Toronto’s west end has long boasted some of the city’s hippest art galleries, lending a patina of urban sophistication to an area that now epitomizes cutting-edge cool. But gentrification’s easterly march is sowing a whole new crop of exciting spaces. Pentimento Gallery is one of the more established of these, having created a respected and eclectic presence at its über-chic Queen East location.
“I purposefully put myself at the other end of the city,” owner John Rait says. “I really believe you shouldn’t need to take a day trip to see good art. You should be able to see it in your own neighbourhood.”
Rait originally had no thought of founding a gallery, in his Leslieville neighbourhood or otherwise. His interest in art was largely as an appreciative observer, with a latent interest in photography that had been relegated to part-time hobby status.
“My path is an unusual one to get here,” he says. “I started out as a competitive figure skater and world professional champion in ice dancing in 1980. At that point, TV had discovered they could make money out of figure skating, so there was quite a lot of work.”
Performing alongside stars like Gene Kelly and Toller Cranston, Rait gradually became interested in the administrative side of the arts. He segued into a career of casting direction before ultimately moving on to talent management, at one point representing the internationally acclaimed Canadian actor Sandra Oh. As his planned retirement grew closer, Rait realized he still needed an outlet for his artistic passion.
“I had taken up photography for myself, and some of the actors I knew asked me to take headshots,” he says. “I rented this studio, essentially, to take headshots and just do my own work. Opening the art gallery was a way to keep my own learning curve going, learning about the art scene, what sells, what doesn’t. It was really a fun venture for me.”
Certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of Pentimento’s mandate is the discovery and showcasing of up-and-coming artists on its crisp, white walls.
“The excitement for me is having the learning curve of working with emerging artists and being part of their careers as they grow,” Rait says. “Look at somebody like Troy Brooks, who is one of my bestselling artists. He’s just been chosen to be a part of the Church Street WorldPride Mural Project. It’s been exciting to see someone like him, launch him and watch him move forward in the scene.”
This role of mentor sits comfortably with Rait, and he recalls with affection the professionals who guided his own career through its varied and frequently glamorous path.
“Working with people like Toller and Chita Rivera, watching Baryshnikov record The Nutcracker ballet, and being in the television studio while Joyce Davidson was just down the hall interviewing Gloria Swanson was an incredible experience for me,” he says. “As a young man, having access to these people, to be able to ask them questions and watch them work, was really stimulating.
“Seeing that now, at age 60, while I watch the young artists emerging, is a pretty great life, I think.”