Dentists who collect: Dr. Kenneth Montague of Toronto
Although he has a growing art collection and is busy with many other activities, general dentist Dr. Kenneth Montague says that his patients still come first. Montague began exhibiting art in his home in the 1990s and has since built up the Wedge Collection—one of Canada’s largest private art collections exploring African diasporic culture and contemporary Black life. Dental Tribune International spoke with Montague about how music and the arts have shaped his dental practice, about his collection and the photographs currently on display at his clinic, and about expressing oneself as a dentist.
Dr. Montague, thank you very much for speaking with us. Could you tell us something about your background?
I came out of dental school very young, at 24, and spent the first half of my life in Windsor in Ontario. I grew up with Jamaican-born parents who had been early immigrants to Canada and who lived in that community. There was a bit of a Caribbean culture in the house, particularly in terms of food and music; and then Detroit, Michigan was just across the river, and the city had, at that time, in the 1970s, a vibrant African American culture which was very visible not only in music and film but also in the politics of the time. At the same time, I also had this very typical Canadian youth experience, which was all about popular music and popular culture, and so the blend of these influences created something which was quite unique and which has really influenced me as an art collector.
Could you introduce your collection to us?
I have the privately-owned Wedge Collection, and a non-profit arts organization called Wedge Curatorial Projects, which has a focus on the emerging artistic practices of artists of African descent and an increasing emphasis on Black Canadian artists. My primary interest has been Black identity and Black history, so for me, that very varied and rich local history is reflected in my collection. I have a lot of work that talks about the legacy of slavery and the movement of people, not just from Africa to the New World, but also later migrations of people from the Caribbean to England, the U.S. and Canada. Stories that reflect these movements of people have been an important aspect of my collection.
“For me, it is about showing the joy and the beauty of ordinary life”
How did you start collecting art?
In the early 2000s, I had just opened my dental office, and I was literally wedging artists into the mainstream by showing their work in a very intimate and personal space in my loft. It was around this time that Thelma Golden, a friend of mine and the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said to me: “Hey, you are doing these annual exhibitions in your home and bringing all of these international artists to Canada.” She asked: “Why don’t you start telling your own stories—instead of bringing the global local, why don’t you take the local and make it global?” This was something that I think I had been waiting to hear because I had been collecting Black Canadian artists, and this was an opportunity to start showing those artists and their work. At the same time, I started retaining one or two art works from every show that we did, as a kind of personal project. It was a very organic process, and I slowly became a collector.
And this was happening while you practiced dentistry?
It was happening in the background, all the while. The collection was growing in terms of its prominence in my life, and it began taking up more hours in each week. It has been a process lasting more than 25 years. At the same time, though, my main job has been working as a dentist.
Your dental practice is well-known in Toronto. Could you tell us about it?
I started the practice in 1992 after graduating in 1987. During the first five years after graduation, I worked as an associate in a dental office where it wasn’t so much about the patients—it was more about the procedures; and so I learned how to do everything very efficiently, but I also learned what I did not want to do at my own practice, which was to rush through everything and be burned out at the end of the day. Instead, at my clinic, the idea from the start was to treat people, not do procedures, and to utilize music and art almost as therapy in the office.
Could you tell us more about the musical element?
We were one of the first practices in Ontario that wasn’t playing elevator music in the background. We played music that would make me happy as the dentist—the kind of music that I would want to hear if I went to a dental office—and this was unusual in downtown Toronto at that time. I would play 1970s dub reggae music or, depending on who was sitting in the chair, it might have been alternative rock or something from a jazz artist like John Coltrane or Miles Davis. So, it became this very eclectic kind of environment, and I think that the patients also quickly learned to appreciate the art works on display. To this day, there is still a lot of anticipation when they come in, because I change the art in the waiting room and in the operatories regularly. Patients get to see an aspect of the dentist that they appreciate, and they get to see some of the art, which has evolved as my taste has broadened.
What is currently on display at your clinic?
There has always been a focus on Black culture and Black identity—which reflects my own story—but within that, there are a great variety of works.
Right now, we have works by Jamel Shabazz. He is famous for his 1980s photographs of people in the subways and streets of New York—that birth of the hip hop nation. I have a lot of these photographs in my collection, and we have a set of them hanging in the waiting room at the moment. There are some wonderful moments because the photographs are often of kids, posing and wearing 1980s clothing.
How do patients react to the art and this environment?
I think that images like those by Shabazz really take your mind off the obvious. When patients come in, they find themselves in this very immersive environment which feels, maybe, more like a gallery than a clinical setting. I think that this is very relaxing for most people. And if it isn’t, they just won’t return to our office.
Our patients say, “Hey, go to my dentist. They play this kind of music, and there is this kind of art gallery there.” And that is why we eventually renamed the practice Word of Mouth Dentistry, which is kind of a tongue-in-cheek hint at the fact that we do not advertise in the traditional sense. We just rely on people telling other people, and it has grown into a practice that is full of patients that have an expectation about the environment that they are entering. This has also been much easier in terms of growth, because there is a more predictable kind of vibe when new patients do come.
How do you juggle dentistry and the arts in your typical working day?
I try hard to keep the two spheres apart. It is about prioritizing, and for me, the choice has always been clear: the patients must come first.
I reduced my time in the clinic to three days a week so that I have time to do my art business, whether it is curatorial projects, working on grants, doing studio visits or other projects. At the moment, for example, we are working together with the Aperture Foundation on a book about my collection. So, I push these things to my days off, and the three days per week that I spend in the clinic are long days. I have to jam a lot in, but I really focus on providing care for the patients, and I won’t take messages about anything that is unrelated to my patients and my dental clinic. Otherwise, I think that the perception from my patients might be that they are not being given my full attention, and that would really go against our philosophy, which is that they come first.
“The choice has always been clear: the patients must come first”
How has your work in the arts affected the growth of your practice?
Our patient pool has really grown to reflect my personal taste, because it is evident on the wall, and it is in the air with the music. In the last two weeks in my clinic, for example, we have seen a couple of well-known musicians and an Australian actor who is working on a Netflix series. So, I am kind of the go-to dentist for people in entertainment—if there is such a thing—because they feel that I understand and appreciate their particular needs.
This really keeps it interesting for me because we can talk about art or music, fashion or design. So, although I do keep things separate, the two worlds have kind of folded in on one another and there are many opportunities to have conversations about art within the clinical setting.
How has your immediate local community informed your work in dentistry and the arts?
A very big part of my collector’s mind is focused on the local. And the whole thing actually started when I was in dental school. There were local artists and art shows that were affiliated with the two downtown Toronto art schools at the time. I was friendly with art students, and I even did some foundation classes—often running from dental school to make it to a six o’clock drawing class—because I loved art so much. I became intimately involved with the local arts community from the very start, and it was not such a stretch for those artists to end up coming to my dental clinic.
But I would say that the influence has also been a spiritual one, because I feel very connected to the local community in a lot of ways—not just through the arts. I feel like my mission has been to take the various stories around me, and to distil them and bring them together through the collection. In this way, the collection has been a vehicle, and it has enabled me to reflect my environment and my background. It has been a journey of my fascination with art outside of my world, and then my recognition that we have our own stories to tell right here in Canada and, locally, in Toronto.
Could you tell us about one of your recent acquisitions and how it fits into the collection?
Last year, I bought a new work from Sandra Brewster. Sandra was born in Canada to immigrant parents from the Caribbean, like myself; and so, the family has a similarly interesting and complicated history. I really see eye to eye with an artist like her, and when I look at the work, I find it echoes my own family history. I bought a beautiful work of hers about a decade ago, but her practice has really crystallized in the past five years. In her Blur series, her subjects are kind of caught in motion, but she uses a process to create the blur without having the subjects move. This very unique way of depicting a subject really appeals to me, and the movement that is inherent in the work echoes the movement of the subjects themselves in terms of their history and the movements and migrations of people and also in terms of their being seen within society. Many aspects of that work resonate with me and reflect where I am as a collector, and my own place in Canadian society.
Art holds a mirror up to society. What would you say that your collection says about us and the times in which we are living?
That is a challenging question. My collection has always been about the notion of uplift. The forthcoming book about the collection is going to be called As We Rise. My late father always said that we must “lift as we rise”—if you are doing well, you pull the other people up along with you. As an assemblage of images of Black subjects, my collection has never been about works concerning oppression or poverty, or anything else that I think is negative in the depiction of Black communities. For me, it is about showing the joy and the beauty of ordinary life.
Of course, there are moments when you just have to make a statement. For example, another recent acquisition is a work by a local artist named Jalani Morgan. It is a photograph taken at the first meeting of Black Lives Matter Toronto, which was a new chapter that came together quite spontaneously a few years ago in response to the police killing of Eric Garner. There has, of course, been a whole new reckoning in the last year as a result of the murder of George Floyd, and now, Morgan’s image has a new resonance in that people are having important conversations and thinking more deeply about police brutality and racial injustices. My collection has always shown the reality of lives lived. You have to balance the desire for uplift with the need to convey the urgency of this moment.
Thank you for these personal reflections. One last question: what advice would you give to other dentists when it comes to expressing themselves?
As small business owners, we are taught that the customer is always right. But I think that you have to satisfy yourself, as the dentist, first. In my opinion, the way to go is to create an environment that makes you happy in your workspace. For me, that has been to surround myself with the music that I love, however eclectic it might be, and the art that I love, however specific it might be.
Obviously, there are limits in terms of appropriateness, but if your practice reflects who you are, then it will grow in a predictable way, with people who are like-minded, who will understand what you are doing. And it makes your practice a way more fun place, a way easier place, to be. I feel that I am attracting people who speak my language, who understand my philosophy—not only about dentistry but also about life.
I have found that people are less concerned with the technical aspects of dentistry than they are with your chairside manner. They recognize that, if you have been practising for over 30 years, as I have, then you should have expert knowledge in your field.
So, for me, reflecting who you are is going to make your life easier as a dentist. In my case, it is contemporary art that helps me do this. You might be someone who loves sports, and so your office might broadcast football games on the TV and have sports memorabilia and a themed waiting room. That’s okay, the dentist has to be happy first, and this is often a very personal thing. If you love art, then I think that you shouldn’t be afraid to show it on the wall—and share that love with your patients.