A Conversation with: Trevor Twells of MakeRoom Inc.
Born and raised in Scarborough, Trevor Twells has seized an opportunity to create a space where Toronto’s underrepresented artists can express themselves creatively, access resources, and get paid. Meet MakeRoom Inc.
As a Black creator himself, Trevor has personal experience with the obstacles marginalized artists face in obtaining gallery representation and exposure. He knows all too well how hard it is to get work seen, and the lack of representation there is in the creative industry.
MakeRoom Inc. is a non-profit with a mission to facilitate the display of artists’ work in Toronto by giving them space and real estate.
What motivated you to start MakeRoom Inc.?
Around eight years ago, I got my start as an artist. My first exhibit was very topical in Toronto — it was an experiential 3D exhibit about subway congestion. Lucky for me, it got picked up by news sites and around 100 people attended my first show. As I started progressing through my artistic practice, I began noticing the gatekeeping that artists who look like me faced when it came to accessing space and grants [and nepotism in the industry]. I also noticed the Toronto housing crisis pushing artists out of the city and taking away DIY spaces that artists who looked like me relied on.
I noticed that window spaces in stores, especially galleries, were unused at night. So I got the idea that if these places would allow me, I could project artists’ art onto those unused window space. With that idea, MakeRoom’s first initiative, The Space Project, came to be.
Did you face any barriers getting MakeRoom Inc. off the ground?
Ironically, the first barrier MakeRoom faced was finding space. Some businesses were hesitant to lend us the use of their windows. Lucky enough, #Hashtag Gallery, a DIY space I had exhibited at before, agreed to be MakeRoom’s first partner [for The Space Project]. We also had a hard time at the start of the pandemic when all our partner galleries closed down their physical locations. I used this time to reevaluate MakeRoom’s approach and realized I couldn’t do this all by myself, so I brought on a friend, Maryam, to help on the project where she can. Now we have three partner galleries and are heading into a fourth. [Another] barrier I faced when I first started was that I was spending my own money on equipment, research and development, and maintenance costs.
What challenges do underrepresented artists face in terms of career advancement and exhibiting opportunities?
In 2020, artist Ibrahim Abusitta reported that BIPOC artists only make up a total of three per cent of artists represented in major galleries. This confirmed the suspicion I had when I first started working on MakeRoom Inc. back in 2018. Emerging artists, especially [Black artists], face plenty of challenges, including nepotism and gatekeeping of space. Truly open opportunities, where you don’t need to know someone or have a connection, are scarce in the arts. This is also true with grants, where BIPOC artists, [who] often have to “pimp out their trauma” in order to be seen. The other challenge is the real-estate crisis that is pushing both BIPOC artists and the DIY spaces that support them away. Artistic careers rely on momentum, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard curators mention [they value having] heard of the artist submitting. So, you can imagine how hard it is to break through.
Have you faced any challenges personally?
As a Black artist myself, I have definitely experienced my fair share of challenges. I’ve seen spaces that supported me when I first started ultimately close down due to the rising cost of the city. I’ve also lost out on opportunities and grants, only to find out that the curator or members of the jury had a personal connection to the receiving artist.
How can art institutions better support Black artists?
By including them and by looking at who occupies their spaces. You’d be surprised how many institutions don’t carry any statistics [about] who is represented in their spaces. Institutions also need to extend past the socio-economic bubbles they occupy, by doing outreach and supporting initiatives in communities that aren’t affluent. Institutions are very closed off to public collaboration by design. By creating clear pathways to engage with them, they can learn from and be led by more diverse voices. Lastly, institutions have to allow themselves to hear Black stories that stray away from what they expect. There’s a quote that stuck with me for a very long time from artist and close friend, James Yeboah: “I’m tired of being a Black artist,” meaning that Black artists are tired of having to relate blackness to the white gaze of institutions in order to fit into their expectations.
What is the intention behind The Space Project?
To provide space to BIPOC and emerging artists. The Space Project is in itself an act of rebellion by providing free space in a city that is actively pushing us out. It’s also a rebellion against institutions that create inaccessible environments for these artists. From this initiative, MakeRoom Inc. has also evolved into working with businesses to include BIPOC and emerging artists in a way that counters nepotism and gatekeeping in the arts.
The Space Project’s motto is “more space and real estate in Toronto” — where would you like to see this project displayed in the city?
One of our goals is to have The Space Project collections displayed permanently on a prominent building in Toronto. [It would] be really cool to have a large permanent space for artists to show their work on a large scale.
What is your most memorable MakeRoom Inc. show to date?
I have two! Last November we teamed up with the City of Toronto to curate and project two art collections in two different locations. The first display was located on the [exterior of] Scarborough Town Centre, the second was on the Richmond-Adelaide Centre in the Financial District. It felt like a culmination of all that we built with MakeRoom Inc. — from the artists and jurors, to our community coming out to support us. As a Scarborough kid, I loved that we got to bring back public art on such a large scale to my community. We also had a big outdoor community event in the heart of the Financial District which was pretty unheard of.
What impression do you hope MakeRoom Inc. has on the Toronto art scene?
My personal hope for MakeRoom Inc. is that it’s seen and widely recognized as a platform for BIPOC and emerging artists to have space for their work. Organizations tend to become more inaccessible when they get bigger and have more expectations of the type of artists they work with. We want to flip that on its head, as we grow as an organization, we want to create even more space for BIPOC and emerging artists with even [fewer] barriers.
What exciting projects does MakeRoom Inc. have planned next?
On August 27, we are having an exciting art auction and outdoor social on the rooftop of 401 Richmond. We’re showcasing six very talented artists who are auctioning five signed, numbered and framed prints along with one framed original. You can find more details on the event page.
We are also on-boarding more venue partners for The Space Project soon. You can keep up with us on our Instagram @MakeRoomInc.