Lola in The Media
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Dec. 15, 2002

'You have to pay for that!'

After five years as T.O.'s best, cheapest 'zine,
Lola puts a price on art talk

Leafing through a thick binder that serves as a makeshift archive of her five-year adventure in magazine making, Catherine Osbourne pauses to note a promise on the cover of her first issue of Lola, from 1997: "Always Free."

Promises, it seems, are made to be broken. "I guess we'll have to start printing 'no longer free,'" said Osbourne, a lively, petite woman with oversize horn-rimmed glasses and a hectic enthusiasm. "A few bookstores have had to have their staff chase people down the street: 'You have to pay for that now!'"

After five years as the downtown art scene's de facto in-house circular, Lola has grown up.

Starting with the winter issue, available now, the sassy, irreverent, devoutly local art journal is shouldering its way onto the city's crowded newsstands and -- gasp! -- asking its readers to pay $3.95 for its breezy assortment of art-world observations. In the life of any publication, it's a big leap.

For its entire publishing life, Lola has been a hastily snapped-up freebie at galleries and bookstores all over the city, steadily growing from its genesis as a 1,300-copy, do-it-yourself 'zine to a glossy-covered, 90-page thick, full-fledged magazine with a print run of 12,000 copies.

Certainly modest, as compared to, say, Maclean's, but then again, that's not what Lola is about.

Ever since Osbourne, still Lola's editor, Sally McKay, still Lola's art director, and then-YYZ Gallery curator John Massier brainstormed the magazine five years ago, Lola's mission has gone unchanged.

"The magazines out there are very geared towards the theory of art, the dissection of art practices, the politics of art. They just took themselves, I thought, way too seriously," Osbourne said. "It's not brain surgery. It's not rocket science. It's not cancer research. It's art. Anyone can express an opinion about it."

Which, of course, is what Lola set out to prove. Starting with the first issue, Lola started publishing its Shotgun Reviews -- not deep, intellectual explorations of artistic intent, but gut reactions offered in brief from anyone willing to submit them. The results ranged from the playful to the bizarre: "It's kinda funky and kinda lame," a reviewer wrote of a Robert Fones show. "What we want to know is, do any of Fones' shapes come in ashtrays?"

"It's refreshing," said Katharine Mulherin, who runs the various BUS galleries interspersed along a couple of blocks of Queen St., west of Ossington. "I know when I get my boxes of Lola dropped on my front steps, I'm going to be spending a couple of hours just reading it. It's been nice to see them grow."

That growth has come from what some might have considered the most unlikely of communities.

For years, the Toronto art scene had been a monolith of highly intellectualized, academically validated and often intimidating artists, writers and gallerists intent, it seemed, to talk amongst themselves, and to keep their circle closed.

In Lola's view, that was just no fun at all. So the magazine set out to leaven the city's ever-thickening art discourse with a chatty, gossipy, playful take. Where the art world was exclusive, Lola was self-consciously inclusive.

"It's not an art magazine. It's Lola," goes the first line of the magazine's requisite publishing information. Lola's your friend, it seems to be saying.

Don't be frightened. "Art talk, not artspeak," was the motto, said Osbourne, referring to the maddening complexities of the over-intellectualized lingo so prevalent in the field. And the magazine stuck to it.

"It's fun, hip, savvy, street, real," said artist Pauline Thompson, minding her own show at the Sis Boom Bah gallery on Queen St. W. "It's just more approachable. They don't assume you need an art history degree to just enjoy the work."

Lola's timing couldn't have been better. At about the same time that Osbourne was struggling through the magazine's first few issues, the local art scene was going through an upheaval. Along a desolate stretch of Queen St. W., independent galleries were sprouting up between grimy diners and donut shops, offering space to untried but adventurous young artists for their work to be shown. A new scene quickly galvanized: the emerging independents had a voice, and Lola had a loyal and growing, constituency.

Now, it's banking on that constituency to pay up for its quarterly dose of Lola-isms. Sharon Salson, whom Osbourne brought in as publisher last year to mind the business side of things, thought it was time for the magazine to graduate from its freebie status. Despite its newsstand price tag, a handful of Lolas can still be found for free at galleries, but that giveaway status will soon be phased out.

"We're either really smart or really crazy," she said. "It's obviously a line to walk. Those that have gotten it free in the past might balk at having to pay, but we don't think so. This is a community that's willing to support the magazine."

Strategically, too, being on the newsstand helps to win over another important community in the magazine publishing world: advertisers. In the current issue, Absolut Vodka -- at home in any number of mainstream publications -- bought the full-colour inside back cover.

"The readership is one that sets the trends. They consider themselves on the scene," Osbourne said. "People want to attach their brands to that."

Whatever the magazine's commercial mission, she says the magazine's content and loose, quirky voice won't change. Indeed. Among the current issue's many offerings: "The Squirrel Project," a ground-level response to "Mel Lastman's lame Moose in the City project" in 2001, featuring quickly scribbled interpretations of squirrels by a half-dozen passers-by.

And, of course, the ever-popular Shotguns, which featured a review of a stuffed moose that made a brief, mysterious appearance on the roof of the Gibson Textile Dyers building, and then vanished. ("I like to think he appeared to remind us of the precarious nature of existence, but he sure made me laugh a hell of a lot," the reviewer wrote.)

But all is not as it was, either. This issue features some of the magazine's ever-growing roster of name-brand writers, such as long-time Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays and the National Post's gossip columnist Shinan Govani. The irreverencies still abound, of course, but so do more serious musings, such as R.M. Vaughan's on the Toronto art world's generation gap, and its subsequent lack of community.

"The magazine has grown up a little bit. It has matured," Osbourne said. "But it's not edited down to good taste and refinement. There's always going to be a certain element of `try it out and see.' And that's the key -- to maintain that Lola filter."

That she's even here to tend to it is something of a surprise, she says, but a welcome one.

"I never thought it would go this far," she said with a laugh. "But with each issue, it becomes something you can't stop. I don't know if Izzy Asper feels like that, but I do. It's going, so okay -- let's go. It's a total labour of love. Still."

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