Celebrating five years of FENTSTER with founder and curator Evelyn Tauben

In 2016, Evelyn Tauben unveiled FENTSTER, a storefront gallery on College Street, in Toronto. She sought to create “a window onto Jewish life through art”, and today, as a trusted and respected curator, has ensured what has covered or sat behind the window continues to deliver a kaleidoscopic examination of Jewish themes authentically. FENTSTER’S consistently innovative approach to how art can be viewed, delivered, and told, has led to this celebratory moment: FENTSTER’S five year anniversary. 

FENTSTER’S inception can be traced back to Evelyn living in Philadelphia and deciding, “for fun” to do Yiddish cultural programming while working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She later attended a Jewish arts and culture conference in New York simply out of curiosity and met the then director of Koffler Centre of the Arts, who would soon offer her a job. 

As someone who was always “pretty hands on in the Jewish community” Evelyn found certain aspects “grating”, so attending the conference, where she was surrounded by “creative, dynamic, smart cool people” was refreshing and inspiring. After around four years with Koffler, Evelyn started working independently with Jewish artists: producing their concerts, book launches, theatre, curating content for KlezKanada, Le Mood and the Ashkenaz Festival. Four years later, when Makom moved into Rochelle Rubinstein’s former studio space (Rubinstein sits on the FENTSTER advisory committee), Tauben wondered what would happen to Rubinstein’s window gallery. . . well, FENTSTER happened. 

With her background in visual arts and exhibition development, Tauben set sail on a new exciting adventure, and was thrilled to have “this little bubble of my own to play with and to do it in a Jewish way, it’s kind of the perfect intersection of everything I’m about.” 

But what is Tauben and FENTSTER about? To mark her and the gallery’s celebratory milestone, Tauben virtually sat down with Niv to ruminate on the past, present, and future of all things FENTSTER. 

From speaking to artists you’ve worked with, you seem to take a collaborative curatorial approach, but what is your perspective on your approach as a curator?

I don’t think I knew it was necessarily going to go this way when I started FENTSTER. It has definitely evolved into a very collaborative process, especially with artists who consider maybe exploring new terrain by working with FENTSTER. We spend a lot of time talking about what we’re trying to accomplish, what interests them, finding that sweet spot, what is going to be the story they’re telling;  is it substantively Jewish, is it interesting, is it saying something new for FENTSTER, new for the Jewish world? Occasionally, people throw a couple ideas at me and I respond to which one seems most compelling to me, visually and thematically.

Looking over all of FENTSTER’S work throughout these five years, each exhibition is different, but there’s a consistent theme: confronting or exploring memories. Is that something you think about, or does it inherently happen; has memory been something you’ve been interested in as well?

I’m very interested in memory as a theme, but there’s no intentional theme, except for Jewish and window. When FENTSTER started I asked our artists advisory committee should there be an annual theme and we felt there’s enough parameters that we don’t need to introduce more limitations. I think memory is core to the Jewish experience, it’s central to the way we understand ourselves but also to ritual. The projects are often shaped through a collaborative conversation. It’s definitely the artists work, their aesthetic, but sometimes with massaging, or guiding, or discussion. So, it does kind of land sometimes in familiar terrain, but I do think they’re all very different

 There’s many topics I haven’t covered, we haven’t looked at gender or sexuality, we need to work with many more Jewish artists of colour. With Rachel Miller’s project, I saw there was an opportunity, as she is interested in environmental issues. I wasn’t forcing a theme on her, but I really wanted to tease that out, because it’s a very important topic and hadn’t come up in our exhibitions yet. 

When you reach out to an artist and you want to collaborate, do you look for something specifically?

I do have an eye out for artists who work in an installation based way, now, not every artist I’ve worked with has a history in installation, and that’s been part of the conversation—how to translate their work in that dimensional way because a lot of artists are used to thinking about the page, or the wall, and this is about taking up space, and creating a little world. FENTSTER’S really a stage onto the street, so they need to  conceive of that whole space, ideally, and, and transform it in their own way. 

Sometimes I look for artists who are making interesting work connected to Jewish themes, but not always. I’ve worked with a lot of artists who are not actively engaging in Jewish themes, but they identify as Jewish, and they are interested in entering Jewish art spaces, and then together we kind of figure out what that can look like while still being true to their aesthetic. I think that’s partly what’s been exciting about FENTSTER. It has brought work to life that would not have existed before, partly because it’s site-specific, so it’s usually all new work—not all of the time, but most of the time it’s been only new work or work reconceived in a new way—but also just mining a whole other aspect of an artist’s way of thinking about themselves or the world. 

Do you always approach the artist? 

It’s been a mixture; early on, artists started approaching me. We don’t have a call for submissions, but it was really exciting to start to hear from artists, from people I know or knew of, and from people I didn’t. Since it is a grassroots project, I need to work with people who are enthusiastic about the platform.

Art has an interesting and serendipitous way of making you discover things about yourself that you didn’t know.  Even one’s own Jewish history isn’t always prominent or explored in a lot of people’s lives till maybe later on in life, or is something they don’t really think about often in regards to their own identity.

I think in general Jews have inherited a self-consciousness about being public Jews, there are good reasons for that. As an artist, if it’s not something that’s top of mind, I can understand why it doesn’t necessarily come out in your work. An artist may wonder whether it would limit their possibilities for showing, for being acquired by collectors or institutions, because whether or not it’s true, I think Jews will sometimes think, self-consciously, this could only be of interest to other Jews, though I don’t believe that. By creating a platform, it creates a new possibility.

 One that is warm and encouraging.

It’s about being conceptually accessible, not just physically accessible. I am not interested in contemporary art that is so conceptual it becomes alienated, or that it must have curatorial interpretation to even begin to be understandable. I always have the text, and the text has a lot of information in it, so for someone who wants to dig deeper, it’s there, and they will uncover more layers of the work and artist’s intention, but I always think that the work has to have an impact even if you don’t read the curatorial statement, and be interesting on its own.

In A Place for Wholesome Amusement, and Blood, Milk and Tears you introduce two seemingly separate cultures and pair them alongside Judaism. What was the process like working within these different cultures?

 Whenever you are collaborating—as both those projects have other partnerships—and you’re getting to know another community, it’s always more complicated, and it’s always more work, and it’s a little bit scary too, because it’s unfamiliar. I carry a lot of fear around things getting messy, making a mistake, disrespecting someone’s culture, saying the wrong thing. It’s just kind of been an ongoing practice for me, of just saying doing the work is more important than the fear of getting it wrong. And also, we will get it wrong, and that shouldn’t hold us back.

In Blood, Milk and Tears, Muslim and Jewish team-up , showing that people from different backgrounds, that probably many think cannot, can  come together and make art. What was it like for these artists exploring different cultures from the ones that they’re used to as well?  

Blood, Milk and Tears was an outgrowth of an existing project by Shari Golberg. She has an initiative called Shema & Iqra’: The Jewish-Muslim Text Project, it was a series of meetings between Muslim and Jewish women, but specifically women who are connected to the arts in some way. We started with text study, learning from the Quran and from Jewish tradition. To be honest, not everybody worked on a piece together, but even working side by side was meaningful. Occasionally somebody, like one woman asked another can you come write Arabic on my piece, and that was very special. Some who did work on projects together formed some meaningful connections because the themes were about women’s experiences with menstruation, breastfeeding, and mourning in their traditions. Two women were sharing their breastfeeding stories and ended up collaborating on a piece.

Usually when I think about FENTSTER, I think only about the front window, but there is a second one. Has it always been a section of the space you’ve played with?

During the day there is some glare to contend with when you’re standing on College Street.  When you approach the entryway and there’s the door to Makom and there’s the door to the apartment, you’re in a contained area so there’s less glare, and you can peer [in from the side] and get closer. Blood, Milk and Tears, for example, some of the scrolls we hung at the back you could get closest to by standing on the side. We hung a few parallel to the side window, the only way to see them was by coming around. I like the idea of someone kind of dancing around on the sidewalk and moving this way and that way.

Yes, and depending on the story you’re telling.

For Evan Tapper’s Grine Kuzine, we put in another place setting basically for the viewer. But only around the side there. So that’s the view where you feel like you could step right into her kitchen.

Have you noticed how FENTSTER’S changed the way people think they can interact with art or how artists can interact with their art or other people’s art?

 I think on the website I still describe it as a gallery but it has become more of an idea. The tagline is ‘a window into Jewish life through art’. And actually Mindy Stricke, who’s on the advisory committee, pointed out to me a few years ago that anything can fit under FENTSTER’S banner, anything can be a window into Jewish life through art.

Right before the pandemic I received a grant to work with MNJCC, and Neuberger, we brought two young artists from Warsaw for two weeks, and did two exhibitions and school workshops and talks around the city and talked at the Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library. I don’t think I would have anticipated that, but I’m just rolling with it, and using FENTSTER as a jumping off point to create things. And part of that is following my gut, following opportunities, following my own enthusiasm. 

Now this move into online space and collaborating with organizations and artists across North America, having this whole team building PRISM—mostly none of us have ever met in-person—we’ve gotten close and we’re taking chances. 

What are your expectations or goals for FENTSTER’S future?

With PRISM and our event in December, Arts and Artists on Being Black and Jewish, I realized I can’t do everything through the window, and not everything is a fit through the window, but there are still artists I want to work with.

I am thinking about different ways to showcase artists that aren’t necessarily installation based. I’m working on conversations with other like-minded people working in the Jewish world to seriously consider what our role can be in reconciliation and building a more anti-racist inclusive Jewish community. To work together, support each other, but also push the conversation forward beyond just me and my little slice of the world on College Street.

 How do you think the arts fit into the Jewish community?

 I wish this community starts to see the potential in grassroots initiatives, and do a better job of supporting start-up projects in general. Do a better job of seeing how the arts give us our own stories, open new avenues of inquiry and reflection. And build bridges with other communities and within the community in a way other areas don’t. I find the work very exciting and meaningful. The feedback from the community and from the arts community is overwhelming and positive, I just wish it wasn’t such a struggle to fund it. It would be great to have more ease in that aspect.

As I speak to people in more places [both internationally and in Canada], I hope they do look at their windows differently. I have noticed with the pandemic, at least locally, people are taking their windows more seriously. Stores and other arts organizations have been using their windows in ways they never thought of before. But I would like specifically Jewish communities to think about being very public with our Jewishness through art and using windows to do that, and being at the centre of not necessarily the JCC or a shul, but in the middle of a neighbourhood.

Beside a Domino’s

 Across the street from a school, two doors down from a German church.

Since being published this article has been updated/edited in regards to clarity and context. 

The five year FENTSTER anniversary celebration continues, with interviews from Bernice Eisenstein, Lynne Heller, David Kaufman, Rachel Miller, and Evan Tapper.  

Header and slideshow images courtesy of FENTSTER.

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