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The Art of Survival: 25 Years of Resilience

By Lisa Johnson, AOCA, Painter and Propeller member since 2007

Propeller’s Resilient Roots

Late 1990s early Propeller Members

Most young artists launching their careers immediately face an endurance test of survival. The 1996 cohort of Ontario College of Art (OCA) graduates were no exception. Facing an uncertain future, and with no galleries willing to exhibit their work, an enterprising group of OCA grads took matters into their own hands.

Pooling their resources, they rented space on Spadina Avenue and organized a one-off group show. A wildly enthusiastic response from the visiting crowds convinced the artists to make their collective official. They called it the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts founded on a simple vision; to empower artists to ‘propel’ fellow artists forward.

Today, it is known simply as Propeller Art Gallery and is now located in the West Queen West district in Toronto. After almost 25 years, Propeller continues to thrive and remains one of Toronto’s oldest surviving artist-run galleries.

Ross Bonfanti, one of the founders shared, “I feel happy that something that I helped spark is still going and is in the hands of great people”.

2019 Off The Wall Fundraiser Panoramic View

Over the years, Propeller Art Gallery, has presented an impressive list of exhibitions:  guest-curated shows by the likes of Olga KorperDavid Kay, Gary Michael Dault and Moses Znaimer, alternating with countless artist-generated programs and exhibits. Propeller continues to offer a venue for hundreds of emerging, mid-career and established artists alike providing an artistic haven for a wide variety of voices. 

Resilience During the Global Pandemic 2020

Since March, however, the bitter realities of the COVID 19 pandemic forced Propeller to close its doors temporarily, threatening the very survival of the gallery itself.  No stranger to adversity, Propeller decided to embrace the challenge and dive head-first into the uncharted world of Virtual Art Exhibitions.

For their first venture, the gallery went full circle to its own past, and collaborated with the Ontario College of Art and Design University. With the cancellation of OCAD U’s famous, annual GradEx exhibition, Propeller offered to host a 2020 Drawing & Painting Virtual GradEx105. The small Propeller staff and volunteer members faced the daunting task of learning how to take what used to be hung on walls and bring it all to life online. But it was all worth it.

“After 4 years of study, these OCAD U students count on having GradEx as a way to launch their careers, so this opportunity was a big boost to them” said Tom Taylor, Gallery Director. “It was really rewarding to see all these young up and coming artists joining in the Zoom Opening, excited to be sharing their art.”

Helping these young artists launch their careers speaks to the heart of Propeller and why it is worth fighting for. But it also proved a point; that despite the current challenges, Propeller could continue to survive. 

And now Propeller is about to launch another online show featuring its own artists, both past and present:  PAG25 — Celebrating 25 years of Propeller Artists. The gallery reached out to the numerous artists who were ever a member of the collective and offered them a virtual showing of their current work. PAG25 will feature over 175 pieces and opens online on July 25th, 2020. PAG25 will also bring to life some fascinating stories from the gallery’s archival history that will evolve over the coming year. And, as many galleries must do these days, the show opening will be held online over Zoom and should prove to be a fun gathering for the many artists who’ve shared in this important artistic venture.  Propeller’s motto is “Artists Empowering Artists” and with the current situation facing the gallery, this is certainly needed more now than ever before.  Amidst these uncertain times, Propeller continues to advance the art of survival.

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