We asked John Samuels, CEO of Blank Canvas Gallery, to tell us more about this local art collective and how they build community through creating a platform for marginalized artists to explore intersectional identities.
Blank Canvas is an art collective that continues to build a vibrant art community that drives culture forward and creates platforms for marginalized artists through events, panels, workshops and content creation. Blank Canvas seeks to reimagine spaces that allow emerging artists to explore their intersectional identities, where the ability to share narratives and raise awareness of culturally critical issues facing our communities is fostered. Using varying forms of artistic and cultural expression, Blank Canvas focuses on what’s best for our community, spreading positive energy, showcasing new artists, taking up space unapologetically and being a cultural conduit for creatives.
What was the inspiration behind starting Blank Canvas?
Blank Canvas was inspired by a direct need that there were not enough art initiatives serving marginalized creators or narratives in Toronto, specifically being done in a way that could bridge the gap of emerging and professional art worlds. At the time we began, there weren't enough platforms for emerging artists of colour to express themselves – I wanted Blank Canvas to fill that role.
When I started our collective years ago, I faced pushback from some of the more prestigious art spaces in the city, either not seeing enough representation or having to navigate financial or institutional gates. I knew what I would do differently if I ever had an art initiative, and what I would do to serve my community and people. We instilled action in our people and became the change we wanted to see.
What kind of events or platforms has the collective been involved in so far?
As a collective, we have produced more than 130 events (art shows, performance showcases, workshops, panels, networking events, artist markets and more) dedicated to displaying the work of young, marginalized artists since starting Blank Canvas Gallery in April 2016.
We have hosted over editions of our open-mic series , which has seen more than attendees and provided more than young, racialized artists with a performance platform and the community of their peers.
We’ve also established a programming partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, beginning with this year’s Drew A Blank workshop series.
Blank Canvas has worked with artists such as Alexis Eke, Oluseye, Jah Grey, Ness Lee, Dahae Song, Jordan Sook, Kleeshay, M.I. Blue, Bambii, Hatecopy, Fucci, Timothy Yanick Hunter, and many more.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Myseum of Toronto on the FILL IN THE BLANK project?
Being part of Myseum’s 2019 Intersections festival gave us a new platform to celebrate three years of our movement and the loving, energetic and collaborative community that we've fostered over the years.
Blank Canvas would be nothing without the people. And we wanted to show how interconnected our community is using art installations, a zine and performances looking at the past, present and future of Blank Canvas culture.
Looking back is always vulnerable, but I think back today on how our conversations don't just reside in a brick and mortar [space] or the confines of a venue – our stories ring throughout Toronto's art communities, across the GTA and the world. It's our way to connect with the world and show that we continue to exist.
Blank Canvas is a reference point to any marginalized artist that is chasing their dreams that it can in fact be tangible – and that you will face challenges on the way, but it's what you do with those challenges that makes you inspirational and remembered.
The Myseum festival was a testimony to the movement's strength in 2019, with 400-plus people in attendance for our opening night at the Toronto Media Art Centre.
How do you hope to grow the collective in the future?
Blank Canvas hopes to be a full creative agency by the end of 2019, where we will continue to be instrumental in art programming (events, panels and workshops) in Toronto but can begin to represent artists under our umbrella and work more closely with aligning brands and sponsors.
I hope to be able to support my team more in the work we're doing so we can continue to grow.
Our short-term goal is to have our own festival by 2020, and our long-term goal is to own [our own] property.
What does it mean to your organization to be nominated for the Arts for Youth Award?
It's an honour as much as it is momentous for our organization. We're grateful to be recognized in the top 3. We know receiving support from the Arts for Youth Award can not only give us the support we need to elevate our organization to the next level, but also to be a part of a network that we can learn, grow and scale from within the Arts for Youth community.
To be nominated shows Blank Canvas is a tangible example of what can be made possible when youth come together and organize to create change. I want us to be a reference point for our community that you can do what is purposeful to you and that doors will open when you live in your truth.