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The art of the dealer

Guelph art dealer Renann Isaacs wants to get you hooked on local contemporary art.
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The RICA gallery on Gordon Street was charged with anxious anticipation last Saturday as owner Renann Isaacs prepared to launch her third exhibit of renowned Guelph cartoonist Seth.

“What I love about Seth is that he creates a show,” said Isaacs. “He works on how many projects a year but one of those projects is going to be an exhibition at the gallery. This is all made for the gallery.”

The Rooms exhibit does, in many ways, epitomize Isaac’s initial vision for her gallery of a simple, personal space where visitors can take their time to connect with the art and artists she is promoting.

“I didn’t want a large space,” she said. “Sometimes you go to galleries and they are so large that it is overwhelming. I wanted it to have an intimate feel, welcoming, so people could say ‘I can see that in my home’.

She opened the first Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art gallery on Quebec Street in Dec 2010 and was there until Dec 2016. She purchased the space at 5 Gordon St. in Nov 2016 and reopened there in April 2017.

Isaacs has worked as a curator, consultant and dealer for most of her adult life but art has been an intrinsic part of her world since she was conceived. Her mother studied opera and was both an actor and a dress designer. Her father, Avrom Isaacs, was one of the most celebrated and influential contemporary art dealers in the country for more than five decades.

He died in Jan 2016 but his influence lives on through his daughter’s work and she bears no pretentions about the vital role art dealers play in the creation and propagation of art.

“When I say dealer it’s an interesting thing,” said Isaacs. “One day my dad said, ‘I don’t like the term gallerist. What’s that supposed to be? I like dealer. We are dealers. We deal in art and we get people addicted.’ What better thing to be addicted to?”

Isaacs’ eclectic taste and artistic instincts are reflected in the diversity of the art she sells and the artists she has built relationships with.

“Galleries tend to specialize in certain things but I like all kinds of art,” she said. “I can’t even imagine my house without art in it but I am very opinionated when it comes to bad art and there is a lot of bad art out there.”

She draws heavily from a deep well of local artists and in the last few months has hosted exhibits for Ryan Price, Stu Oxley and Tammy Ratcliff.

“I tend to focus on a lot of emerging and mid career, which is also an unusual thing for a gallery to do,” said Isaacs. “You don’t make as much money but it’s more exciting to discover new talent.”

As she was setting out wine and appetizers for the opening, Seth could be seen emerging from the shadows of the Wilson Street train bridge. As he walked toward the gallery, his distinct silhouette cut an anachronistic figure against the lines and surfaces of the downtown core.

It is a familiar sight in a city that has claimed him as its own – a city where, an artist as private and as famous as Seth, once enjoyed a degree of deliberate anonymity.

“When I first came to Guelph I was trying to keep my distance so I literally didn’t know anyone in the arts here for a few years until Renann talked me into having a show,” said Seth. “It went over well and it actually made me feel more a part of the community. It’s not just a place I live. It feels like my home now.”

The Rooms exhibit that runs from Nov 30 to Dec 23, features works created directly by Seth as well as interpretations of his work by local artisans.

“I like working with other people because they have skills that I don’t have,” said Seth. “For the screen prints I worked with an artist in town named Gillian Wilson. For the ceramics I am working with a mold maker from Kitchener named Jaro Peterka. For the textile I am working with a local sewer named Robin Baird Lewis and carpenter, Matthew Kells, built the peep show in the back for me.”

No one would describe Seth as an emerging artist given that his art now hangs on the walls of many prestigious galleries and in the homes of collectors around the world but Isaacs is proud to say RICA was the first commercial gallery in Canada to show his work.

“Seth is an artist that I would like other young artists to meet because he is very disciplined and I think they would learn a lot from him,” she said. “There is a lot of talent here. I am shocked by it and I really want more people to come. We have a whole bunch of plans. It’s insane.”