Propeller’s 25 Year History:
1996 – 2021

by Grace Sarabia

Propeller Gallery has a strong foundation in its community of members and long-time supporters. Since its conception in 1996, Propeller has moved locations twice without losing its artist-run focus. Propeller is proud to have put on roughly 540 exhibitions since its beginning.

Originally called Propeller Center for the Visual Arts, the group was founded by a group of students from the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University). Propeller provided these emerging artists with a place to discuss and exhibit their works, kick-starting their careers. The name came from a desire to ‘propel’ fellow artists forward. It was founded with the goal “to support innovative and ambitious artists of diverse media and approaches and giving them full curatorial control over their own exhibitions”. This goal was ensured by the fact that the newly founded Propeller Gallery was membership-based and owned as a partnership among artists. The Gallery came to fruition within Suite 303 of the Darling Building at 96 Spadina Avenue.

Five years after its formation, Propeller moved to 984 Queen Street West, positioning itself in the heart of Toronto’s art and culture scene. At this time, Queen West was beginning to become a hub for artists and galleries. This location put the gallery on the map of Toronto’s art scene and garnered some significant recognition for the community. Although the neighbourhood of “West Queen West” has changed over time, Propeller Gallery is one of the last remaining member-run exhibition spaces.

In 2015, Propeller moved to the Artscape Triangle Lofts building at 30 Abell Street, maintaining its venerable position in the Queen West Art District, creating another fulfilling partnership with the Toronto contemporary art scene.

The Gallery also programs several long-running exhibitions that repeat in new forms, evolving each year. Such examples are the Salon Show, the Black & White Ball, the Guest Curator Exhibition and the annual fundraiser Off The Wall or Off The Screen as it was renamed during the 2020 pandemic year.

Propeller’s foundational ethos of “Artists Empowering Artists’‘ has remained intact throughout Propeller’s 25 years of operation. Due to the pandemic, the OCADU 2020 grads were not able to hold their annual exhibition; Propeller stepped in to coordinate an online exhibition. These community roots are especially evident during Propeller’s annual emerging artists exhibition — in 2021, despite the ongoing COVID shut-down, and remaining true to Propeller Gallery’s young-artist origins, Propeller presented the online Emerging Artists: Sanitized Activity highlighting the work of six recent OCADU graduates. Additionally, Propeller has reached out to Toronto’s prolific artist-run culture to invite an annual guest-curated exhibition. These shows connect the gallery community to the wider contemporary art groups in Toronto. Curators like Rae Johnson and Napoleon Brousseau (2000), David Liss (2004), David Rokeby (2005), Gary Michael Dault (2007), Moses Znaimer (2009), Christopher Hume (2010), Barbara Astman (2016), Olga Korper & Taiga Lipson (2017), David Kaye (2018) and Jill Price (2019)  have widened the Propeller community by bringing in their own unique curatorial perspective. 

The Salon show, which has been running since 2007, brings together a variety of visual art forms in a salon-style exhibition. This exhibition, which is made up of work by Propeller members and their artist contacts, always begins with a well-attended opening night, again bringing a wide variety of individuals involved in the Toronto art scene together at Propeller.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Propeller Gallery has had to adapt and find new ways to maintain and support its community of artists empowering artists. This first and foremost meant shifting all exhibitions to a virtual format while government restrictions dictated that the Gallery remained closed. Propeller took this opportunity as a challenge and presented several exhibitions that took the current circumstances as artistic inspiration. For example, the 2021 exhibition, Mail Art: Unlimited Dada, allowed works to be sent in by mail from around the world, expanding the Propeller community beyond Toronto’s city limits.

In the past 25 years, Propeller Gallery has moved and expanded, but its focus remains true to its roots. Propeller is proudly artist-run and community membership-based, allowing artists to come together in a mutually supportive and encouraging space. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that the Propeller community exists beyond the physical gallery space and that the members are what has allowed the Gallery to thrive for the past 25 years.

Please visit our Living History project and our new and ongoing archive of 25 years of Propeller Exhibitions.

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