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culture

Art Spin Gallery Tour Becomes Cycling Success

Art Spin, a summer-long series of bike-friendly gallery crawls, has grown into an event large enough to rival Critical Mass. We joined them on their last tour of 2011.

Michael Louis Johnson warms up the crowd.

The Jarvis Street bike lanes are on borrowed time, and the City’s new bike plan seems designed not to accommodate more cyclists on Toronto’s streets but to siphon some of them off into rail and hydro corridors. And yet, on Thursday evening, cyclists shook off a summer of woe during what might be, along with Bixi, one of the year’s greatest cycling success stories: Art Spin.

The event—which has taken place on the last Thursdays of June, July, August, and September since 2009 (there won’t be a September ride this year)—is a kind of mash-up of the group-ride ethos of Critical Mass and the refined relaxation of an art gallery crawl. Participants ride, as a group, along a pre-planned route, with stops at galleries and performance spaces. Each tour ends with a party. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

Art Spin has been growing steadily since its inception. “Last year on our very first tour, we had 30 people,” explained co-organizer Casey Hinton. “By the end of the summer we had about 200 people coming out. And this year it’s consistently been between 150 and 200 people on each tour.”

Thursday’s Art Spin, 2011′s last, was double that size, making it the largest ever. Organizers estimate that turnout was approximately 425.

The tour began at the south gates of Trinity Bellwoods Park. At 7:00 p.m. the crowd rode north. Their only directional cue was the sound of a trumpet being played by Michael Louis Johnson, a local musician, who was leading the pack. Volunteers, some of them from Bike Pirates, used their bikes to block intersections so the column of cyclists could pass safely. Because so many people showed up, the line of riders stretched for what seemed like blocks.

Riding with the massive group was a surreal experience. Everything the riders passed came to a complete standstill. Pedestrians stopped and took cellphone pictures. People having conversations on their stoops fell silent and gawked. The facial expressions of drivers—who couldn’t move, naturally—were invariably somewhere along the continuum between irritation and bafflement.

The first stop was at the Theatre Centre, where artist Evalyn Parry performed a song and spoken-word routine about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the world, while Brad Hart played percussion on a bike that had somehow been wired for sound. The crowd was so large that the theatre was packed to its balcony, and soon the air inside became humid with sweat and exhaled breath.

“We weren’t expecting so many people,” Art Spin founder Rui Pimenta told the crowd, before asking them to ride closer together, to avoid an unreasonable amount of inconvenience to auto traffic.

There was a stop at the Gladstone Hotel, and then, still following the sound of the trumpet, the crowd biked to a dirt parking lot near Queen and Dufferin streets, where John Cairns revved up what he calls “the electric empress,” a bike trailer that has been modified to carry car-audio speakers festooned with rainbow-coloured lights. Using an iPad, he blasted dance music while the crowd awaited admission into the next venue, which was too small to accommodate all of them at once.

Most of the crowd was young and well dressed.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ian Mulder, a 32-year-old architecture student who was joining Art Spin for the first time. “Sometimes you forget why you love Toronto so much, and nights like this remind you.”

“I was just out for an aimless bike ride, and joined in,” said Eric Barylka, 35.

As the crowd biked on through the darkening evening, toward the after-party at the new 99 Gallery, it was abundantly clear that separate lanes are no prerequisite for cyclists to own the road.

But if this continues next summer, we might need some bigger galleries.

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