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Kevin O'Leary Makes Money, Not Art
The mean guy from Dragon's Den is making his photography hobby all about business

Photo by Jessica Bloom

Kevin O’Leary wanted to be a photographer. Instead, he became a celebrity investor and entrepreneur with an approximate net worth of $300 million. Life is so hard like that. 

At the First Canadian Place Gallery, O’Leary returns to the art world with a mix-and-match exhibit titled 40 Years of Photography. “This curation is over time, it’s not style,” he said. “The only thing that holds them together is the time journey. It’s a controversial way to curate, but I think it’s successful.”

The effect is a scattered collection of images including landscape, documentary, architecture and portraiture. Some photos were shot on black and white film while others are colour digital prints. A complementary pair, “Air Show 1” and “Air Show Watching”, have a crystalized effect from deteriorated silver nitrate. One of the oldest photos, which is not for sale, is a harshly-lit self-portrait O’Leary took in college.

There’s no deeper narrative to these photos. They’re isolated snapshots from a hobbyist photographer but O’Leary doesn’t claim otherwise. Instead of an artist statement, he offers a pitch about the Future Dragon Fund Contest, which will turn his photography sales into $5000 prizes for teenager entrepreneurs.

This exhibit is about making money for teenagers so that they can make money. “I’m trying to focus on the plight of underprivileged kids grades 11 to 12 because that’s the age, that early, that you start to determine what your destiny is going to be as an entrepreneur,” O’Leary said. “I’m trying to help young people to make hard decisions early about what their path is going to be. That’s what this [art exhibit] is actually about.”

It’s strange that an art exhibit isn’t about art. It’s not even about raising money for artists or art programs. There’s a hollow core to 40 Years of Photography that’s reminiscent of other reality star creative projects–from pop songs to clothing lines. O’Leary says the art world is a “wonderful place to hang out for awhile.” He likes the chaos, intrigue and mystery. “Business is so black and white. You either lose money or you make money.[In the art world] everyone has a different opinion. Nobody agrees on anything.”

Like any good tourist, O’Leary found fixers to guide him through the exhibition process. The art dealers, curators and technicians that helped with 40 Years of Photography are top tier industry professionals. Olga Korper, Nicholas Metivier, Stephen Bulger and Claire Christie were instrumental in taking O’Leary’s archive of 70,000 photographs and whittling them down to a 25-piece collection.

Korper’s pick, “Target Practice,” is one of the top sellers. “I think it’s going to sell out first,” O’Leary said. “Some of the corporations come down and say, ‘Which one did Olga pick?'”

The photographs are beautifully mounted in handmade white lacquered frames by The Gilder. It’s easy to see why the images have been popular in corporate offices. They’re a tax deductible premium art product by a local celebrity with a variety of styles to choose from. Amanda Lang, from CBC’s The Lang and O’Leary Exchange, chose “Archway” and O’Leary said the photograph of Jim Morrison’s graffitied cemetery bust has “made its way into some law offices.”

Many of the city’s law offices including Torys’ LLP, McMillan and McCarthy Tétrault are famous for their art collections. Banks collect art, sponsor arts events and support artists through competitions and scholarships. The corporate world and art world tend to be more intertwined than people originally think. In that context, a crossover star like Kevin O’Leary makes a lot of sense. 

There’s 25 limited signed editions of each print so prepare to see these images all around Toronto. If you don’t spend very much time in financial district offices, Kevin O’Leary’s 40 Years of Photography will be up at the First Canadian Place Gallery until November 15th.


Jessica Bloom is the Executive Editor of Studio Beat. You can follow her on Twitter @jess__bloom.

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