Coach House Books is about as venerable an indie institution as possible in Canada. For over forty years they have been publishing on the edge of Canadian literature (miraculously surviving many close calls) and binding things that the bigger companies overlook. In recent years they started what I thought was a new focus on all things local with the publication of the uTOpia series as well as the Concrete Toronto and HTO volumns (a few of which I participated in). I knew they — and people associated with them — were involved in the local and Canadian art scene over the years, but had no idea of the depth until I saw the Coach House show that opened with the reopening of the AGO two weeks ago.
I keep revisiting this gallery on each trip to the AGO to find out more — the exhibit looks at Canadian Art “through the lens” of folks associated with Coach House, and there is much Toronto to see here. The central Coach House table and walls are full of ephemera produced in the 1960s and 70s: posters for art exhibits and various semi-political events; the famous CN Tower “Fall Zone” poster; photos of people involved with Coach House over the years (all those 1970s beards) — it’s very much a documentary exhibit, with the posters actually stapled to the wood as they would have been out in public. A neat addition is a large aerial photo of the Yorkville neighbourhood taken circa 1967 (Rochdale College at Bloor and Huron is just under construction) underfoot. Most remarkable about this view is how many parking lots there were in Yorkville. I think if we were transported back 40 years to the mythic Yorkville’s heyday we’d be stunned by all the open space and parking lots.
Around the central Coach House exhibit are pieces from the era, including early work by established artists like Stephen Cruise (who later did the large thimble at Queen and Spadina and some of the public art along the Spadina streetcar line) and Michael Hayden (who later did the now-dismantled Arc en Ciel at Yorkdale subway station). Items from the early Toronto galleries like A Space and Issacs Gallery
are also here, along with work by Joyce Wieland and an homage to
American draft dodgers who were intimately involved in this scene.
It’s a fun and exciting exhibit, and one of those moments where I realize how much of the past I’m not familiar with because its been kept out of sight on somebody’s shelf for too long. Lots has happened in this city and country, but we (Canadians) aren’t as good as keeping those memories alive as perhaps our American friends are. This show at the AGO will do a lot to keep a lot of this work active in our imaginations, and maybe add to what we think of Toronto today.
Gallery photos courtesy of Stan Bevington at Coach House books. Foot photo by author.
A subtle design detail in the new AGO are the removable panels in the floor (and ceilings), allowing for large works of art to be hoisted from the main floor all the way up to the fifth floor in the tower. Placing the contemporary galleries in upper floors has some obvious challenges as the work can potentially come in just about any shape or size. These vertical slots almost turn the the building into a sort of theatrical fly tower. I anticipate that at some some point an artist will approach the AGO and want to use the slots as part of an entire-building installation or even a performance piece. Of course, AGO liability lawyers will likely have to create a litigious performance themselves if such an event ever happened. Perhaps other parts of the transformed building will become muse to artists as well — ask any OCAD instructor how many of their students have come up with “things on colourful stilts” since the Alsop addition went up.
Last week during the press preview AGO employees were still installing art in parts of the gallery. The most interesting scene I stumbled upon was of a gallery worker pulling one of the larger ship models through a second floor hallway — as if they were a human tugboat — surrounded by 4 or 5 very nervous looking AGOers protecting the precious and fragile ship as if they were presidential secret service agents ready to body block anybody that came too close. The ship was headed for the large Thomson ship model exhibit found just underneath the main entrance (in fact, oculus-like holes look down onto the exhibit from the main lobby).
The ships are part of Ken Thomson’s collection of these rare artifacts, but the ship cases themselves also have a GTA connection as a local firm built them. When large building projects like Transformation AGO are associated with a Starchitect like Gehry it’s easy to forget that they rely on locals to make their vision happen. The ship cases were built by Mississaga’s kubkik along with Click Netherfield in Scotland, both specialists in museum and gallery displays.
“The concept came from Gehry,” says Sam Kohn, kubik principal. “But all
the development came from us. They sent us the sketches, and we worked
with them to realize that dream.” Kohn says there were indeed some
challenges with the ship cases because of their unique geometry.
“Lighting was also most important,” says Kohn. “It can’t deteriorate
the sails.” Kohn reports that gentle fiber optic lighting was used in
some of the cases.
When you’re in the room it does have a cool dark feeling (like being
underwater?) and the flowing cases do evoke the idea of flowing
movement. It’s nice to be able to see all around and even underneath
some of the models. Particularly interesting are the ones that are
hanging in mid-air like flying pirate ships from a children’s book.
Like the dinosaur bones at the ROM, this will likely be the first place
kids will what to go when visiting the AGO. There are over 130 historic ship models at the AGO spanning some 350 years, from 17th and 18th century British dockyard models to steamers from the 19th and 20th centuries.
We’re thrilled to report that more than 68,000 people streamed through our transformed gallery throughout opening week – almost 52,000 of them during the 29-hour free weekend Nov. 14-16, despite the dreary weather as well as the Santa Claus Parade just blocks away. In fact for most of the weekend lines snaked down McCaul Street, through Grange Park and back up Beverly Street – but luckily most folks reported that it moved quickly and efficiently. I guess that’s a sign of how much Toronto wanted to see the new AGO, and for free!
Earlier in the week, more than 16,000 of our AGO Members got a sneak peak during Members’ Preview Days Nov. 9-11, and 520 new memberships were generated over the opening week.
Our redesigned AGO web site attracted 51,000 unique visits over the three-day public opening – with the top five countries of origin being Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France. The top five cities in Canada were Toronto, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Richmond Hill. The top five US cities were New York City, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Buffalo and Chicago.
Public reaction to the new AGO has been enthusiastic. Among the comments received via e-mail, ago.net and our Facebook page:
"I’m 82 years old and I’m going to spend the rest of my life here."
“Worth the wait!”
“(Galleria Italia is) absolutely breathtaking! It felt like an urban forest.”
“Congratulations on the spectacular new AGO! It is truly a masterpiece in itself and on several occasions I was deeply moved by the beauty and the passion it inspires. I would also like to pass on my compliments to everyone involved with the opening weekend. The efficiency and professional of moving so many people through was brilliant.”
“This truly was a great experience and I am glad to say I am a proud Torontonian to have been a part of this. You will certainly see me time and time again as a paying patron.”
"The AGO engages the immediate streetscape and feels like part of the neighbourhood. What can I say, a beacon shines brightly at Dundas and McCaul and we all are drawn to its glow."
"Please tell Mr. Gehry that looking at his design of the AGO has the same effect on me as listening to Monteverdi’s Vespro or Bach. It makes me weep with joy. Thank you all who made this possible."
"I found it endlessly interesting to see how themes were brought together through different time periods and styles. Thank you for a great experience."
We welcome your feedback – what did you think of the opening and new AGO?
The iconic staircase on the north side of AGO tower that wiggles its way up from the Walker Court up to the fifth contemporary gallery floor (officially named the “Allan Slaight & Emmanuelle Gussuso Staircase”) is just about open to public use. Until then, the AGO is inviting the public to guess how many steps there are. It’s a challenge, as the stairs are hidden behind all that polished wood and metal. The five closest guesses win the contestant a prize from ShopAGO. Email your guess to email@example.com. No entries accepted after the staircase opens!
The AGO is not just for looking at. One of the things I like best about the new gallery is the way it makes Toronto — the city — as much a part of the gallery experience as the art inside. The Gehry addition (or “intervention” as I’ve been hearing it called) has opened new views to the north and south, and we’re getting to see the city in a way never seen before. To the north, the timber beams of the Galleria Italia frame the quintessential old Toronto homes along Dundas as if they are works of art themselves (perhaps they are). Apart from the occasional view stolen from somebody’s lucky second or third floor apartment, we usually don’t get to see a Toronto street from this angle.
Try this the next time you go to the AGO — walk along the south side of Dundas like you normally might do, looking at those houses along the north side. Then go into the gallery and up to the second floor and do the same thing. It’s remarkable to walk (nearly) an entire dense city block along the second floor of another building.
It’s like seeing Toronto for the first time, and simply altering the angle by a half dozen metres or so can radically change the perception of the city: I often forget to pay attention to the upper floors of these kinds of common buildings, but now I think I should do just that a lot more. So far I’ve been in this magnificent room about 5 times and have had the art pointed out and explained to me a few times but I can’t remember much about it because the city is so overwhelming (sorry, artists who made the art in Gallery Italia, I’ll pay attention to you next time for sure, it isn’t your fault).
From the back Toronto appears all around us, like we’re in the middle of the skyline rather than looking at it from afar. The concrete apartment slab directly south suddenly has a few thousand eyes a day peeping into their fishbowl lives — but as my art-companion said one day last week, “close enough to be interesting, but far enough away not to be explicit.” Looking west, the Victorian homes along Beverly facing the Grange look like the Toronto doppelganger of the famous Alamo Square view found in San Francisco (our “painted ladies” are brick and the skyline isn’t of downtown like in SF but of Etobicoke, somewhere off in the haze, rising above this wonderful stretch of Toronto urbanism).
As well, the new OCAD addition suddenly looks even more audacious (and weird and great) this close. The folks living in the apartments in the Village on the Grange on the east side of McCaul probably already know this, but now the rest of us do too. Looking out at the Grange, and Toronto, from the back Barnacle Staircase earlier today, the extent of Toronto’s development over the last few years was evident and not a little hometown pride welled up.
When my father became a Canadian Citizen in 1980 I remember only two things clearly: getting the day off from kindergarten and the Mountie in full dress uniform standing impossibly still at the front of the room. I don’t remember much about the room itself (it was in an office on the upper floor of a nondescript downtown Windsor building), the details of the ceremony or who else was there (my family, I assume, but I can’t quite picture any humans save for that Mountie).
This past Friday the first official visitors on (re)opening day at the AGO were a group of New Canadians who became citizens in an Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) ceremony. The ICC is former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s legacy project. If the intention is to get people excited about becoming a Canadian, it’s a success. This was about as happy a room as I’ve ever been in.
I mentioned my 1980 story to the Mountie before everybody arrived, and perhaps went a bit overboard, saying he must be sutured into the memory of everybody who attends one of these events, and what an introduction to Canada he provides. He gave me a curious look, nodded, and said “yes, the uniform really is the symbol of Canada.”
I expected a citizenship judge to be somewhat officious and stern, but she sat at the front and started telling stories of what it is to be a Canadian, beginning with her own immigration experience from Italy in the 1950s. Then she told them about some of their rights, and then read from her personal collection of press clippings about the importance of voting and participating in Canadian culture (a “partnership” she called it). Apropos of the setting, she used the example of the Italian-Canadian donations to the Galleria Italia at the AGO as their “I love you” gift to Canada.
When you become a citizen these days, you get a flag, a “Canada bag” with a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (that the judge will tell you to read) and when the oath of citizenship is taken (to the Queen of Canada), everybody says their personal name in unison. After the formal part was done, the judge had everyone yell “I Am Canadian” and wave their flags — just like a Molson Canadian commercial — and listed where everybody who took the oath was from (Albania, Angola, Brazil, China, Columbia, India, Jamaica, Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Sudan, United States, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela) and had them wave their Canadian flag when their country was mentioned.
I might be a sucker for these sorts of things, but I liked the way the judge articulated citizenship for New Canadians — that they were not giving up their culture, but adding a new layer to it (but that their loyalty is to their new country). “Nobody was more proud than I was when Italy won the World Cup,” she said, using her own hyphenated identity as example. I’m sure there are those who disagree, but I think even those of us born in Canada should go through this, just as a reminder, and something that might increase voter turn-out at election time — or at least just sit in on one like I did. The feeling is infectious.
The other thing each New Canadian received was a free family pass to the AGO (and other Toronto museums). Throughout the ceremony, the judge and other speakers stressed how this was now their gallery too, and how the arts can and should be a part of their lives. Coming off a federal election where some of the campaign rhetoric implied that “ordinary” Canadians do not care about the arts, letting these folks know — from the first day they are citizens — that the arts are for them, seems like a good idea.
The other part is that the AGO — like that Mountie in 1980 — will now be inseparably sutured into their idea of what Canada is. That’s a considerably nicer memory than the fuzzy image of a windowless office with florescent lights and an acoustic drop ceiling that I have, and a bond that might produce some new Canadian artists in the coming years.