Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Eviction won't shutter Ministry of Casual Living's artistic ambitions

The artist Aubrey Burke in front of the Ministry of Casual Living. The gallery, in which many Victoria artists made their public debut, is losing its storefront after a decade. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 5, 2011


The sign on a whitewashed, one-story stucco building on a sleepy street looks, at first glance, like a government insignia.

It has white letters on a brown background in the style used by the provincial government in the 1980s.

It reads, “Ministry of Casual Living.”

On closer examination, the logo depicts not the provincial crest, but an abstract glyph. Some see in it what looks like an angry person.

You could pass the buildings for days without noticing any activity. With its odd name and abandoned appearance, the storefront generates a vaguely Orwellian feel.

It is located at 1442 Haultain St. in Victoria, at a quiet intersection in a residential neighbourhood where a handful of mom-and-pop businesses cover the corner — a barber, two groceries, a coffee shop, a video store, and a used- furniture shop.

If you knock on the door, you might meet Aubrey Burke, a 24-year-old university student who is majoring in art and minoring in business. He is also a part-time janitor for the school board. He introduces himself as the minister of casual living.
Aubrey Burke

“It’s common to walk out the front door and have someone say, ‘Hey. What’s happening in there?’,” he said. “They want to know, ‘Who are you? What are you guys doing?’ ”

For almost a decade, this address has been an art gallery for emerging artists, as well as a residence for whichever impoverished artist handles curatorial duties. The post comes with no salary, yet the reward comes in offering art to the world. You also get to use the nifty title of minister.

The living quarters are meagre — tiny washroom, makeshift kitchenette. “No shower, no laundry and pretty much no heat,” he said. “It’s cold. A dark, dank cave in the wintertime. It’s like urban camping. I consider it boot camp for the up-and-coming artist.”

A street-front window and a modest display space has been offered to artists since March, 2002. In every year since, the gallery has exhibited 50 weekly art shows.

The ministry’s website notes the curators have no interest in credentials or curriculum vitae.

“Anyone can throw down,” Mr. Burke said. “Lots of people have had their first show here. I had my first art show here.”

Artists are encouraged to experiment. “We try to get people to push the limits,” he said. “Do experimental stuff. If they’re into painting, push it a little farther. Paint on the window, paint on the walls, paint on your face. Not your typical art stuff on the wall.”

Earlier this summer, the artist Pudy Tong had a display called “Brand New!” in which he created a letter banner like those used for birthdays, or anniversaries. This was made by exposing paper to sun through a stencil. Once hung in the window, the sun’s rays washed out the rest of the paper, erasing the message.

The only limits placed on artists were to keep in mind the gallery’s neighbourhood setting, along which children regularly pass.

Alas, the ministry is being evicted. The building’s owner is putting up for sale the ministry’s headquarters and the adjacent two-story building that houses a grocery. The asking price is expected to be a cool $950,000, beyond the means of artists who scrounge to cover $640 monthly rent.

To bid farewell to the space, 30 artists have contributed 30 pieces for the final 30 days. It was called the Burnout Extravaganza.

Though they are losing their Fernwood gallery, the second to close in the neighbourhood this month because of rising rents and development pressures, the ministry is continuing with art displays in downtown windows over the holidays.

The founders deliberately chose a confusing name whose intent it was to encourage a vision of life away from the rat race.

“It was made ambiguous so people would keep questioning, keep more of an open dialogue about what it could be,” Mr. Burke said.

The artist has placed a familiar-looking red-and-black sign on the front door. It reads: “Sorry, we’re CASUAL.”

CUP RUNNETH OVER: The Grey Cup, emblematic of Canadian football supremacy, arrived at the Legislature on Friday, a rare visit to Vancouver Island for the silverware. The storied trophy was escorted by Geroy Simon and two teammates with the B.C. Lions, who won the championship in convincing fashion a week ago.

Andrew Harris, who played junior football out of Nanaimo for the Vancouver Island Raiders and who earned most-valuable Canadian honours in the big game, was not with them.

The players and the Grey Cup disappeared behind closed doors for a private autograph and photograph session with members of the B.C. Liberal caucus.

Perhaps that was a reward for the government allocating $563 million of public funds to renovate the Lions’ home at BC Place Stadium.

The Lions are owned by David Braley, whose company has donated to the Conservatives and who gained an appointment to the Senate last years.

After the private session, the trophy emerged with a grinning premier in tow to be presented to the little people — guards, passing schoolchildren, giddy members of the press gallery.

CHAMPS: Two Grey Cup champions once sat in the Legislature, though not at the same time. Herb Capozzi, who died last month, had two terms as a Social Credit MLA. Emery Barnes, a New Democrat, defeated Mr. Capozzi in the dual-member riding of Vancouver Centre in 1972. Mr. Barnes won re-election five times, serving for two years as Speaker of the House.

Mr. Capozzi was general manager of the 1964 Grey Cup-winning B.C. Lions, for whom Mr. Barnes played defensive end. He missed the championship game with an injury.

This article originally used an incorrect personal pronoun for the artist Pudy Tong.

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