FOR ALL THE BRAVE TALK about cultural revival, art in Canada is still a buyer’s market. Though the savage infighting of London, Paris and New York hasn’t yet developed here, selling pictures is a rough and risky game with the economic odds stacked against all but the smartest and luckiest. At first glance the Toronto dealer Dorothy Cameron — a rangy, elegant creature who has served time in such socially influential institutions as Bishop Strachan School and the Women’s Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto, and who currently graces a CTV panel show called To Tell the Truth — scarcely looks tough enough to survive. But after three seasons in the Here and Now Gallery on Cumberland Street, a long block of studios and boutiques behind Bloor Street, Miss Cameron is not folding but expanding. When she opened the Dorothy Cameron Gallery' on Yonge Street this month, she moved boldly into competition with a handful of major Canadian galleries. In art, Cumberland Street is chic; Yonge Street means business.
When Dorothy Cameron says, “I’m not practical,” she demonstrates one of the shrewdest heads in the business. In the cockeyed world where art and money meet, looking commercial is the quickest way to go broke. Artists want cash, but they lose patience with a dealer who doesn’t understand their work,
and even the greenest buyer comes to resent being conned into third-rate art.
Perhaps because she began as a collector. Miss Cameron has a remarkably sure instinct for the new wave in art and its cross-currents and eddies in private collections. She has a strong sense of fashion as well as taste and contagious enthusiasm. As a customer says, “She makes you feel that you’re not only lucky to get this picture but very smart to have picked it out." She opened the Here and Now, a frankly chauvinistic showcase for contemporary' Canadian work, at the precise moment when hundreds of prosperous Canadians began buying original paintings for the first time in their lives.
Her excitement over Canadian work started ten years ago when she was public relations chairman for the Women's Committee (“my conventional period, when I wore hats”). At this time she was married to Dr. Frederick Moes, from whom she is now separated. She and her sister Anna, the actress and TV interviewer, had grown up with French art—their parents were early collectors of Utrillo, Rodin, Marie Laurencin and others — but she was scarcely aware of Canadian art until she screened pictures for the annual Women’s Committee sales. She says, “It hit me between the eyes—Harold Town, William Ronald and the rest were my contemporaries—and I became an absolute fanatic.”
In 1956, fired by a Town print, she tracked the artist to his studio and while looking through his work told him all about herself. Town, perhaps surprised to find himself outtalked, remarked, “You’re such a nut about art, why the hell aren’t you a dealer?” Thus gently encouraged, she resigned from the Women’s Committee, gave up her amateur status, and turned pro as an assistant, first in the Gallery of Contemporary Art and then in the Jordan Gallery.
When the Jordan closed she opened the Here and Now and traveled across Canada digging out Western and French-Canadian artists and bringing them and their work back to Toronto. The paintings she gathered ranged from John Gould’s severely black-and-white figure drawings to the glowing abstractions of Ulysses Comtois, from passionate Rita Letendres to subtle, mystical Ronald Bloores. A single piece of sculpture in a group show, a tender, majestic construction of metals and burnt wood, sertt her off to a farm near Rockwood, Ont., in search of Yosef Drenters, whom she now calls “the most completely original talent I’ve found.”
Unlike most galleries, which tend to be a little stuffy and self-conscious, Miss Cameron’s has an uninhibited gaiety. Gallery openings can be painfully sparse affairs in less socially gifted hands; hers are amusing enough to draw rival dealers and their artistè, as well as collectors. Although she’s as capable as a girl guide (she remembers telephone numbers, packs an uncrushed suitcase, and can produce a small, feminine flask in a moment of crisis), her formidable mind is effectively masked by warmth, wit and an extravagant presence that Harold Town calls “a general effulgence.”
Ross McLean, who suggested her as panelist for To Tell the Truth, says, “There has always been a natural theatricality about Dorothy.” McLean launched her with the familiar advice, “Just be yourself”; unlike most performers, she took the old chestnut seriously. Don Cameron, the moderator, says, “Dorothy has a flyby-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to television. Her questions seem to come off the top of her head, but her fun isn’t as unconscious as it looks. That wacky sense of humor is backed by intelligence.”
It’s also backed by enormous energy and
conviction. A friend says, “Dorothy completely lacks objectivity. The other side doesn’t exist for her, even in arguments. She’s perfectly prepared to use tears or any other weapon to convince you.” About her artists she is intensely partisan. One of them says, “There are only two dealers in this city who have your interest at heart and will stick their necks out, and Dorothy’s one.” Another adds, “She's a combination of a den mother and a psychiatrist. She has style in the sense of joy, and this is very salubrious for the artist—and very effective in the gallery.”
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