Toronto’s first Outdoor Art Exhibition: a personal memoir

Outdoor Exhibition
A recent outdoor exhibition at Nathan Phillips Square

(Canscene) — The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, an annual event that began when Toronto was just emerging from a cultural wasteland, opened with 106 artists, who have now grown to more than 500 yearly I was privileged to be there at the beginning.

This year’s show was again held at Nathan Phillips Square from July 7 to 9 and through fine days of weather attracted an estimated 100,000 visitors to the free exhibition.

Visiting the exhibition on this anniversary takes me back 45 years.

In July, 1961, I was heading a small Toronto public relations consultancy when an old friend, Alan Jarvis, recently fired by the Diefenbaker government from his position as director of the National Gallery, asked me to attend a meeting with one of the owners of the new Four Seasons Motor Hotel. The establishment was an elegant new take on the motel, complete with fine dining, cocktail lounge and swimming pool; it was the modest beginning of the prestigious Four Seasons hotel chain.

The gentleman in question turned out to be pharmacist Murray Koffler, a person I’d known some years back when I lived a short drive from his first drug store. I’d pop in Sunday mornings to pick up my New York Times and Murray and I would engage in long, wide-ranging conversations. Later Murray was to become the marketing genius responsible for the birth of the Shoppers Drug Mart chain. His partners in the hotel were society furrier Eddie Creed and builder Isadore Sharp who now heads the Four Seasons hotel chain.

Problem: an invitation but few exhibitors
Murray’s problem was this: an art lover and collector, he’d canvassed more than 100 artists offering them free space over the  the first two weekends in August in the hotel’s motor court. Although the Four Seasons was likely to be full at this, time, he’d arranged for guests’ cars to be jockeyed to a nearby lot by hotel staff, while artists displayed their works in the motor court that surrounded three sides of the hotel. Admission to the public would be free and artists would be permitted to sell their works. What an offer! But three weeks before opening day, there were only a dozen or so takers. After a couple of bartender Rudy Husars’s excellent martinis, I found I’d volunteered my firm’s services.

One more round of telephone calls convinced potential exhibitors that all this generosity was for real. Graphic designer Alan Fleming, whose logo for CN had been internationally acclaimed, volunteered a stunning poster which several of us managed to get displayed in dozens of art supply stores, small galleries and sympathetic retailers.

David Silcox, a young art student — now the president of Sotheby’s Canada joined us as unpaid executive director. The number of entrants began to build and two days before the opening, the hotel held a strawberry breakfast to which each artist was invited to bring a piece to show to the media . Some of course had regular day jobs, but more than twenty attended and helped give us a good, though somewhat skeptical advance press.

Pioneers still exhibiting
Included among the pioneer exhibitors were Ray Cattell, Ken Danby, Lorraine Surcouf and Joseph Cusimano, still working and exhibiting today.

A young abstract painter emerged as a general factotum. What a boon he became!: so much so that next year he was appointed executive director at a small honorarium. . His name was Jack Pollack and he had a small gallery in Toronto’s now long-gone Greenwich Village. Within a couple of years, Jack was to achieve recognition as the discoverer of Ojibway painter Norval Morrisseau.

Plagued by weather
Shortly after the four o’clock Friday opening, a shower had artists bundling up their work and dragging it into the hotel. That whole first weekend was plagued by sudden showers of various durations and the hotel’s bar did better business than the artists.

But then a seeming miracle began to happen. First, media representatives came from the three Toronto dailies, CBC radio and television across Jarvis Street and CFTO from faraway Agincourt. The number of exhibitors en masse was something never before witnessed in Toronto. Championing the underdog, the media created genuine sympathy for the weather-plagued artists and kudos for the Four Seasons for being so accommodating.

As the next weekend –which included Civic Holiday Monday — rolled around, the most we expected was a brief mention or two from the media but back they came again in force, along with the valiant artists for four days of sunshine. The Four Seasons Motor Hotel was the hub of Toronto that weekend as thousands visited.

The final tally of artists’ sales was $10,000 — a goodly sum in those days. Today, it wouldn’t buy a single Danby

Mayor Nathan Phillips who had been invited to officially open the show and had declined because he thought it was “a publicity stunt” changed his mind; he turned up on the second Saturday with his charming wife, posing for photographs and chatting with the artists. It’s fitting to remember this grand old gentleman now that the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition has been located for over forty years in the square named after him.

Within four years, the number of artists had outgrown the Four Seasons’ capacity to hold all their works and necessitated the move. And while that motor hotel no longer exists, the Four Seasons name lives on in luxury hotels throughout the globe and on the facade of Canada’s first real opera house.


One Response to “Toronto’s first Outdoor Art Exhibition: a personal memoir”

  1. Bill Says:

    Terrific reminiscences, Ben, well told. I hope you’ll treat us to more of these personal memoirs.