Toronto art community revives popular gallery after controversial closure

Photo by Austin Andru

A gathering of people just outside the gallery.

The Toronto art gallery Blank Canvas, which calls itself an “inclusive safe space,” has reopened after a controversial closure on New Year’s Eve.

“It was so shocking what happened,” said co-owner Brittany Hendry.

The New Years event was called Bubbly. It was an initiative by owner and curator, John Samuels, to bring the Toronto art community closer together. Professional and amateur artists had the opportunity to sell or showcase their work. There was no theme. Artists were encouraged to share the work of their medium.

The New Year’s Eve celebration was $10 at the door. Many people strolled in and out from the street.

“It was really beautiful,” said Hendry. “We were very lucky for all the artists who showed up.”

Jon Hurd, a photographer and contributor to the Blank Canvas said at one point an undercover police officer came through the gallery. Hurd said he was well dressed, and looking at the space and the people instead of looking at the art.

According to Hendry, police cruisers arrived soon after.

Bubbly was cut short at 9:40 p.m., when Samuels told everyone to leave, and that the event was over.

In an email, the Toronto Police Service said police arrived after being given notice by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) that the application for a Special Occasion Permit (SOP) was denied due to previous issues with the applicant, Samuels.

Police said they gave the gallery the option to shut down without facing charges, but Samuels and another individual refused and backup officers were called in.

A crowd of people stood outside as officers entered the gallery. Hendry was outside when she heard her friend mention Samuels was about to be tasered. She says she heard people say, “They’re going to taze him, they have a taser.”

Samuels was tasered three times, according to witnesses.

Toronto police said this happened because Samuels would not surrender the cash box and resisted arrest.

“IT TURNED FROM A GROUP OF PEOPLE TO AN ANGRY MOB.”

In the email, Cst. Victor Kwong explained the event from the police perspective. “When he began kicking the arresting officer in the stomach, additional force (Conducted Energy Weapon – Taser) was used to gain control and prevent further injuries.”

Many artists in Toronto expressed concern that the arrest was racially motivated because Samuels is black.

“The reason this happened to Blank Canvas, in my opinion, is because it is predominately (run by) people of colour,” said Hendry.

In an article posted by Canadian Art, Syrus Marcus Ware of Black Lives Toronto said this speaks of a larger issue with racism within the Toronto police for the past 30 years.

Hurd said it was his first experience witnessing what he calls racial profiling. “There was seven cops on him,” He said. “It turned from a group of people to an angry mob.”

Bystanders and artists began recording the officers while others left immediately.

“It was a great night and it was ruined by cops who obviously had nothing to do,” Hurd said.

The next day, Hendry said the landlord changed the locks on Blank Canvas and the gallery had to be cleared out. Photos of the empty and vacant space were posted on the Blank Canvas Instagram page.

Samuels started an Indiegogo page to gather funds to relocate to a new space. The campaign netted $15,110, about half of their goal of $30,000.

“Blank Canvas is on tour,” joked Hendry at the time.

A lot of people reached out to her and Samuels to offer their space.

Now things are looking better for Blank Canvas. With help through Indiegogo and the support of the community, it has found a new and much more spacious home at 890 St. Clair Ave.

“It’s a new chapter now with a new space,” said the Blank Canvas Facebook page. “We’re ready to make some serious change.”

The official Blank Canvas re-launch was March 23. It was the XII Dead Poet event, featuring spoken word poetry and open mic on the philosophy of the streets.

“If it wasn’t for everyone who supported our campaign our new space wouldn’t have been possible and we’re dedicated to making sure this new space continues to serve our community in bigger ways,” said Samuels in a statement on the Omitt Limitation website.

Samuels faces several charges including assaulting and obstructing a police officer as well as liquor license offences.

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