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Q&A with Kari Cwynar, Art Program Curator at the Don River Valley Park

Apr 12, 2017

Kari Cwynar is the curator for the Don River Valley Art Program. She is developing our program of temporary projects to take place along the Lower Don Trail starting this summer. Read on to hear more about the art program here at the Don River Valley Park from Kari! 

Tell us a bit about the Don River Valley Park Art Program.

The art program is one of the ways in which Evergreen – in partnership with the City of Toronto and the TRCA – are animating the Don River Valley area over the next few years, and hopefully beyond. The program will see a series of temporary art projects installed or performed in public space in the Don Valley every year. Each project will have its own timeline – some will be as short as one day (for performances) and other projects will be installed for a month, a year or even up to 5 or 10 years for some of the larger sculptural installations. Local, national and international artists are invited to create site-specific projects that speak to the many histories and present-day realities of the Don Valley – looking at the land from ecological, cultural, industrial and Indigenous perspectives and more.

What drew you to the project?

I was intrigued by the DRVP project for many reasons! It’s a very unique project for Toronto. I like that it allows for a different experience with art than one usually finds in the city – the chance to encounter art outside, on your own time. Working in public space inherently means that you have a broader audience. It’s a chance to engage people with art who might never visit galleries or museums. Working outside also offers a new challenge for many artists, and that was something I was excited to pursue. I had not worked with public art before, but have always been interested in alternative spaces and in creating unexpected moments with art.

Working in the Don Valley offers the chance to engage deeply with vital socio-political themes. The project is not just about bringing art and ecology together, but engaging with issues of urban life, public space and how we use it, how we gather in it, how it looks, who uses it and why. . The Lower Don Trail crosses through vastly diverse neighbourhoods and communities, all of which have different perspectives on and relationships to it. The project is also an important opportunity to discuss the original inhabitants of the land we’re on and how this land has changed and continues to change. The Don Valley is a quite literal example of how cities are developed and the relationship of cities to the land and resources they depend upon.


Gargoyle rendering in the DRVP.

What will the art trail offer Torontonians, people just visiting the park or using the trails?

People might ask what art has to do with Toronto’s ravine lands, or why not just leave nature as it is. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these questions, and have been working to create an art program that will integrate well with the natural landscape. I think Torontonians will be pleasantly surprised by the nature of the projects. The pieces will be, for the most part subtle and experiential – the focus is still the landscape itself, but stumbling upon a sculpture or performance tucked deep in the valley will encourage visitors to experience and consider public space in Toronto in a potentially new and exciting way. I think this makes it a pretty special opportunity for Torontonians to keep returning to see new things, to keep learning and furthering new conversations about art as each project builds upon the last. A lot of people have made up their minds about art – they care about it or not – but when it’s in front of you everyone has an opinion.

What will the project offer Toronto’s artistic communities?

The project is quite distinct in Toronto for many reasons: it is rare in Canada to find art organizations that regularly commission new public projects by artists – in the way that organizations like Artangel, Public Art Fund or Creative Time do. Commissioning public art often means giving artists the opportunity to do something larger in scale, more ambitious or to push their art practice in a new direction. And public art has a long duration – with the DRVP, I spend up two years developing a project with each artist, and most projects remain on view for months or years. This means that art enthusiasts can spend a long time considering each artwork, watching as it changes with each season, as new projects are added to the valley and new conversations are made. There are so many art communities in Toronto, and I hope the project will keep expanding to bring different kinds of artists and community partners together.

What can we expect this year?

The first season of the DRVP launches in early July, with two very special projects. First, we are installing a series of eight sculptures by Duane Linklater in the meadow north of the Bloor Viaduct.  Shortly after, New York-based performance artist and choreographer Maria Hassabi will come to Toronto with seven dancers for two performances where the dancers appear as living sculptures, moving and dancing slowly through the valley. I’m thrilled to launch with these projects – Duane’s sculptures tell such a rich and important story about the ways in which resource extraction in the Don Valley allowed for the building of Toronto as a city, looking at the change from Indigenous land use to the colonial cityscape. Maria’s performances will provoke entirely different thinking – the project is great early on in the DRVP because it looks very different from how we expect public art to be. I think people will be surprised and curious as they walk or cycle along the trail and encounter dancers along the way. There will be more projects and a series of workshops launching later in the summer and fall, which will be announced shortly.


The Don River.

What are your hopes for the project this year? Five years down the road?

This year is definitely a test run. In general, I hope that the project draws Torontonians of all kinds to engage with art. I hope that people look at the valley and the city in a new way, start to think of it as a place to walk, think, contemplate and discover. I want to see how the artworks change with the seasons, and see how people engage with them. In this first year, we will learn a lot about what it means to put art in the river valley – what works and what doesn’t. I want to meet the neighbours and hear what they are drawn to and what they hope to see in the future.

Five years down the road, the long-term goal is to see the valley as a thriving public space that brings different communities together to enjoy nature and check out the art. I hope it becomes a site for critical and provocative art projects that aren’t possible elsewhere in the city. I hope that the lack of walls and admission fees will make people feel comfortable, will encourage new art lovers and I hope that we’ll have the resources to keep a steady program of new projects, with workshops, talks and, school programs the whole way through to make the river valley a hub for Torontonians.

Tell us about the process of commissioning pieces for the space.

The commissioning process usually means following a few key steps:

  • First, lots of research and studio visits to identify the artists. I look at the themes they explore and their ways of working, and how their work might communicate and relate to an urban natural environment like the Don Valley. I tend to look at artists who haven’t yet done projects in public space, or don’t primarily do so, so that the commission will be a new opportunity.
  • Then, I converse with the art committee and my colleagues at Evergreen, debating which artists’ practices resonate with the DRVP’s goals, and look at what is financially feasible.
  • Once the project seems viable, I invite the artist for a site visit. We visit Evergreen, and walk the Lower Don Trail. I tell them as much as I can about the history of the area, who uses the land now and how, the goals of the DRVP and Evergreen’s mandate.
  • After some time to think, the artist will come back with an initial proposal, which leads to more conversations, discussion with the team at Evergreen, and more visits to the valley to make sure the project is just right. For sculptural installations or murals, we’ll bring in a fabricator or technician at this stage to help make a project plan.
  • Somewhere around this step, we’ll start fundraising for the project – a process that continues the whole way through.
  • Our amazing project manager Liz Lecky manages logistics and permits, and together we work with the rest of the team and our partners at the City of Toronto and TRCA to see what is possible and how to make things possible.
  • At this point, the artist works with the fabricators or technicians to oversee the production of the piece, we work with the artist and the communications team at Evergreen to determine how to best communicate the work, we secure installation access permits and events permits and get ready to install and launch!

I’m sure I’m missing many steps, and there are always many plot twists working with art, but those are the essentials!