Just past the busy downtown core lies Forest City Gallery (FCG), a small but mighty art gallery and artist-run centre. With potted plants still holding onto dear life and a flashing “OPEN” sign welcoming visitors into the space, 258 Richmond St. is just one of many manifestations the gallery has taken upon.
Prior to FCG’s opening in 1973, London, Ont. came under the international art media spotlight, thanks to the artist community known as the Regionalists. This group of “artists, filmmakers, novelists, poets, musicians and activists” gained recognition for its work which both engaged and celebrated the community. As Christopher Régimbal states, “...regionalism signifies the location of production, and often the relationships of that locality to centres of influence where the presentation, circulation, and reception of art takes place.”
Before the establishment of FCG in the early ‘70s, London artists “were among the earliest and most enthusiastic innovators of artist co-operatives in Canada.” This was not only due to the city’s small size, but also it’s conservative outlook on art which gave young and emerging artists few professional options to publish and exhibit their work at the start of the ‘60s. To combat these limitations, the first co-operative gallery in the city, 20/20, was born.
20/20 offered the first platform where London artists could participate in the national cultural arena while offering to pay artists’ fees. Thanks to this, artists from the forest city began being regularly featured in pages of art publications in Canada and in exhibitions across the country.
However, 20/20 closed in 1970, leaving a gap in the London art community. It wasn’t until 1973 that whispers of a new, defined space for artists to produce and show work were heard. As artist and co-founder of Forest City Gallery, Jamelie Hassan says,“We needed a self-serving space that would further the idea of art as a collective.”
FCG was founded by the same founders of 20/20, a group of like-minded artists all from London. Jamelie Hassan, Dave Gordon, Murray Favro, and Greg Curnoe opened a small independent gallery in the storefront of a downtown bookstore in 1973. However, they found they not only needed a bigger space, more autonomy from the “corporate world” was needed to thrive. The founders believed it was crucial for whatever site they chose to be “…about artists working for artists.”
After moving to a storage space above Novack’s Uniform Solutions, FCG gained more and more followers with every exhibition. In its early days, FCG was more of a fluid creative space that had poetry events, pop-up exhibitions and music shows. London Bands such as the Nihilist Spasm Band and Sheep Look Up were particularly known to perform at the gallery.
Below are performances filmed at FCG in the early 1980s of the Nihilist Spasm Band and Sheep Look Up:
Music events became a staple in FCG’s programming, leading to an annual “No Music Festival” that featured predominantly local talent.
With just 5 board members, FCG also became one of the first artist-run centres in Canada and aided in the establishment of Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), a national advocacy board fighting for artists rights.
In 2007, FCG moved to their current space at 258 Richmond St., nestled between Hot Dog, a record shop, and Vision Signs, a graphic design company. Moving into the biggest space they’ve leased yet, 2007 also ushered in a new era for the gallery and its members.
Below is a recap of the history of FCG, as well as a timeline of its progress since its relocation.
The first official exhibition in the new building was “Adrift,” a photography and video piece focusing on helplessness and freedom.
In 2012, former FCG intern and recent NSCAD grad Jenna Faye Powell was offered the position of interim gallery director. Little did she know she would play a major role in the revitalization of FCG for the next 5 years.
As a former intern and volunteer, Powell made many connections in the community that later forged strong future partnerships. As the only artist-run centre from Windsor to Hamilton, Powell stresses the importance of FCG as being a collaborative space, “We have the luxury of not being kind of indebted to anyone. FCG can partner with amazing spaces such as the MacIntosh [Gallery], which we do so very often; DNA; Michael Gibson Gallery; the Arts Project; Western; Fanshawe; Beal; we can partner with all these people because we have that autonomy.” These partnerships have been vital to the success of FCG and its relationship with its members.
“Our job to keep things fresh and not go back to that stagnation,” Powell says. “We’re making sure we’re not just going to be a space that looks nice, that we’re engaged in our community’s politics, we listen to our member’s concerns about how we’re doing, who we align ourselves with, because basically the gallery is owned by our members.”
Further, Powell believes FCG plays a vital role in the London arts community because they are more grassroots than some of the larger organizations in the city. She says, “we don’t feel like we’re in some kind of competition with [other galleries]. And I think that’s because there’s no overlap between the mandates of these institutions.”
Since its opening, FCG has remained somewhat of a constant in the art community in the forest city, perhaps a testament to its name. The gallery continues to hold frequent exhibitions, drawing workshops, and music events.
Powell and the FCG Board of Directors also introduced “Hear Here,” a quarterly musical event focusing on local bands and local sponsors. Arguably the most popular events the gallery holds, Hear Here is reminiscent of the days of the No Music Festivals of the 1990s and the Nihilist Spasm Band’s shows.
One of the most major contributions Powell has made to the gallery is creating a social media presence with personality. She or a gallery intern share photos, events, and tweets regularly. In 2013, an intern run blog was created to present responsive and engaging articles based on cultural events that happen at the gallery or other London based art-venues. Not only has this increased their attendance at exhibitions and events, it has also provided another platform to share artists’ work. For example, when advertising their annual fundraising event, “A Party,” they took to Instagram to engage followers with captivating photos.
The gallery also emphasizes the importance of visitors taking their own photos and sharing what they’ve experienced at the gallery with others. The video below was taken via an iPhone at FCG’s latest event, the Member’s Show and Sale.
Looking towards the future of Forest City Gallery, Powell believes the only way is up. Being a registered charity as well as a not-for-profit organization, the gallery receives the majority of its funding through operational grant programs from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Council for the Arts, and the London Arts Council. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to keep the doors open,” says Powell. “It’s this auxiliary fundraising through our Member’s show and the parties we throw that allow us to do the fun other stuff.” Over the past 5 years FCG has received numerous grants, proving itself to be exactly how they state on their website, to be “resilient through remaining adaptive to the challenges and struggles of the changing climate in the arts.”
For example, this past year the London Community Foundation granted FCG $10,000 for “Vaulted,” an arts initiative celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary. The initiative will showcase the contributions of women artists of Canada’s past and present.
Further, the continuing partnerships with London based organizations have given local young and emerging artists tremendous opportunities to get involved. From showcases to networking opportunities to workshops, FCG has become a place not only share work, but to grow as an artist and art lover.
Through it’s rich history, community engagement efforts and facilitating both open access and ongoing dialogue with members and partners alike, it seems as if Forest City Gallery has truly set down its roots in London, Ontario - roots that won’t be dug up any time soon.
Special thanks to Jenna Faye Powell.