Here’s the great thing about hosting a party at a contemporary art gallery — the space comes with its own fabulous decor. There was wall-to-wall artwork at Studio Sixty Six on Friday night as owner Carrie Colton celebrated a decade of business.
“It wasn’t easy getting here,” said Colton in an interview, prior to the opening of her Constructed Truths exhibition featuring the works of artists Atticus Gordon, Alexandra Flood and 2022 TRIAS Art Prize winner Andrew Morrow. The art show also doubled as an anniversary party with a DJ, drinks and cake.
The past 10 years have been “amazing, challenging, rewarding, often heartbreaking and most definitely crazy”, according to Colton.
Burovision is tripling the size of its downtown office, taking over the entire second floor of 300 Sparks St. as an ode to ‘people-first’ offices.
The former professional artist and interior designer launched Studio Sixty Six in 2013. The name is inspired by her original off-the-beaten-path address: 66 Muriel St. in the Glebe. In 2018, she moved six blocks east to 858 Bank St, putting her gallery closer to the main street action.
Studio Sixty Six brings in enough money to cover all its overhead and operating costs, including two full-time staff (gallery manager Ginny Stovel and art director Sam Lowen) “but I’ve never been able to pay myself,” Colton said candidly.
“I know, in order for Studio Sixty Six to continue on as I get older, it needs to become financially viable. So, I’ve always been very motivated to make it successful. Even if I don’t need to make money, it needs to make money.”
Colton believes she’s on the right track, and has been reassured of this by her good friend, Pierre Luc St-Laurent. He’s the owner of Galerie St-Laurent + Hill, a decades-old leading contemporary art gallery in Ottawa. “He did help me put things into perspective,” said Colton.
Also supportive has been art consultant Patricia Barr, formerly of Wall Space Gallery + Framing. They cultivated a friendship after Barr came to the Studio Sixty Six opening of an exhibit by the late Lilly Koltun, who used to be head of the National Portrait Gallery and was on the board of the Ottawa Art Gallery for years. She went back to school late in life to become an artist but passed away from cancer in 2021.
Koltun was another one of Colton’s mentors. “She was a force of nature. I remember thinking, ‘I’m opening up a gallery in my late 40s, what am I doing?’ Then I met Lilly in her mid-60s and she’s like, ‘What does age have to do with anything? You got to make things happen, Carrie. You’re a creative person’.”
What keeps Colton inspired is the “burst of energy” she gets every time she walks into Studio Sixty Six. “I love the work, I believe in the work, it gives me energy like nothing else does.”
There are days when the doubt creeps in. Art galleries make money by taking a commission on every piece of art they sell. “You look at the numbers, you try and make the sales, there’s so much to do. You’re thinking about it as you go to sleep, and you’re like, ‘Why am I putting so much energy into this? Like, this is so crazy’. Then, I go to the gallery the next day and I’m, like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s because it’s great, and art is really, really important, and Ottawa needs this’.”
Studio Sixty Six focuses on works that are different and cutting edge. You won’t find classic floral and landscape paintings hanging on its walls. “That’s not what interests me,” said Colton.
“I think Ottawa is an international city and we have really well-educated people here, and we have people coming into the city from all over the world.
“I’m interested in contemporary, modern art … The artists I’m working with are doing something new, and that’s what has always excited me. These artists, you could find them in New York, you could find them in Berlin. I feel like my artists are really offering something new, fresh and exciting.”
Colton has been collecting art for decades with her husband, former technology executive Dave Longbottom. In 2017, he launched Flora Hall Brewing after acquiring a run-down old warehouse in Centretown and turning it into a cool craft brewery, kitchen and bar.
When Studio Sixty Six first opened, it focused on emerging Canadian artists. They didn’t all stick with it, though. “Being an artist is just one of the hardest things you can be,” said Colton, who expanded to include Christine Fitzgerald, Judy Nakagawa, Guillermo Trejo, Michael Schreier and Norman Takeuchi, among many others.
Colton decided against adding other income streams, such as art framing services, event space rental or the selling art of supplies. “I didn’t want to do that. I thought, ‘No, I really want to help artists’. I know what it’s like to be an artist.”
She said her focus has always been on showcasing the artists’ work to private collectors and to cultural institutions. “I’m not going to do anything else that takes my time or takes my staff’s time away from that.”
It’s also one of the reasons she operates out of a smaller, second-floor space. “I need to keep the rent down in order to do what it is that I’m doing,” said Colton.
Studio Sixty Six has never shied away from political and critical shows. The 2018 exhibit, Articulations, featured the artwork of 40 regional women artists. KANATA 150? in 2017, during our bicentennial anniversary, was a nod to the origin of the country’s name. It presented the works of seven Indigenous artists.
Said Colton of her labour of love: “Running an art gallery is hard; it’s so hard. I knew that, but I thought, ‘It’s not going to be that bad’. As the years went on, I’m like, ‘This is truly a crazy business’. I still think that, but I don’t regret it. Whenever I hear about anybody else starting a gallery, I’m like, ‘Oh God, good luck’.”
Christine Sadler, principal of Sadler Art Advisory, was among those to praise Colton for being so supportive of artists, whom she considers among the bravest of beings. “We want Ottawa to be a creative place, where people want to live and thrive,” said Sadler, who used to be head of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada. “That’s what Carrie is contributing directly to; she’s doing it with a very serious roster of artists who are doing really important work.”
Danny Hussey, co-owner of contemporary art gallery Central Art Garage (CAG), could appreciate more than most the importance of the anniversary — CAG is also 10 years old. “It’s hard for galleries to stay in business this long,” he acknowledged. “It’s a testament to Carrie that she has managed to keep it going.”
Hussey said he came by that night to support Colton. “Getting people in the gallery doesn’t necessarily translate into sales but it does show community support, and people know that you’re out there and you’re thinking of them.”