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My Background

Leo Kamen -


CV – That sweet daisy chain of success — I’ve avoided compiling one all my life.

Over a period of some thirty years (1982 – 2011) I curated over three hundred exhibitions as an art dealer and owner of the Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto. Today, even if I try to choose only those shows that were the smartest or most meaningful, the list would be far too long. I’d have too much to say about how the shows developed, what made them good, and why what the artist had to say about their work was important.

The gallery had many markers of success along the way. Magazine and newspaper articles. Pieces purchased by the National Gallery. Notable collections. Notable collectors. The Department of Foreign Affairs acquired artworks for Canadian embassies and consulates all around the world. Naturally this mattered, but these markers weren’t representative of how I identified myself as an art dealer. My agenda was far more personal in nature. I saw the gallery as a refuge from the world, as a crucible for intelligence and beauty, a place for contemplation, a chapel, a haven from noise and distraction. These were the things I valued.

Consequently, if I were to reconceive the nature of a CV, I’d probably record only those things I consider meaningful. The headings on this CV would be different, of course. Under “Contemplation,” I’d list how the gallery had achieved it year-over-year, how each exhibition contributed to an atmosphere of thoughtfulness, and how viewers were hooked into the significance of art as a result. Under “Great Conversations,” I’d list where, when, and with whom I had them. I’d share which art made for the best conversations and list some of the things visitors said. Under “Insights,” I’d note those that were the most moving and why, while quoting from clients and curators, journalists and consultants. Under “Refuge” — well, you catch my drift.

Curriculum vitae. The course of a life. How we list our accomplishments depends much on how we choose our markers.

Leo Kamen - Drink4.jpg


I was born in Ottawa in 1951 to immigrant parents who’d fled Europe after the Second World War. My father was from Latvia. My mother from Russia. At the age of seventeen I left Ottawa to enroll at the University of Toronto, then moved north of the city two years later to live and work as an artist. From 1972 to 1980 I sculpted and took photographs, supporting myself by managing a furniture store in Barrie, slinging beer at the Clarkson Hotel, and hiring myself out as a photographer. Most notable of my commissions was the suite of nudes I took of a masseuse, whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten.

In 1980 I moved back to Toronto, worked as director of the Tatay Gallery for two years, and opened the Leo Kamen Gallery in 1985 at 80 Spadina Avenue. Over the next twenty-five years I courted bankruptcy more often than I care to remember, built up a stable of artists with national reputations, and then closed the gallery in 2011 to take up a career as a writer.

An artist I knew once observed that an art dealer needed to have a wide variety of skills in order to survive: a gift for marketing, public relations and business administration; an aptitude for psychology; awareness of art history; and possession of enough charm to persuade the tightest of wallets to open. Having mastered these skills, he concluded, the dealer was then ruined for anything else but the selling of his soul for money, status and power.

During my career I discovered two antidotes to such cynicism. The first was in the pleasure I took visiting artists in their studios. A single hour spent in their incandescent company was enough to restore my faith in humanity. The second was in the satisfaction I experienced devising and installing exhibitions. My eye only became harder to please as the years went by, yet my ache for intelligence and beauty never diminished. Fortunately, I’ve managed to keep finding both.

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