We’re three years away from the grand (re)opening of the transformed Art Gallery of Ontario, and one could reasonably ask what New York’s Museum of Modern Art could teach us even from this chronological distance. Seizing the occasion of MoMA’s reopening in January after an $800-million plus expansion seemed an opportune time for our Board of Trustees to go and experience from the inside this great relaunching of the world’s greatest museum of modern art.
The new MoMA is really the first great building since 9/11, and being there we had a very real sense that the city is being reborn, that it is in the midst of a spiritual reawakening and great things are still possible.
During and after our visit, what struck me was the realization, in very passionate terms, that it isn’t just a matter of building a museum. It’s building a city. We’re not just building these rooms for art but also adding something to the fabric of the civic space – the space where you live, the space you care about.
There are special characteristics about the MoMA’s architecture -- visibility into the street, the relationship from one room to another and how you walk through the spaces, the focus on the experience of art. In many ways that’s what we want to do at the AGO. We want to create great experiences with art, and this dynamic relationship with the street. We want to create great viewing rooms and also great meeting places where people can gather and exchange their experiences about what they’ve seen.
That’s the challenge we face with Transformation AGO -- how to create an art museum that anticipates what you want an art museum to be. And that’s what architect Frank Gehry is working on with our building. Watching our volunteer board gravitate around those issues as they themselves were experiencing the new MoMA was exciting. Thinking about how Transformation AGO is going to function and what it’s actually going to do for the city -- MoMA helped bring that experience alive.
Image © Gehry International Architects, Inc.
The other day I was driving home. It was snowing. I needed to phone Frank (Gehry) so I picked up the cell phone, called him in Los Angeles and told him, “it’s snowing so I may lose you and if I do I’ll phone you right back.”
He said, “Oh, it’s snowing?”
“Yes, and it’s a bit dark,” I said.
“It’s late in the afternoon?”
“Are you driving by my grandmother’s house?”
“I’m driving along Beverley Street now.”
“Oh my god.”
“Frank, does that make you nostalgic?”
“It absolutely does.”
I know I’ll often be reminded of this conversation because I believe that a “sense of a place” is an ingredient of great architecture. Some people think you can build a great building anywhere. But knowing how a building relates to its site, its neighbourhood, is a key ingredient to creating a great structure.
We’re building the new Art Gallery of Ontario in a place that Frank Gehry knows well. The last time he was in Toronto, he walked through the park and it was snowing. He was 15 minutes late for a meeting with the project team because he didn’t just walk through the park, he walked around the park. And he said he loved every moment. Someone who has that experience has a very intense and very direct response to what the building is going to look like. This is part of who he is, someone who is thinking about how to translate that feeling about the site into a building. It’s not just an expression of the internal needs of the building, but also how the building acts as a “good neighbour.”
For example, from the beginning, Frank has always talked about the old Victorian buildings on the north side of Dundas Street: how much he loves them, how they remind him of the time he lived here in Toronto as a young boy. And in his most recent design iteration, the curved glass promenade on the front façade bends as it starts to rise, right at the point of the height of the buildings on the north side. That was a purposeful design because Frank wanted the reflection of the sky and building to have the effect, optically, of bringing the AGO down a bit and therefore aligning it with the buildings across the street. He was thinking of the building across the way because he lives the buildings across the way. They were across the street from his art gallery in 1942 when he walked through the door. That sense of the neighbourhood is an ingredient for great architecture, and it tells me that our building is going to have a special quality.
Image © Gehry International Architects, Inc.
Walker Court will be the soul of the transformed Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry’s done that by design. The way in which you will experience the building relates back to Walker Court, wherever you are in the building. If you’re in the Contemporary Centre you’re looking down on the court. If you’re in the European Galleries you are around the corner from Walker Court. If you’re in the Canadian galleries you have to go through the stairs in Walker Court to get to the second floor. Wherever you are, Walker Court is your anchor.
I still remember, early on, sitting and talking with Frank two years ago. I asked where his artistic epiphany happened – “where was it you realized a life in art was possible”? He said it happened in Walker Court, looking at a painting by the American modernist, John Marin. He described it as an intense moment of looking at this art and feeling the architecture. He would have been about 12 or 13 years old. His memory of Walker Court is that it happened here and no one’s going to mess with Walker Court. In fact, he’s hardly changing it. He’s making it the heart of the architecture.
There’s a real sense of Toronto as a lived place for Frank. That translates directly into the notion of what this place can be. And so it is for me. I’m from Toronto, and the AGO is the museum of my childhood. I came here often as a kid with my dad. When I think about the AGO today, I’m seeing doubly or triply, as a 12-year-old, as an 18-year-old, and now, as the (aging) Director. When there is a place you have experienced certain things, you remember what they meant to you as a child, what that connection was, what that place of wonder was and is today. However you translate it as a kid, you remember it as an adult. I still remember the amazement at the AGO as a place of creativity.
The same is true of Frank. He doesn’t just see the AGO as an architectural problem because he has the skill of an architect and can solve it in an adult way. He’s also seeing it filled with wonder because he’s seeing it with the eyes of a child. I have postcards of the AGO from the 1930s and1940s. They show the entrance Frank used as a child. When Frank walks into Walker Court he doesn’t see what’s there today. The ability to see something through different points of view and different points in your life allows you to be more empathetic with the people who are going to see the building, use the building... I think it strengthens the ability to create that sense of wonder.
Walker Court, 1926 © 2005, Art Gallery of Ontario
I was reviewing a recent survey on the art preferences of our members. It reported a strong interest in art by “renowned artists,” followed by Canadian art, European art, photography then contemporary art. The findings remind me that the art world is a particular place. On the one hand, people respond to what they know, and on the other hand they respond to what they think they should like. The two don’t always align.
“I want to see art by renowned artists.” What is that? It’s art you’ve heard about, art you know. “I want to see Canadian art.” They might well say that out of a sense of comfort because it is affirming who they are. That’s part of what art does, opens up the categories of how you understand yourself or your culture.
On the other hand there’s a sense of responding to what you should like, as in, “I listen to National Public Radio when I’m in New York.” That’s where we realize there’s a relatively small audience for contemporary art. And yet contemporary art pushes the bounds of the familiar and stands for what is best about the museum experience. It is an invitation to the viewer to interpret, engage and feel creative. I often think of it as the gap between what we know and the unknown. Contemporary art works in that gap and that’s just where we want to invite our audience, safely, to take a chance or two.
In the end, contemporary art is the lifeblood of the institution because it is the most direct connection to the idea of creativity. With contemporary art you’re engaged with how is it made, asking yourself, “Why does the artist find this subject matter interesting, and therefore why should I find it interesting?” These very questions make it a very active process. You’re alive in the moment trying to figure out what it all means. To that degree, the AGO must be absolutely and unequivocally committed to contemporary art.
When you come in to the AGO today, many of the ways we approach the presentation of our collections is through the eyes of contemporary artists. I believe that makes the AGO a truly active place. For example, in the transformed AGO, the first space people will see when they walk in will be a free space for contemporary art, a space that boldly declares art matters.
What free space is something I really like about the new design. The very front of the building -- as a torch of the Gallery’s holdings -- is contemporary art. It is the most accessible space and it’s all about provisional statements rather than certainty. That’s what contemporary art is. It says, “Here’s my best shot, here’s my proposition.” You don’t look at contemporary art with the certainty you look at a da Vinci or a Monet. Contemporary art is so open to debate, so opened ended, that it automatically becomes a more open process. People want to feel that they’re engaged, and one of the roles of the AGO is to ensure people feel that engagement.
Galleries in the Centre for Contemporary Art, Image © Gehry International Architects, Inc.
It’s said of Picasso that he drew as an adult when a child, and drew as a child when an adult. He is alleged to have remarked, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
The critics and pundits will sustain the debate on how evident Picasso’s “inner child” was throughout his long career, but it is a reminder for the rest of us that seeing things from multiple perspectives allows deeper meanings to be expressed.
My own experience as a child at the AGO was formed in the company of my father, an artist, who took these visits very seriously. I remember well how intense these visits were, but they were also sources of pleasure and we came often. Today I see the art gallery through different eyes, not just those of a professional looking to forge a new model for art museums, but also through the eyes of those experiencing art for the first time. The joy and the creative feeling of it all stays with me from those early years.
And every now and again, as I walk through the galleries, I witness that awakening in other children. Not long ago, I overheard a conversation between a father and his pre-teen daughter as they were talking companionably about portraits in the Thomson collection.
“Cool,” she said. “Look at that. Look what he’s showing.”
Knowing that in any gallery at any given time there is a sudden and first realization of a shared language between the artist and the viewer is why I come to work each day. I come knowing this will happen again and again because families represent more than one-third of our memberships and well over 50,000 young people annually take courses at our Gallery School, participate in hands-on workshops or are a part of school group visits.
As we continue planning for the transformation of the AGO, we’re giving a lot of thought to the needs of visitors, young and old. We’re thinking about how to attract them and engage them -- through content and interactivity, through signage and hours of operation and a hundred other critical factors. If we’re doing it right we’re role-playing – walking in the shoes of different visitors long before their shoes ever set foot in the building.
Last week, in a meeting of our Transformation project team, one staff member responsible for display in the new galleries asked how high the art would be hung on the wall. At that moment, she and everyone else in the room were eight years old -- and short for their age.
Photo: Sean Weaver, © 2005, Art Gallery of Ontario
More than half a million people visit the AGO every year. More than 450 work here and another 700 are committed AGO volunteers. When I think about how institutions connect to communities (and our transformation project has me thinking about that a lot) I always come back to that central truth: To be successful, the connection must be rooted in personal relationships.
My first job in the cultural world was in 1981 as an intern at the AGO, working in the education department when I was at graduate school. I felt proud and connected to my hometown gallery. But to continue my studies I moved away, back to London, England and then to various curatorial jobs. When I returned to the AGO as chief curator in 1993, I remember my first day. Mike Litnovetsky was the protection services officer at the door, and he greeted me.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said, a broad smile working its way across his face. It was a homecoming for me, and my own smile was both heartfelt and grateful. Mike was working here in 1981 when I was an intern and he works here still. He made me feel welcome then, as he still does today. The AGO is not only my place; it’s his place, as well.
So I wasn’t surprised when one of our long-time volunteers, Barb Carson, said the following when she was featured recently in an ad about the AGO. “Art museums should be available to everyone and volunteering at the AGO helps me support that belief. I love inviting people to my Gallery.”
Many staff and volunteers have worked here for a long time. I’ve been thinking lately of Marg Godsoe, a remarkable woman who volunteered at the AGO for almost 60 years. Her death in January seemed to close a chapter, but reminded me again of the enormous contribution people make to the Gallery, a place they care about deeply. Kathy Lochnan, our curator of prints and drawings, has been here for 35 years. Maia Sutnik, our associate curator of photography, has been at the Gallery for 41 years. Bill Fryday, another of our protection services officers, has been here 25 years. There are many such stories here.
That so many AGO people have remained connected for so long ensures that their caring and commitment are demonstrated each and every day as values of the AGO. Even as we're forced to make some reductions in our staff and volunteer complement while we're under construction, we know that our strength is in our people, today and when we open the transformed AGO in 2008.
© Photo: Christina Gapic, 2005, Art Gallery of Ontario
Up until 39 years ago, we were the Art Gallery of Toronto. Today we are the Art Gallery of Ontario. While we have a strong commitment to the province, we have a distinctive role in the future of the city, as well.
We hear the expression, “world-class city” all the time. (It’s a phrase I don’t like, it speaks to me too much of a mindset of being judged by others.) The idea of a city connected to the world interests me though, for it means a city in active dialogue and partnership with other great cities. It doesn’t mean simply a city judged by its amenities: a few nice places, a few good restaurants and an art gallery. It means Toronto is actually engaged in relationships and associations with peer cities around the world. We are arguably the most diverse city in the world, and we should build on this in terms of the connections we make.
This city has many people who have a dual sense of what home is: here and New Delhi, here and London, here and Adelaide, here and Jerusalem. People’s sense of home is precisely the relationship between Toronto and another city, and the potential of that is very exciting to me. The ethnic diversity of this city makes it alive and it also opens doors; it creates openings to places around the world. In fact, that’s one of the great challenges for us: how to make those connections, both through communities and through other art museums and galleries. We’re working on it pretty aggressively right now, and we’re open to ideas.
On the exhibition front, one of our greatest successes this year was the partnership that sent the AGO-conceived Turner Whistler Monet: Impressionist Visions exhibition to Paris and London after its debut in Toronto. Its unqualified success was good for Toronto, for Ontario and for Canada. I could do that again.