Ydessa Hendeles: Pioneering
Curator and Art Advocate
by Jocelyn Laurence and
I want the Foundation to embody my
belief that art is worth an all-out effort to provide an extraordinary
experience that cannot be had in art books. It is the physical
and emotional experience of being with artworks that I have always
regarded as paramount. I want to have the experience of being
in someone else's head. That is ultimately what I offer visitors.
Visual art allows for that special privilege of physical intimacy
and knowledge in a way that nothing else does.
Ydessa Hendeles is part of a generation that wasn't supposed
to exist. Born in Germany to parents who survived the Holocaust,
she immigrated to Canada as a child, six years after the end of
World War II. However, her extensive contributions to Canadian
cultural life go far beyond a mere confirmation of her existence.
Over the last 26 years, she has worked as an art historian, gallerist,
and currently, as museum director and curator of the Ydessa Hendeles
Art Foundation. Augmented by her major role as philanthropist,
Hendeles has expanded and enriched not just the artistic life
of Toronto, where she lives, but that of Canada as a whole.
Hendeles's exceptional support of contemporary art
her concentration has been primarily on living artists
reflects her passionately held conviction that art is fundamental
to civilization. Her work as a curator and collector has been
strongly informed by her belief that art enables people to understand
both themselves and their culture. At root, hers is a humanistic
endeavour, fuelled by a commitment to improve the world around
her. It is inherently part of Jewish philosophy to give
to the community in which one lives, she says. The
philosophical underpinning of my exhibitions is to support human
creativity the people who make art and the people who are
moved by it.
For Hendeles, exhibitions at the Foundation are a way of sharing
works she admires. They are also a tangible expression of her
respect for the practice of visual art. As she says, Art
is more than a business, a form of entertainment or decoration,
or a means to make a theoretical point to further a scholar's,
curator's or critic's career. Art helps us live our
Hendeles's own career in the visual arts took off in 1980
when she opened the Ydessa Gallery in Toronto, a commercial space
devoted to the presentation of Canadian contemporary art. Her
astute choice of emerging artists, along with her persuasive interpretations
of the works she showed, immediately made the gallery a serious
contender in the competitive contemporary-art scene in Canada.
The gallery ultimately proved to be among the most successful
in Canada in promoting its artists internationally, and many of
them including Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Krzysztof
Wodiczko, Liz Magor, Kim Adams, John Massey, Noel Harding, Sandra
Meigs and Jana Sterbak went on to successful national and
It was clear to me, Hendeles says, that for
Canadian artists to have a voice internationally, the private
sector had to reach outside local communities and forge relationships
in other countries, not only in the area of scholarship but also
in commerce. As a result of the burgeoning reputation of
her artists and her gallery, Canada came to occupy a significant
place on the global visual-arts map in a way that had never before
Gradually, though, Hendeles realized that presenting her museum-scaled
installations was essentially a philanthropic enterprise. The
works' sheer physical size meant that generally, they could
only be purchased by institutions. She closed the Ydessa Gallery
in 1988, and that same year opened the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation
in downtown Toronto, Canada's only privately funded exhibition
space for contemporary art. Over the next 14 years, she curated
and mounted 28 exhibitions from works she purchased specifically
for her shows. The collection she assembled in the process became
one of the most original, prescient and highly regarded contemporary
art collections in the world. The Foundation's exhibition
programme is internationally recognized as a formidable force
in support of the art of today. Every museum curator who
is not asleep knows about her, says Robert Storr, senior
curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. For exhibitions
of videos, films, photography and installations, there is absolutely
no better place in the world than the Foundation.
Hendeles embarked on what she calls her project with
a simple intention: to help create a dynamic cultural environment
in which I wanted to live. At the same time, she hoped to
introduce a Canadian perspective to the international exchange
of ideas. She succeeded in these aims far more quickly than she
had imagined. Her exhibitions were widely attended by Canadians
from across the country, who found in them a unique experience
of compellingly presented, groundbreaking art. The Foundation
also attracted artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors
and scholars from all over Europe, North America, Australia and
Japan. Before long, Hendeles discovered that exhibitions at the
Foundation were influential validations of the artists she supported.
In addition, her curatorial practice was appreciated for its unusual
approach and how insightfully it served the artworks being exhibited.
Writing in The New York Times, Nancy Hass described her
as a Toronto collector who occupies a rarefied place in
her small peer group because she is also widely considered to
be a brilliant curator.
Hendeles's curatorial approach, of transcending the traditional
academic categories that segregate museums into specialized departments,
has opened up new possibilities for other curators. Major museums
have since followed her lead and experimented with the re-hanging
of their collections, displaying historical photography alongside
contemporary audio-visual installations, painting and sculpture.
Like Hendeles, they have introduced objects made by commercial
designers, documentary photographers and photojournalists not
originally intended to be artworks. However, unlike those who
have emulated her mix-and-match process, Hendeles's thoughtful
use of these pieces does not simply echo a show's themes.
Instead, she furnishes viewers with thought-provoking historical
and analytical frameworks for the contemporary art on display.
As Kate Taylor wrote in The Globe and Mail, The genius
of Ydessa Hendeles [is her] ability to make art reveal itself
to the viewer through well-chosen juxtapositions and painstaking
Although Hendeles is regarded as one of the most innovative curators
working today, she herself talks about her work in typically straightforward
terms: Actually, it's very much like cooking,
she says. I'm building up layers of flavours to create
something I think is delicious. This process requires a
serious focus not only on the art choices but also on the installations
themselves. The presentation of each work is precise, from its
placement inside a gallery to its location in the sequence of
a viewer's passage through the spaces. Hendeles goes to great
lengths to custom-tailor each gallery space to the needs of the
works, so they appear, as she says, born in the space.
Her famous rigour serves the shows well by creating a clear access
to each individual work while also inviting viewers to follow
a narrative through the exhibition as a whole. What particularly
defines Hendeles's curatorial vision is the way in which
each artwork sets up a context for the others. This allows for
new perspectives and fresh interpretations, while simultaneously
building on the meaning of what was just seen. As Hendeles puts
it, I'm careful to make the shows visually articulate,
so they don't require
wall texts that tell people what they should think. It takes no
artistic knowledge to enjoy these shows. A sensitive person who
makes the effort and trusts the curator has put together something
coherent can easily explore the connections between the works.
Concurrent with mounting and financing the Foundation's
exhibitions, Hendeles has also donated artworks and provided financial
support to Canadian institutions across the country, including
entire exhibitions specifically curated for several Canadian museums.
The breadth and depth of her contributions have set a benchmark
in Canadian visual-arts philanthropy. According to Matthew Teitelbaum,
director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ydessa Hendeles
has been the most important catalytic individual advocating for
contemporary art in this country. What she does through the Foundation
is unparalleled and without precedent in Canada.
A member of the International Councils of both the Museum of
Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London (where she
is the only Canadian), Hendeles has been repeatedly listed in
ARTnews as one of the Art World's 50 Most Powerful
People one of a handful of women and the only Canadian.
She is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on her curatorial
practice at the invitation of Professor Mieke Bal, founding director
of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University
of Amsterdam. The thesis analyses the curator's role as an
intermediary between art and its audience, and the ways in which
the curating of art can contribute to a diagnosis of our culture.
Still, Hendeles's primary commitment is to Canada. Rather
than accept curatorial offers in New York, she has remained here.
Contemporary art is not a priority in this country,
she says with her customary forthrightness. I'm trying
to make it one.
Above all, Hendeles says, the paramount purpose of the Foundation
is to foster an ongoing and meaningful relation-ship with art.
I want artists, the art community and the general public
to come away from my shows feeling significantly different than
when they came in. I also try to give back to the artists by creating
contexts that enhance the insights in their works. I want the
Foundation to embody my belief that art is worth an all-out effort
to provide an extraordinary experience that cannot be had in art
books. It is the physical and emotional experience of being with
artworks that I have always regarded as paramount. I want to have
the experience of being in someone else's head. That is ultimately
what I offer visitors. Visual art allows for that special privilege
of physical intimacy and knowledge in a way that nothing else
Jocelyn Laurence is a former editor of Canadian Art magazine.
She has also worked as a writer and senior editor at Toronto
Life magazine, The Financial Post Magazine and numerous
other publications. She is currently a partner in the Toronto-based
contract-publishing company Castlebridge Communications.
Elizabeth Legge is an Associate Professor in the Fine Art Department
at the University of Toronto. She has written extensively on Dada,
Surrealism and contemporary art, including a book, Max Ernst:
The Psychoanalytic Sources. Her current projects deal with
contemporary British art and the work of Michael Snow.
Portrait of Ydessa Hendeles
by John Reeves