Patrick Mills: Sympathy For A Devil
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.
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.