In all the world there's nothing else quite like the Ydessa Hendeles Foundation, an astonishing museum of modern visual culture that's existed for 11 years in Toronto, remaining all this time unknown to most Torontonians and most of their visitors. Both its excellence and its obscurity can be traced to the personality of its creator, a 50-year-old woman of soaring ambition and radical ambivalence who chooses and buys all the art it contains, designs all the exhibitions and runs the entire institution on her own -- "solo," as she says.
Ydessa, who is known mainly by her first name, has spent millions of the dollars that her late father made in real estate on collecting art and millions more on buying, renovating, and operating the building at 778 King St. W. where she mounts her exhibitions. Yet the results, while well known to curators, artists and dealers across Europe and North America, remain almost a secret among the people who are Ydessa's natural constituency, her fellow Canadians.
She sends out no press releases and makes no strenuous attempts to entice the public. She opens the place for five hours a week, noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and charges $4 ("because otherwise they don't think it's important"). When a new exhibition opens, about once a year, roughly 1,000 people show up on opening day, in response to invitations she mails out. On ordinary Saturdays, attendance can usually be counted in the dozens. This Saturday it was 69.
Ydessa leaves each exhibition in place for a long time. One of the two shows now running, Realities (which includes work by three great photographers, André Kertesz, Lewis Hine and Diane Arbus) opened in June, 1998, and will close in June, 2000. The other show, called My Culture -- My Self (which includes a superb collection of photographic self-portraits by Lee Friedlander and a heart-stoppingly good video piece by an Iranian-American woman, Shirin Neshat) opened in September and runs to March, 2001. The next show, Canadian Stories, opens in September, 2000.
Ydessa's ambition expresses itself, first of all, in her avid collecting. She's a shrewd buyer of big-league art, often getting in early on artists like Cindy Sherman or Louise Bourgeois. Today her collection (most of it stored in a warehouse, some of it out on loan to other museums) contains about 1,000 items, counting everything from individual photos to installation pieces the size of a small room.
Her ambivalence expresses itself in the way she deals with the public and the art community. She wants us to know living art better than we do, she understands that a museum is an educational institution, but she doesn't worry much about advertising. As a result, her foundation is a curious hybrid, somehow both private and public.
She herself hopes for recognition but never seeks it in a purposeful way. Her own position in Canadian culture puzzles her. She'll admit that she's rather astonished that she isn't on the board of this museum or that art school, but she refuses to do anything that would look like campaigning for a seat. She comes across as self-obsessed and self-dramatizing, yet there's no question that she's emotionally committed to a grand view of art and its ability to sharpen (perhaps even elevate) human sensibilities.
Journalists sometimes compare her to Phyllis Lambert, the creator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Both dead-serious patrons of the arts, they have educated themselves carefully and used their inherited money to project their own cultural visions. They have another point in common: Neither has ever been called easy to get along with.
But their differences are greater. Lambert, whose resources are far more vast, operates through a small empire of curators, issues many publications and commissioned an exquisite building by Peter Rose to house her centre. Ydessa does all her own curating, publishes nothing and uses a nondescript building that you could easily miss if you didn't know the street address.
The shows that Ydessa puts together make wonderful sense, but never obvious sense. She wants each of them to be, as she says, "an experience that precludes words." She sees her work as a way to open "new neurological pathways." She wants to redefine the way art is exhibited. Her shows are narratives, but narratives told only in oblique visual terms. She claims that they are all accessible, that there's nothing esoteric about them. My guess, though, is that many visitors come away impressed with the quality of the art but totally unaware of the points she's trying to make on subjects like identity, the exploitation of children and the way society treats abnormal humans.
She doesn't manipulate her visitors. Unlike most curators, she issues no instructions: no catalogue crammed with history and analysis, no didactic wall text explaining the intentions of the artists and the curator, and only the most laconic labels on the walls. Eventually, however, visitors learn a few strategies for understanding a show by Ydessa: (1) Read each wall label, however brief. (2) Don't ignore any object -- they are all related, from the most conservative and viewer-friendly to the most difficult. (3) When you have seen everything, walk the exhibit in reverse and see everything again. (4) Bear in mind that these works of art are threaded together through the mind of the curator; you are invited to guess your way into her perceptions or develop your own.
Ydessa trusts you to trust her: You are expected to assume she has something to say. It involves effort. Your reward (aside from the splendid art she assembles) is the realization that there is one place in the world that wants to show you some of the most vital recent art without telling you precisely what you should think about it.