Over the years Michael Gibson has carved out his niche by putting on innovative, captivating and immersive exhibitions. Gibson possesses a broad outlook on the current state of Canadian art by embracing the young and the old, the radical and conservative, as well as the figurative and the abstract. The story alone of how Gibson came to open his very own gallery also points to his approaches to curatorial practice and art collecting, revealing how he values passion and taste in everything he does. The Gallery represents notable Artists such as the late Regionalist painter Greg Crunoe, Landscape Photographer and Illustrator Susan Dobson, As well as Multi media artist and See Collective alumni James Kirkpatrick to name a few. We sat down with the gallerist to discuss how he stumbled into the art world, his desire for community amongst local businesses, and what success means to him.
How long have you lived in London?
We moved here in November 1963, very close to when John F. Kennedy was shot. I remember being in the back seat of my mum’s car and hearing the news on the radio. It is a very specific memory. We moved from Calgary because my dad got a job here in London. He worked downtown at Talbot and Queen and I have worked downtown since 1984, always around the Covent Garden market. I have had three gallery locations downtown. In 1997 I moved the gallery north of Dundas to Carling Street. We now have been here for 21 years - it’s crazy.
That’s a long time.
It is a long time, but it feels like 5 years. I love what I do, that helps. I’m lucky.
You don’t have an academic art background, what propelled you into the art world?
Well, I have an entrepreneurial background. I think working for myself was always what I aspired to do. It’s odd because that’s something most people don’t want to do. They like the idea of job security. When you work for yourself, there is no security. But, there is risk in everything. Just getting up, going outside, is a risk. To be successful as an entrepreneur you need two things: work ethic (you have to work a lot), and you need vision and a good eye.
I have a business degree from Bishop's University. Not having an art background was really an advantage because I don’t have any bias. I go with my gut and what I think it is important and fortunately other people agree. I think I have a good eye, and have some vision, so those things help. As far as art goes, it was something I enjoyed looking at, it was like a hobby or a passion. Just like reading or playing a musical instrument, these are things you do to improve the quality of your own life. I saw working in the art world as something I would really enjoy doing.
In 1984, I met a man named Asher Roth. He had a business in the Talbot Block at 379 Talbot St. where Budweiser Gardens is now. I used to shop along the Talbot Block quite a bit. There was a second hand thrift store, a guitar shop, and Asher’s poster / framing shop. They were all entrepreneurial businesses - sort of like what is happening here in London now. Asher’s business seemed interesting and he wanted to move to Toronto, so buying his business was basically a timing thing.
I believe these things happen for a reason. I don’t think I chose art, rather, it chose me and that is the way I see things. You have to put yourself there, wherever ‘there’ is, even when we don’t know where ‘there’ is. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but you can make positive things happen by being positive.
Do you remember your first experience with art?
I took some time off after university and traveled to Europe. The first experience would be seeing a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait in Amsterdam. It wasn’t a very big painting, but it had strokes and strokes of paint, and it was intense. From 20 feet to 2 inches, it was equally intense. The painting looked very different up close than from 20 feet away. It was that difference, the level of quality when you see a real painting up close. It moves you. That was the beginning of my journey. Like I said, art chose me, but you need to have the passion and you need to care.
When I signed the loan to buy Asher’s business my parents said I was crazy, they said, “Why are you doing this? We don’t think this is a good idea.” As a parent you have to allow your son or daughter to fail or succeed, and you can’t get in their way, you can only support them. I have kids now and it’s hard. If you protect them, they are going to fail. You have to “unprotect” them, and then you have to be ready or be available to help them. If you stand in their way all the time they are not going to learn anything. I am not going to be here forever, they need to be successful on their own, and find their own way, find their own version of what I have done. That is the way my parents were.
Your thoughts on why most creative/entrepreneurial people move elsewhere?
I think it is the ‘yellow brick road’, that there is always something better somewhere else. There are people that go and people who come back, and there are people in between. Mentally, they are either there and wish they lived here, or they are here and they wish they were there.
And of course with Toronto and London being so close geographically, we always talk about it. I think with London, what is lacking is leadership. You need visionaries who have power. I only have power in my own little environment, but you need real leadership in this city to say “yes we can, we have all these things so let’s name ten positive things and concentrate on those and make them even better”. We had premiers from London and a lot of great Canadian businesses were founded here. There is an entrepreneurial bend to this city that needs to be mentored.
I think you're even in a small way stewarding change. You give a lot of young people a chance to explore the inner works of the art world with the internships you offer.
Well, we give people a chance. I think for me a lot of people are bored and there are not a lot of places like mine in the city. I want you to stay here. My family is here, and we need you guys here. That is my goal, to keep you in London. If you leave, you are a loss because we need people who are building your own little space in the world.
You have to believe that you can be successful anywhere. Someone said to me the other day that it must be tough in London. It’s not tough to live here; it’s tough to do business here. That is sort of the catch for me. London is very private and there is not a lot of sharing. I have had a business in downtown for a very long time, and there is not a real network of other merchants who get together and do something like have lunch or a beer once a month. Communication amongst downtown businesses could be improved to the benefit of the city.
You feel like there is a lack of community amongst businesses?
There is not a sense of community that there should be. I mean I’ve been here 30 some-odd years. A part of it is that some people who were part of my community are no longer open. I need the ability to chit chat with other business owners because it is a lonely thing being an entrepreneur and owning your own business. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, I just think at the top there is not a real entrepreneurial “lets go get-em” version of the city. Maybe they think the middle is okay, whereas, I don’t believe that.
I think the entrepreneurial spirit is challenged here, because you don’t feel like part of a team, rather, you feel isolated. It would be so much better if there were a network of people like we had on Talbot Street in the 1980s. You need that energy. Maybe we need an incubator or a bunch of mentors who can get together with people who are thinking of starting their own business in the downtown area. We could meet very casually over a beer and a sandwich and just talk. Talk solves most problems, but you have to talk it through.
At the end of the day you're in the business of selling Art. How do you balance that with being a host for people who come here leisurely?
I see our business as a lifestyle. If you’re into art great. If you’re not, that’s fine, but for us it is a lifestyle. We try and present music, food and wine with art. For us the people we deal with enjoy our company, and we enjoy theirs. They get “it”. They understand that art is part of who they need to be. There are a lot of people who don’t understand art at all. We can help open something new for them.
I think you are asking how do we make a living? Well, if you put something in front of the right person, they won’t be able to resist and will buy it. It’s playing matchmaker.
If a collector has a passion for art, I will try to show them new artists who they should be considering. People will not complain about the price unless the quality or service is suspect. I think a key word for us is quality. We exhibit artworks with quality. We present artwork in a professional manner and provide very good service. We educate, introduce the clients to the artists, attend art fairs, travel, appraise, deliver, install and introduce collectors to other collectors. So then how important is the price really, when tomorrow it won’t matter? You pay and it hurts. And, yes, it hurts, I agree. I buy art and it hurts, but you have to pull that trigger and commit to it and then you’re in. You are now part of a life that is much broader than the life you left. That experience is essentially me. I am open to experiencing something that I know is of quality.
What does success mean to you?
Success is not money. It’s happiness - your health, and just being happy. The money will follow. I think if you worry about the money you are worrying about the wrong thing. Of course if you have to pay the rent and it’s $600 dollars and you have $300 that’s a problem and I have been there. That is hard. True success is happiness, being content, being able to sleep, to have a clear head, to have good friends and to make the world a better place.
We are lucky, but I have also worked really hard and have made opportunities that weren’t there, like getting this space. The building was empty for years, but I saw the ceiling and thought wow this would be a nice gallery. I saw the width and the height and that is all I needed to know.
What captivates your attention?
I am captivated by originality and vision. I admire people who have the drive to finish what they started. I am a curious person, so I really enjoy the changing economy and how that affects us all. I enjoy trying to be current at the dinner table.
Is there anything you want to do or explore within the next few years?
I want to continue to learn new things in my profession but also in my private passions. Travel, as I mentioned, combines these needs nicely.
What’s one question you wished people asked you more often?
“Can I pay with Visa or MasterCard?” (laughs)