Q&A with Art World Personality Shari Orenstein

John Hartman discussing his work at Nicholas Metivier. © Shari Orenstein

One of our goals at FFOTOIMAGE is to give art enthusiasts the confidence to make smart acquisition choices. Researching artists and looking at plenty of art, both in person and online, is a sure-fire way to become comfortable with the ins-and-outs of building a meaningful collection. You can do that exploring on your own, or you can seek out personalities in your community — or while travelling — as almost every city has people who are driven to share their passion for art.

In Toronto, we’re fortunate to know Shari Orenstein, an architect and art lover who makes connections between artists and audiences through her fun and informal course, Conversations from the Toronto Art World with the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Shari is Toronto’s ultimate art world insider and she is on a mission to share her knowledge.

We talked to Shari to find out about the talks and tours that she leads, her tips about starting a collection, her opinions about the importance of living with art, and more.

Are you enjoying these blog posts? Drop me a note and let me know: Craig@FFOTOIMAGE.com.

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Shari Orenstein’s Conversations from the Toronto Art World

FFOTOIMAGE: What was the inspiration behind the popular Conversations from the Toronto Art World? How did you come to launch it?

SHARI ORENSTEIN: While I have a BFA in Visual Art, I went on to become an architect, and now do only residential projects. Clients and friends were always asking me to help them find art for their homes, especially their renovated spaces, as they knew I spent a great deal of time exploring the art galleries in the city. Simultaneously, seven years ago I was searching for a course on Contemporary Art in Toronto, or Canada, and I just couldn’t find one. So, sensing an opportunity, I proposed my course Conversations from the Toronto Art World to The University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies. What I really wanted to do was connect the art lovers with the artists, make the connections and introductions that were going to help get my clients and friends into the galleries in a comfortable way. I really see a lot of talent in Toronto and I wanted to find a way to somehow support and promote that.

Clive Holden with Shari Orenstein at Stephen Bulger Gallery. © Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Conversations has a loyal following — some attendees have been participating in your events since the beginning. Who signs up for these talks, and what kinds of experiences should they expect?

SO: The students in my class range in age and experience from artists, art students and recent graduates, to a few who may have never set foot in a gallery, to seasoned collectors. The age range is from 25 to 95, which would include my father, but generally speaking they are always enthusiastic and quite art savvy. It is a great opportunity to hear both emerging and senior artists speak about their work, their passions, inspirations, and challenges. The talks are informal and quite personal so we gain a great deal of insight into the artist, their background and their life, and I think that’s what makes it so interesting and helps us understand that much more about their work. Classes are held in the galleries with both artist and dealer present so we also learn about the relationship between the two, how they came to work together, and especially how the dealer supports the artists. In other words, about the business of art as well.

Viewing Ken Nicol at Olga Korper Gallery. © Shari Orenstein

FF: For some, the idea of talking to art dealers and visiting their spaces can be intimidating. What do you suggest to help people to get beyond that fear?

SO: That is totally true, for many the art world is an unknown, totally out of their box, no matter how accomplished they may be as lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc., and so I try to let people know that this is only natural but that the art community is actually very friendly, very open to talking about the work, and that all questions are valid. One could simply start with, “Can you tell me about this piece, or this artist?” or “How was this made?” It is also good for the dealers to know how nervous many people feel when entering a gallery for the first time. Once the class has heard a speaker at their gallery, they are far more comfortable visiting that gallery, and more likely to attend any exhibit of an artist they have heard speak. The class runs in the fall when there are so many art events in Toronto, like the Toronto Art Fair, so again it is an opportunity for people to feel they can easily approach a dealer, or artist, and say “Hi, I heard you speak in Shari’s class last week…do you have any work by so-and-so?” All the dealers report that this has happened over and over again, so I guess it’s working.

FF: Do people have to register for Conversations to take advantage of the access you provide, or is there a way to accommodate people who can’t commit to a full schedule of gallery talks?

SO: I usually do three gallery walks throughout the term, just for fun. These walks are not really part of the class, so anyone can join and that’s another great way to be introduced to the galleries and dealers. And by the way, anyone is welcome to attend a gallery opening; they need only contact the gallery and ask to be added to the email list so they might receive invitations to openings. There is no such thing as a private invitation — all are welcome and the galleries absolutely want you to attend!

Painter Shelley Adler in her studio with Shari Orenstein. © Shari Orenstein

FF: Conversations encourages attendees to become confident, knowledgeable art enthusiasts. What advice would you give to budding collectors? What are some of the considerations and questions to ask?

SO: Becoming a confident collector takes time, experience, and knowledge. The best thing you can do is to visit the galleries, speak to the dealers, learn about the artists and do your research. This process also allows the collector to acquire the most important element, which is self knowledge, learning to discover what your own personal tastes and interests are. Developing a relationship with a knowledgeable dealer who can help you build your collection is key, whatever your price range may be. Confidence in the dealer you work with is part of it and all good dealers would agree. As the famous collectors, the Vogels of New York, said, “You have to look, and look, and look!”

If your interest lies in collecting photography, you want to work with someone who can advise and guide you in a direction you choose, whether that is historical formal photography, or more contemporary multimedia work. Photography has become so popular now with collectors, and while many galleries exhibit photo-based work only a few in Toronto specialize in it; this is where I would start. Visit the gallery that you are interested in, attend openings, artist talks and why not attend the films offered Saturday afternoons in Toronto at Camera Bar, in Stephen Bulger Gallery?

FF: Once art enthusiasts begin to bring art into their homes, they often talk about experiencing a wider engagement with the world of ideas in their everyday lives. What have you found to be the benefits of interacting with art, and living with it at home?

SO: I couldn’t live without it! It enhances my life everyday and I never tire of looking at it. I remember moving and having to take all the art down from my walls, it felt as though the room had no life, no energy in it! I also love having work by artists that I know in my home, it connects me in a very strong way to the art community here, and it makes me feel a part of the cultural milieu in which I live. Fair warning though… Art very quickly becomes an addiction!

FF: How do you see Conversations evolving? The program started as presentations in a lecture hall format, but now each session takes place in a gallery or an artist’s studio; is there a ‘next step’ for the program?

SO: I think this format is working very well and I wouldn’t want to change it… I have done taped interviews, TV interviews, and many articles, but being with the art, the artists and dealers — actually in the presence of the work — is what works best.

FF: The current session of Conversations is now underway. When will the next session begin? How can people find out more?

SO: This fall’s 2016 class began October 13 and runs for eight weeks. You can register for the next class at The University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, course number 2597. I also post frequently on Facebook under Conversations from the Toronto Art World, and on my Instagram account, about shows and art events around Toronto.

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