Ben Woolfitt is a talented artist who lives in Toronto, Canada. His paintings have a rustic and almost ancient quality http://benwoolfitt.com/ that I love. However, Ben is more than a mere artist. He’s a mover and a shaker in the world of contemporary art as evidenced by his new museum, http://www.themoderntoronto.ca/. What’s it all about? Read on and find out.
“… For most people, their interaction with art comes from quite a deep source. Some of this may come from the artist, but some of it is likely from the trigger that is inside of people themselves. Without this interaction between the people and the objects that are meaningful, it would be hard to imagine what our planet would be like …”
MICHAEL: Hello Ben, Great to be chatting with you. When I look at your work, two words come to mind: decay and evolution. I see both of these things in all of your paintings. How do you see you work? What's it all about for you?
BEN: There are really two aspects to my art making. The first aspect would be that it is a tremendous outlet for emotional expression. This has always been one of the driving forces behind making art for me.
The second aspect is the dialogue that I feel between myself and the other artists that I have grown to admire and respect. These artists range from old Masters to very current and active artists. As I travel the world constantly, I get a unique opportunity to see a great deal of work.
MICHAEL: When you say your work is an outlet for emotional expression, do you believe that emotion shows up in your actual work? Should people be able to detect this by looking at your work? Can the same emotions that you have while creating the work flow through to people who see it and then feel the same emotion?
BEN: The emotional component of my work is more sublimated into the work than a direct visible expression – i.e. red is for anger. What is important are people’s responses to my work in themselves, rather than what my state of mind is while I am making the work.
MICHAEL: Interesting. If you see your work as a dialogue of sorts with other artists, does this mean much of your work is a response to what they've done?
BEN: Yes, with the exception of Naïve work. I view most work and in particular, my work to be contextual – in other words you are responding to something which has struck you or you have seen. Even Naïve work is really contextual – just not to other art work.
MICHAEL: You travel the world constantly? How do you do that? Where do you go and why? How can I get that gig?
BEN: That is the easiest question yet. I’ve travelled for my own company for years – four trips around the world – per year – around seven weeks per trip. Start your own company and away you go – now I do two trips for pleasure and as research for themoderntoronto.ca, a museum and not-for-profit foundation I have set up.
MICHAEL: What’s themoderntoronto all about? Why did you start it?
BEN: This is a museum dedicated to exhibiting mainly living non-objective artists. It will be a non-collecting museum with rotating exhibitions. Initially, there will be approximately 2500 ft.² of space. In three years, I am hoping we will have a space of approximately 20,000 ft.². This is funded by a foundation which I set up about five years ago.
MICHAEL: Tell me more.
BEN: It will be located at 68 Abell Street, directly behind 1153 Queen Street West, in the core of an exciting, arts-themed revitalization of Queen West. The building will be next to a sculpture garden which will be located directly east of Abell.
The purpose of this new museum is to exhibit work not commonly seen in Canadian museums, in particular in the Toronto area. The idea is not to duplicate the efforts of other venues, but rather to show work which is innovative and compelling.
The museum's focus will be on non-objective abstract painting and sculpture. While this work receives less attention from the larger museums of today, it deserves a place to be seen and has much to offer today's younger painters.
Balanced attention will be given to emerging artists as well as seasoned artists with established, international reputations. It’s dedicated to bringing great art to the neighbourhood and to Toronto at large.
MICHAEL: Excellent. Toronto is such a great art and culture city. How would you describe your relationship with the city?
BEN: First of all Michael, this has my home since 1965. I am sure you hear of this often, but I love the politics of Canada, and I thoroughly enjoy living in the city of Toronto. The city at large has responded very favorably to the new museum concept. It is in an area that was the home to many artists.
Toronto has a population base of approximately five million people. We are lucky to have a number of people who are very large supporters and collectors of Contemporary Art. When he was alive, Clement Greenberg used to travel to Toronto on a somewhat regular basis.
In general, I do not find the people here to be avid collectors of contemporary work. Historical work has a very strong market here. There are numerous colleges and universities with strong art programs and there is a pretty active scene with quite a number of museums.
MICHAEL: Do you plan to show your own work at the museum? How do you plan to manage the museum and exhibitions and produce your own work?
BEN: Yes, I do plan on showing my own work. The museum is a small venue. We have a board of directors which have been in place for sometime as the foundation is now five years old.
We will hire staff to manage the museum and we will use outside staff to receive, hang and dismantle the exhibitions. As it is a non-collecting venue, the management is much less than in many museums. We will use outside curators and people to do small, modest catalogs.
While it will definitely have an impact on my life, I am hoping that it enriches it rather than becomes a distraction to my life and my artwork.
MICHAEL: Obviously, you feel that you'll be able to do something that existing art institutions aren't or haven't been doing. What is that? Also, what do you think of the contemporary art world today?
BEN: As you know from the New York scene, there are a lot of people making a lot of good art that deserves to be seen, but there are only so many venues.
For nine years, I’ve had an art school and put significant effort into exposing my students to international work. I close the school because it was not able to make money without government funding which my competitors received.
However, I feel that exposure to work is a large part of the education to young painters and the public at large.
In the world of abstract painting, you will take note that at MOMA I have not seen (certain works) up for a long time. While they have one of the finest Hoffmans, I have not seen it out for years. While abstract art has a strong foothold in the auctions, there seems to be a tendency for it not to be showing as much. Also, the art world is much more competitive as there are no things like video art that are competing for the same space in the viewer’s mind.
MICHAEL: Finally Ben, given what you've just said, what purpose do you think art serves in the world? I mean, most people don't buy art and even very wealthy people really only buy it as investment and not necessarily to enjoy. What's the point? Why bother with all of this? What's the point in us even having this conversation?
BEN: Ultimately, what we have in life is our experience. The majority of this experience will be in our relationships with other people, but it will also extend out to the objects that we have around us.
For most people, their interaction with art comes from quite a deep source. Some of this may come from the artist, but some of it is likely from the trigger that is inside of people themselves. Without this interaction between the people and the objects that are meaningful, it would be hard to imagine what our planet would be like. We have already seen the responses of people as citizens of the world who have destroyed cultural monuments that belonged to many of us.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure. Thanks Ben. This has been a cool chat and best wishes with the museum.