As we say goodbye to King Tut, we welcome back full use of our Allan Slaight & Emmanuelle Gattuso Staircase. Due to visitor lineups during the overwhelmingly successful King Tut exhibition, the arcade around Walker Court and the base of the staircase have been inaccessible. At last, the full length of the staircase is open. Make sure to take a walk up or down next time you visit.
Not long ago, I was walking through the Art Gallery of Ontario when a visitor stopped to talk with me. “I have never seen Canada like I have seen it today,” he said. He talked about Frank Gehry’s architecture and the use of Douglas fir. He described the “powerful statements” the gallery is making on Inuit and First Nations contributions to Canadian art. He spoke of the “absolutely glorious and simple directness” of the Lawren Harris galleries and the emotional experiences of the Tom Thomson works. He said he was at times overwhelmed by these powerful depictions of the Canadian experience.
One year and some 700,000 visitors since the AGO completed its transformation in November 2008, there have been many exchanges between the museum and its ultimate arbiters. They speak about their experience at the AGO and what it means to be Canadian, about Toronto and its place in the world, about what makes them proud.
“The Thomson collection is stunning and vitally important to all Canadians, and is a big portion of what makes us Canadian.”
The late Ken Thomson, whose extraordinary collection of Canadian and European art was the catalyst for our transformation, always wanted Canadians to be proud. Amassed over more than 50 years, his collection ranks among the finest private collections in the world, but his ambition was that it be widely shared and that it become part of a narrative about Canadian art, about art of the world through the centuries.
Architect Frank Gehry envisioned a seamless journey through the 110 gallery spaces of the transformed AGO. His design intended that visitors move forward without ever retracing their steps, encouraged onward always by options. So too, the art works were installed to encourage a continuous journey through the building, making connections between life and art throughout.
“There is a gentle flow to the space, and it invites you in, to see and feel the essence of the best of the art works.”
Frank ‘s AGO is unlike any other of his projects — his most distinctive because it’s his first in Canada, in his childhood home of Toronto, where he made his first connections between art and architecture. He shared many of our ambitions for this project – among them that Canadians and non-Canadians alike would be surprised by Canadian art. In our installations, we made the commitment that we would celebrate Canadian art, both contemporary historical, in different ways — the juxtaposition of a Lawren Harris painting next to a Pierre Bonnard; a sculpture by rising Toronto artist Shary Boyle next to Italian bronzes from the 17th century. We made no apologies for telling the stories of art from many points of view, across cultures and continents.
“By placing paintings in new contexts, you’ve made us look at them in new ways. It’s exciting. I heard two women behind me saying that they’d look at a particular painting and think it new…and then realize they’d seen it before but never really paid that much attention. They said the re-discovery was thrilling.”
Visitors to the AGO over the past year tell us they feel they are a part of a dialogue with the world, that this is a place that is not only of its community, but one that is looking out beyond regional or national borders. It’s quite intentional, and as in doing so we’re creating relationships and collaborations, projecting our Canadian artists out beyond our borders and in dialogue with our sister institutions around the world.
The flurry of construction and expansion at nearly a dozen major Toronto institutions over the last several years is city-building on the powerful shoulders of culture. The AGO, the Royal Conservatory, the ROM, the COC, the Gardiner – these and many others unite cultures and encourage dialogue through the catalyst of creativity. They send a reverberating message that culture can drive the economic and social growth of our communities. And as our visitors attest, they have put “the centre of the universe” on the world stage.
“Toronto has finally earned its colours as a player on the big scene. The city has gained some backbone. Indeed, as my own back straightened, I felt proud of Toronto. After all these years of wanting to be taken seriously, Toronto (and Ontario) can now relax.”
The brisk, consistent and admittedly gratifying dialogue about the AGO over the course of its first year post-transformation, suggests the gallery is communicating itself as part of the fabric of everyday life, more so today than at any time in its history. If we, together with Toronto’s other cultural institutions, can sustain that dialogue, we will become civic gathering places built on creativity and imagination.
Over the past year we have focused on removing the barriers to art and the AGO. Through its very design, the gallery clearly states that it’s possible to be here, that one can imagine oneself here. Foremost in our minds is ensuring that the AGO has as many free-access points as possible for communities that historically have not felt the AGO was a place where they could be, where they belonged.
“Thank you so much for facilitating our trip to the AGO. Our people loved it so much. They were really inspired by beauty and power of the art. One of our ladies said that she has been an Impressionist fan for almost 50 years but has only seen such works on postcards. Our people do not get very many opportunities to experience beauty due to the circumstances in their lives but this week they did.”
We have learned that our commitment to accessibility contributes profoundly to making art and the AGO more a part of the community. It is a clear message of welcome when you can come to the AGO for free on a Wednesday night, or borrow a family pass to the AGO as you would borrow a book at all 99 Toronto public libraries. We always have line ups on Wednesday nights, and more than 26,000 people have visited the AGO through the library pass program.
As we approach our first-year anniversary, it’s clear that that transformation from what we were to what we are today is more than physical. Architecture alone does not make a great art museum. It is also the art, and the associations that are conjured in the act of experiencing it, that bring the art museum alive. I hear it over and over again.
“I’m 82 years old and I want to spend the rest of my life here.”
Director and CEO
Art Gallery of Ontario
The crew in exhibitions services is putting the final touches on the new David Milne Study Centre, on the AGO’s second floor (or first floor if you’re from Europe!). David Milne was a Canadian artist who was a contemporary of the Group of Seven, but he developed a style that was completely his own. The study centre features artworks as well as archival materials, such as letters and sketchbooks, and objects, such as Milne’s paintbox. Not familiar with Milne? Or just want to learn more about this amazing artist? Not a problem. In the new study centre, you can explore Milne’s life and art by watching the NFB film on Milne, reading a timeline of his life, or looking through books about the artist.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. No entries accepted after the staircase opens!