Meet Susan Brown: Art educator, artist and curator

Curator Susan and film maker Peter Rowe Susan Brown and filmmaker Peter Rowe



Welcome to the first podcast in the Encore Career Series on

I’m delighted to be talking to Susan Brown, an award winning artist, arts educator, curator and poet. Since her retirement in 2002 after 30 years with the Toronto and District School Board, Susan has been far from retired. She has established the Artist’s Garden Cooperative and Artify to connect artists with the community in various ways.

The Artist’s Garden Cooperative donates studio space and a performance platform to artists and performers for a summer conferencing program of art education and outdoor music concerts. Artify provides affordable, curatorial and marketing services to artists by organizing pop-up exhibitions in alternative gallery spaces around the city of Toronto and southern Ontario.

Thank you for joining me today, Susan.

Hi, it’s nice to speak with you, Sheryl.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the Artist’s Garden which is in your own backyard.
A: The backyard or garden was the starting point for the Artist’s Garden. I have a fairly long and narrow piece of property in downtown Toronto and most of it is the garden. So I wanted to make really good use of the garden, after I retired when I had more time to think about it. And this was also a perfect opportunity to keep in touch with the arts community in retirement.

Q: You have a pavilion in your garden that acts as a stage for your concert series. Tell me a little bit about it and who designed it.
A: We call it the Pavilion of the Sky and it was designed by one of my former high school students, Paul Raff who went on to study architecture and later opened Paul Raff Studio in Toronto.

I had just returned from Japan and was really taken with the beautiful gardens there. And Paul coincidentally was about to take a trip to Japan himself. When I told him that I had a dream of having a tea house in my garden, he said he’d actually design one for me. So this was the starting point for the Artist’s Garden Pavilion.

I’m so very proud of the fact that it’s won a couple international and Canadiandesign awards and it’s gone on to be a really useful and beautiful structure.



Artist’s Garden Pavilion

Q: That’s tremendous. How many concerts do you offer each summer?
A: It varies, but we’ve had 9 to 14 concerts depending on demand by musicians and other performers.

Q: How do you select the performers?
A: It’s actually a very open competition. I just send out a call for proposals for people who would like to use the open air garden space in the summer around March of every year. People respond and if we have more applications than we have space for concerts, we use a lottery system that is fair and open to everyone. I have really not rejected many proposals because I have a fairly eclectic taste in music and performance.

Q: And are many of these students?
A: Most of them are veteran, well-rounded professional musicians. Some performers are just starting out and trying their wings. I’m open to pretty much the whole gamut.

Q: Do the artists get paid?
A: Yes they do. We charge ten dollars for a seat in the audience and that money goes directly to the performers. They get paid as soon as they leave the site so it’s all very immediate and it works really well.

Q: Do you make any money?
A: I run the performance part as a not-for-profit because really it’s a workshop situation where performers may be introducing music to a new audience. But I make Biscotti and ask for donations to reclaim some of our expenses so really it’s run as a not-for-profit.

Q: How many people do you have room for in the audience?
A: We can have a maximum of about 38 seats in our garden space. For one concert this summer we ran out of seats, which is unusual. So we actually had to close the garden at one point because it was such a popular concert.

Q: Which performer was so popular?
A: Hisaka. She came from Japan to perform in the garden which I though was really unique. And she’s a great world music singer. She does everything from pop to jazz and classical Japanese songs so it was a really unusual and interesting concert.

 hisakaHisaka at the Artist’s Garden

Q: Neat. I attended a fascinating performance in your garden on toy pianos a few years ago. Give me another example of a recent performer you’ve hosted.
A: We have had some interesting people like Chris Hercules. He is an amazing poet and spoken word artist who performs with jazz musicians and he does a phenomenal job.

Q: You also have a garden studio on your property where community groups can run conferences in art education. How does that work? How many do you run a season?
A: We offer quite a number and variety of artist classical workshops and hands on workshops in the converted garage that’s a studio now and we invite different artists in to lead them. One person who is particularly successful at running one-day workshops is a local artist named Joan McGivney who teaches people how to convert old family photographs into finished paintings in one day and they don’t have to know anything about art or have any technical skill and they’re always successful.

Q: That’s a really neat concept and I’m one of those people who can’t draw a straight line so I would be interested in a session like that. How do you promote the space?
A: A lot of it is done through a wonderful magazine called Wholenote published monthly in Toronto. We also get covered quite often by a local monthly magazine called SNAP which has several versions across the city of Toronto because we have such an unusual venue and run such a variety of events.

Q: Pop up exhibits and alternative gallery spaces — what are some of the unusual spaces where you have arranged exhibits?
A: I’ve actually done several shows at Liberal Jewellery on Dundas West. They have a beautiful, deep, long space with windows. We exhibit sculptures as well as wall hanging, paintings and other mixed media pieces. Artists get great exposure and the people in the shop really enjoy having the space changed from time to time.

Q: So how do you select the artists and the spaces?
A: As I said before I have fairly eclectic taste and one of my concerns is building audiences for art in and around Toronto. I’m pretty open to accepting anybody’s work under certain conditions providing we can show it in a reasonable way so it’s seen in the best possible light.

Q: Do you typically have to pay rent for these spaces?
A: We usually pay something for the space but because I’m trying to make the opportunity as open and available as I can to as many artists as possible, I try to find spaces that are extremely affordable.

Q: Do you charge the people who are exhibiting?
A: I don’t charge them any commission. The only thing I do charge is a little service fee for finding a space and doing all of the jobs that a curator would do.

Q: Do you make money on these exhibits?
A: I really work as a not-for-profit. Whatever money I make I put back into the next show.

Q: You’re a painter and multimedia artist yourself. Tell me a little about your art and where you’ve exhibited.
A: My art tends to follow my occasional travels. I call myself an “artccidental tourist.” So anything that I’ve experienced that leaves a strong impression becomes the basis of my art. The latest series I’ve done was inspired by a trip I took to northern India last January. It was a trip that focused on textiles so there’s a lot of imagery that either uses textile surfaces or reflects the wonderful, vibrant colour and diversity of textiles in India.

Q: So, you’ve got your concert series and your conference space and your pop up art galleries. What other projects are you involved in?
A: Well actually, the latest thing I did was very interesting. I met a lovely young woman who was coordinating all of the events for the Queen West Art Crawl, a September community event. She was looking for someone to curate an interactive public art project and I thought that would be fun to try.

So along with some OCAD students that I worked with in the summer, we developed a really fun project where people could come by and contribute to a public mural without having any art experience or skill at all. It turned out to be quite a spectacular final piece which we were all very proud of.

We had over one hundred people from the community contribute to it. We’re hoping it’s going to be exhibited in the Queen West Art Crawl offices.

cropped muralQueen West Art Crawl Mural

Q: This doesn’t sound like retirement to me, it sounds like a full time job. How many hours a week do you typically spend on these projects?
A: Well, as we’re speaking I’m working on the computer, so I’ve decided to say I’ve redirected my employment to full-time self-employment.

Q: Money is obviously not your prime motivator so why did you start and why do you continue to operate The Artist’s Garden Cooperative and Artify?
A: Like I said I like to have a creative life. I’m just a social person who really needs that connection with people and I find that working on all of these different events and projects really puts me in touch with some incredibly talented and very interesting people.

 Q: How long do you plan to continue these projects?
A: When my eyesight gets bad enough that I can’t see the computer screen I guess I’m going to have to quit, or my energy level gets so low that all I really want to do is pursue my own artwork but so far I’m still having fun.

Q: If you had one piece of advice for someone contemplating retirement who wants to pursue a retirement business or hobby, what would it be?
A: Follow your heart because if you have a limited time to do something, the best thing to do is do what makes you happy.

 Q: Thank you so much for talking to me today, Susan. Where can people listening to this podcast get more information about the activities and upcoming events at the Artist’s Garden Cooperative and Artify?
A: Well thanks for asking. We have a blog space called, or they can contact me at



  1. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s
    the blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

    • No problem here or from anyone else I know of.

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