State of the Arts – Elizabeth Fennell’s Attic of rebels

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Gallery in the Attic is a local arts hub & a place of rebellion

I have in my email box a ton of invites and notices about panel discussions regarding the arts. There seems to be lots and lots of talk about the arts and how we should be “going forward” or “creating in the 21st century”. Personally I can’t think of anything less appealing than sitting in one of those awful hotel ballrooms watching a power point presentation highlighted by declamations and applause every time someone says how important the arts is for our children. I’d rather see the money spent on people who open galleries and actually engage with the public. But because I feel this way I am deemed a misfit. I like the word rebel better, it’s a little more au currant.

I get it though. We need to talk to each other, I guess. The thing is I am not a joiner, a team player or even a participant really, but I do believe in ideas of inclusiveness because I understand how we do need each other. My world then is peopled by misfits like myself who also want to belong but in deeply uncompromising ways. Can this be achieved? It depends. The group I would join would have to be one of rebellion or at the very least run by rebels.

One particular rebel that I have come to adore is Peterborough’s Elizabeth Fennell, that indefatigable beauty who runs Gallery in the Attic and The Darkroom Project, both out of a classic old Ontario building on Hunter Street. It’s the kind of place people in Toronto used to live and work in before the city turned all the warehouses into condos. Elizabeth is a small town girl with a very large idea about the world and how to be creative in it. Her collective, Little Red Hen comprises of many of Peterborough’s artists; a composite of emerging, mid and senior, she sees room for everyone.

Here is Elizabeth Fennell at a recent opening giving someone her undivided attention. Contact is what it's all about & Elizabeth makes this her art.
Here is Elizabeth Fennell at a recent opening giving someone her undivided attention. Contact is what it’s all about & Elizabeth makes this her art.

One of the finer joys I have had in the art making world over the past few years (and for most of us there hasn’t been much joy recently) has been spending time at the Attic and meeting many creative people from every art form and age group. In Toronto my experience in the arts was always somewhat homogeneous; everyone seemed to be around the same age and from similar backgrounds. This however has changed completely since I left the city as people in rural areas are drawn together out of a different kind of camaraderie; we are bound together by the fact that we understand we all need space which is why we left the city in the first place. It’s a strong, emotional bond but one with a lot of room.

Elizabeth has captured this essence of creative living without the need of city excess. It’s that Williamsburg/Brooklyn approach, when the boroughs of NYC realized they didn’t have to cross a bridge to do something special. The Gallery in the Attic has comfy old fashioned furniture, a record player, a bar with Scotch, a darkroom for film development(!!) and an atmosphere of total creative enterprise while remaining inviting and unique. Elizabeth’s curatorial approach is to exhibit a solo artist in a tidy, perfect little white room, a duo or group effort in a brick walled space perfect also for bands that get to play at certain openings and then a main space where the collective gets to hang their work in a meticulously designed and perfectly annotated large group exhibitions.

Gallery in the Attic during  a recent opening. The art scene of Peterborough has come to rely on the gallery's funky, go to atmosphere.
Gallery in the Attic during a recent opening. The art scene of Peterborough has come to rely on the gallery’s funky, go to atmosphere.

The space and the initiative has all come about in the last five years which were possibly the worst on record for exhibiting and selling art work. Our world perhaps is crumbling or at least what it once was is crumbling. The current art scene, almost anywhere is a meniscus of serious desperation and frothy consumerism. I see however much hope in what Elizabeth is doing as her sense of community, rebellious “I’ll do it myself” streak and heads up organizational approach illustrate how one only has to roll up one’s sleeves, grab a drill and make it happen. I used to believe in this and lost my way somehow over the years; a creeping fear of time? Of course having a museum studies degree has helped Elizabeth focus her talents but I think it’s her outdoorsy, everyone into the canoe sensibility and a vividly smart & dark sense of humour that has helped make the Attic and who she is extraordinary.

I put some questions to Elizabeth about the Gallery and her ongoing challenges of running an independent art space:

1. What is your background and how did the Gallery in the Attic get started? Is there a place/space/idea you modelled it on?

My background is interdisciplinary – in university I studied history and languages primarily, though I’d taken art all through high school I could see the disparity between my talent and imagination and that of my peers, and I didn’t feel that I should pursue art in post-secondary so I didn’t. I assumed eventually I would teach. Then one summer I took a job as a museum guide and became really interested in the interpretation, collection, and display, of cultural heritage… that led me to the Museum Management & Curatorship program at Fleming College, a year-long generalists post-degree program that focuses on all the skills required to run a small to medium sized museum or gallery. At the time the program was very focused on museums, but since my time it has drawn more and more artists to it, perhaps in part, due to Fleming’ choice to use me as a spokesmodel after my summer working on the ARTSPACE archives.

The gallery started in 2012, after a couple years spent working contract gigs in the cultural sector in Peterborough. I was looking for stable employment, and knew there was a huge gap for emerging artists’ display space in town. Having only two public galleries (AGP & ARTSPACE) and one private well-established one (Christensen’s), there wasn’t anywhere in town where emerging and established artists could show together, in a professionally curated setting.

I was inspired by other collective models, like the Red Head Gallery, that relied on members’ support to cover space costs. Basically it began as a subscription-type space, where monthly fees covered things like rent and utilities, and my hope was to make enough money off of art sales to generate my own income. In reality, art sales at 20% commission will never result in a significant income, so in addition to creative ways to use the space (musical events, workshops, rental fees), we started the Darkroom Project in 2013 as another way to maximize the space’s potential.

2. Does the Gallery in the Attic have an aesthetic and/or driving philosophy in terms of aesthetics?

I suppose my personal aesthetic is what most informs the space. As an historian and someone who’s always loved vintage objects and thrifting, I’m drawn to things with the patina of history on them. So when the space we now occupy became available, I jumped at the chance to use it for a full-time project. It’s old and creaky, full of character and charm. As for the art, I don’t have an aesthetic goal there, it’s a really mixed collection in just about every medium; the main goal of the gallery is to give local artists a chance to display their work, so if the artist is ready to show, we show them. Our group shows are eclectic, and solo exhibits are generated by artists, as they need them. We program on a first-come, first-served basis.

3. You are someone who does everything at the Attic and has done everything from curating & installation to organizing huge events like Erring on the Mount as well as being a keen arts promoter. Is there something you love doing more than other things?

Programming public art projects is probably the most fun, especially if it creates opportunities for local artists to get professional fees. Erring on the Mount was an amazing experience, one I’d love to repeat or do more in a similar vein. Working with artists from all disciplines is especially rewarding, and fitting unconventional art into an unconventional space is something I love. Creating opportunities for artists to stretch their practice, think without limits, respond to a specific space- all of that is super exciting, particularly when it’s well funded and artists are compensated fairly. I love creating opportunities for artists to shine.

4. Why art? Would you or could you see yourself transferring your skills to something else?

Obviously I have skills that transfer between the sectors of Arts & Heritage; museum & gallery skills are remarkably similar on a practical administrative level, and I love them both… Our partner project, The Peterborough Darkroom Project blends both sides in that we have a space for the production of analog photography, as well as an historic building to interpret. Creating a non-profit that’s centred on an historic space, but facilitates contemporary art production, is the accomplishment I’m most proud of- with the help of its members, a devoted crew of film-based photographers, it has been a true pleasure to throw my energies into.

5. How do you see the Peterborough arts scene in five or ten years? Is it a good and happy one?

I’m hopeful. I think there are a lot of exciting new initiatives happening right now – the City is getting behind things with the Electric City Culture Council, which I have high hopes for, and some independent projects are gaining traction, notoriety, and creating opportunities for outside artists to intermingle with locals. I’m thinking primarily of Evans Contemporary, a gallery in the avenues that brings in high-level artists from across Canada and around the world, it raises the level of artistic conversation, and interaction between artists. I think things are happening here, both in the national conversation, but also among local artists, regionalists, doing their own thing. Peterborough is a regional centre, the focal point between Toronto and Ottawa, so my hope is that that growth continues and our reputation as a unique artistic centre continues to expand.

See Gallery in the Attic’s Facebook page for more information

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3 thoughts on “State of the Arts – Elizabeth Fennell’s Attic of rebels”

  1. Happy to see the words applied to artists “professional fees” and “compensated fairly”. Here’s to the day when such ideas are not so rebellious. Keep up the good fight, Vic.

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