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Patrick Mills: Sympathy For A Devil

July 2012

And right about now a man in a Brioni suit steps out of a Mercedes S350 CDI idling at the curb on Hinchey Avenue. He walks up to a door and knocks. When Patrick Mills answers, the man in the suit says softly: “Mr. Mills, my name is Theodore. My employer would like to have a few words with you. He is in the car.”

And that is how Mills meets Henry White, sitting quietly across the Mercedes’ back seat in a pair of Paisley pants and a t-shirt that reads I’m Not Gay But My Barbie Is.

White is staring out the side window as he starts off the conversation: I hear you’re having trouble with your gallery, Patrick.

Patrick Mills. Photo by Mike Levin.

The story is well-known to those who follow arts in Ottawa. About how Mills flaunted city bylaws by holding parties at his home-based art gallery that didn’t have the proper commercial zoning. About the outpouring of support from hundreds who loved how Mills thumbed his nose at Ottawa’s conventional (legal) way of doing business. About how sterner voices shouted: Thou shalt not break the rules that our gods made! And won the debate.

Then White turns to Mills, smiles and says: By the way Patrick, did you not do something similar to the person who wanted to build a house next to your property on Ladouceur? Did you not use City bylaws to prevent him from building higher than the law allowed? And did your NIMBY-ism not stop him from building at all?

You sure know a lot, Mills says as he stares out the car window.

I’ve been around for a long, long time, White continues, but no matter. I hate it when City Hall steals a man’s soul and faith, and I like your style. I think Ottawa needs people like you, even if you do scare them. Let’s say this is my schadenfreude. I’ve recently acquired a church downtown. I know how to get all the requisite permissions.  Are you interested in becoming my tenant?

When Mills first arrived in Ottawa, people thought he was homeless and offered him money. He’s never fit the stereotype of an art-gallery owner, preferring to ruffle rather than smooth feathers. He is a provocateur, and he never learned, or chose not to learn, how to break the law legally, by bribing or by getting the laws changed in the way dozens of businessmen do every year. It makes him a dreamer.

He’s also a bit of a whiner, taking things a little too personally. But no worse than the residents of my neighbourhood who will scream at you if they think you’re using their street to cut through from Island Park Drive to Wellington.

Mills’ real problem for Ottawa is that his style, which appeals so much to Henry White, gets people’s blood boiling. His gallery’s art is confrontational, not a poppy or landscape in sight. His parties attract young people with weird clothes and probably stranger lifestyles. They have fun, they make noise, and this scares people who’ve dismissed that people have fun in different, often obnoxious, ways. Mills takes a strange pleasure in compassionate anarchism. But there’s another thing about him that rubs roughly against the city’s culture. He’s an entrepreneur who never expects anything from anyone.

The building on Ladoucer was a crack house until Mills bought it. He spent months picking up all the used needles and discarded drug paraphernalia and then renovating it room by room. He did this to earn rental income so he could run an art gallery  – which in Ottawa is an extremely high-risk business  –  and keep an income stream going for his family. He put 70 tonnes of stone in his backyard to create a sculpture garden to add to the property’s ambience. And before every new show he bikes around town putting up a billion advertising posters.

He does it because he’s insane and because this is the only way he can work, always  hoping others will be able to see the value he felt he was adding.

Mills knew the City was going to come after him for zoning violations. He stood a little too tall in a community with cultural vertigo and a legal ability to make sure everyone looks at the ground as they shuffle down the sidewalk. It’s safer that way, with fewer bogeymen. And as the city’s widest-read arts column just repeated, No One Is Above The Law Bucko in that patronizing way that never lets us forget our Victorian past.

Mills’ public moaning is mainly from hurt pride and the embarrassment of finally getting busted. My guess is he gets a strange pleasure from this as well.

The details of how it happened are not all that important anymore. The message that you have to pay commercial taxes to play commercial games is the whole point, one stamped in black and white. It speaks to how we live today, how exaggerated fears about the present and the future are removing all room for negotiation in the same way they have stifled debate about the (alleged) law-breakers in our government and financial industries.

It’s the Canada we live in, and the safety and stability of Ottawa is pretty much Ground Zero.

In a different age, and certainly in a different place, it is possible that someone might step in and whisk Mills to a new spot in the belief that some things are worth spending money on, if variety is vital to the public good.  I really wish there was a Henry White, a man of wealth and taste (c’mon, Paisley pants.) who understand  humanity’s cravings so well. Hope you guessed his real name.


  • Patrick John Mills said:

    Well… that is very interesting writing.

    When I purchased a property down the street. 50 Ladouceur. My neighbor wished to build this massive property. He applied for 11 minor variances. I spent two days in court (OMB). In the end he was granted all 11 variance. But when it came time to build. Someone miss measured the lot by 2.91 meters. So the plans did not fit the lot. So he did not build his home. But The City of Ottawa did allow him to build.

    The reason I purchased the crack house so to get a studio space close to my home and away from my home. The income that investment property generated was a bonus.

    With regards to my gallery. I purchased this property five years ago. I never imagined it would develop into such a space. For the first two years I showed only my own work. But I had such joy encouraging and giving opportunity to other artists… well things just grew. And they grew and grew. My failure is my success. I am the problem and I am the solution.

    Even if I wished to pay commercial taxes. I was told that this location would be declined.

    There are very few art galleries that can say that they had to close – too many people attending. SO I smile. It was fun.

    Well technically I am still allowed to stay open… but only allow one person at a time to view the art. Only having one person visit at a time is very restrictive. And to be honest is too limiting.

    For five years I ran an art gallery out of my home. The business grew, grew and grew… it was fun. Now it is time to find a new new new location… and LIVE LOVE ART.

    For those five years I encouraged hundreds of artists. Learn how to organize, market, promote an art gallery.

    Time to sell some land, or one or two of my properties and go shopping for a new location. I am very excited about where things will develop.

    best wishes Mike



  • MLevin (author) said:

    Patrick. You never choose an easy road to hoe, do ya? This whole episode is too caught in details and therefore misses the real point, that your style shakes things up in a way that makes people think. For that alone, you’re a success. If you want to read a good comment, check out Bradley Strider’s from Peter Simpson’s recent post. But you’re also never going to follow the rules and you’ll always end up with your feet in sheep dip. This alone is worth admiration because what you do never really hurts anyone. But, alas, this being Ottawa, you’re never gonna hear about this value.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Maybe you’d also enjoy reading Chris Hedges on free thinkers and the death of societies.

  • Lia said:

    I’ve hoped to visit this gallery since I first started seeing the posters. I figured it would still be there when my infant kids were a bit older. I guess that in Ottawa one has to act quickly, before the party poopers set in. Mills’ story reminds me of the fate of the OC Transpo singing bus driver. You can sing your tunes to a largely appreciative audience for decades, but a few sourpusses can always shut you up.

    Any suggestions for things regular folks can do, Mike? Write a letter…?

  • MLevin (author) said:

    There’s a fundraiser this Friday at Rainbow Bistro on the Market, and Mills is having a good-bye party at his home gallery August 18. (details on Mills Facebook pages). But maybe the most important thing you can do is explain to your kids when they’re older about sourpusses and how multiple points of view often get us into a tizzy, especially when the culture is so freaked out about everything. Show them art and then play that OC Transpo video for them to show them how wonderful life can be. Mike

  • John D. Lund said:

    Sigh, it appears that I missed my opportunity to get to the gallery. I moved to Ottawa about two years ago and living in the downtown core began noticing Mills’ posters everywhere but only recently decided, right I need to find out more. I went to the website for the gallery and saw something wholly different from standard galleries. I was hoping to check the gallery out in the fall assuming a new show would be put up at that time. I will most definitely check the facebook page and see what is planned for the grand farewell. I do hope that it will not be long before Patrick finds that new location where the artistic energies unhindered may rise again.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    John. Yeah, very much a case of the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Mills’ “voice” will re-emerge, there is no doubt of that; either that or his head will explode. The only question is when. Right now he’s got his eye on a Market building. Anyone with even a nano-drop of avant-garde in them willl be watching.

  • Michel Luc Bellemare said:

    Live Art by the by-laws Die art by the by-laws, Mr. Mills. Realistically, could anyone have expected another ending to this gallery story, with the housing prices the way they are these days. Notwithstanding, warhol let all tommorrow’s parties overshadow the art as well, which promptly came to an end in 1968 with a bang rather than a (Mills)ian whimper. My critique with the Mills gallery was that the art on its walls was not up to suitable aesthetic standards but more or less amateurish, a lack of stylistic wisdom and artistic direction.
    That aside, the citizen is not a supportive mechanism for the arts, unless you’ve already made it and are corporation backed. To note, the citizen would tear a strip off riopelle, Tom Thompson and/or carl beam if they were trying to make it as young artists in Ottawa today. Why? because the citizen displays voluntary ignorance when it comes to the arts, i.e. it is Conservative and I would honestly say with a capital “C”. It fries in print, whatever art-form does not express womanly softness and/or the current pleasing un-ideological aesthetic standards of IKEA. Its argument is that these sort of print-fry-sensationalisms sell papers and its job is not to foster the arts but to sell papers by any means necessary. (To put this in balance, curators have a difficult time figuring out what art will last as well so they go along with this idea that the print-BBQ will allow the cream to rise to the top, i.e. that what survives the might be worth writing intelligently about in the future). So be optimistic Mr. Mills, even the group of seven where initially lampooned in print.
    To note, the Citizen is not having to laying-off reporters because it is a citadel of truth and factual unbias journalism or because it is supportive of its art community or an esteemed representative of the human intellect but exactly to the contrary because it is disconnected, predatory, and bias of the arts and the arts community. We should not forget, Mr. Mills that the citizens primary readership consists of WASPs, who still think Emily Carr and the group of seven is cutting-edge modern art.

    Chin Up, Mr. Mills

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