30.
  • 54. Philip Monk, “Five Questions of Regionalism,” Open Letter, series 11, no. 5 (Summer 2002).
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