Unless you live in Toronto, it’s difficult to grasp the cultural, commercial, and Jewish significance of Honest Ed’s. Opened in 1948 by Ed Mirvish — the American-born son of Lithuanian immigrants — the 160,000-square-foot discount emporium has become a kind of landmark for its casino-like exterior, mind-numbing array of goods, and retail showmanship epitomized by trademark signs touting irrationally low prices.
For mid-20th-century Jewish immigrants who lived nearby, Honest Ed’s was a kind of beacon, melting pot and shopping destination rolled into one; for Asian, African, Caribbean, and other newcomers now, its role hasn’t changed. With that in mind, the Koffler Centre of the Arts — a Jewish arts institution whose mission is “to bring people together through arts and culture to create a more civil and global society” — invited six Canadian artists to mine Honest Ed’s history and identity through “interventions” throughout the store.
“Summer Special,” which opened this week, isn’t an explicitly Jewish show; in fact, only one of the artists, Sarah Lazarovic, is Jewish herself. “We like the fact that sometimes our exhibitions are about implicit or inferred Jewish content and we like our viewers to try to decipher and determine it for themselves,” said Lori Starr, the Koffler’s executive director and the vice president for culture at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The exhibit is the 13th in the Koffler’s series of off-site exhibitions, which has inserted sometimes-provocative art in venues as diverse as a condemned building, disused photo-processing hut, and an old synagogue. (Full disclosure: the Koffler presented my Forward-sponsored show, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Gladstone Hotel gallery in 2011.)