Transforming the AGO
In the annals of Toronto’s long and much discussed inferiority complex, the transformed AGO may go down as the moment we decided to just get over it. Not because the new gallery will become an architectural icon (it is wonderful, but in a subtle way) and not because it houses a collection of international significance (Toronto does not possess the kind of financial capital required to build one), but because it will make us realize that those are not the only tickets to greatness. The building is a perfect distillation of that very Canadian mix of beauty and restraint, and because it is so good at striking that balance, because it makes that balance look so appealing, it will hopefully encourage us all to stop equating excellence with monumentalism. Toronto is not, we constantly hear, a “statement” city; we do things quietly around here. The new AGO challenges the underlying assumption that that’s somehow a fallback position.
The focal points of the expanded building, designed by Frank Gehry, are the Walker Court, now restored to the centre of the building; the Galleria Italia, the wood and glass promenade stretching the length of the building’s second floor, overlooking Dundas Street; and the new titanium-clad south-facing wing. The wood that is in use everywhere humanizes the gallery: it is light and textured and brings a lovely hit of nature into the previously concrete-heavy building. The wood (Canadian Douglas Fir) also bridges the old and new portions of the building: existing galleries had their floors redone to match the new ones so that there’s a good sense of continuity even with the rooms Gehry didn’t touch. The expansion does a beautiful job of working with what was already there: variations in style between the classicism of the old galleries and the modern glass and poured concrete in the new ones are refreshing rather than jarring; they wake you up as you move from room to room rather than beat you about the head with their differences. The AGO has increased its gallery space by 50%, and 40% of the art now on display is new to the institution.
The great untold story of the new AGO, lost in the excitement about the architectural expansion, is the art. In particular, the AGO is embarking on a revolutionary curatorial strategy, and once the frenzy surrounding the new building fades it will likely become the subject of some heated debate. The collections have been substantially reorganized and in sometimes unexpected ways. Traditional galleries, in a practice dating back several hundred years, are organized chronologically and according to medium. The AGO is trying out a new curatorial model of organizing work, at least to some degree, thematically: many rooms are now unified by a single subject matter (the representation of women, power, still life, diversity, etc.) and include a wide array of works that cut across timelines and media. The idea behind this is that the gallery wants to be “visitor centred” and not assume a particular body of knowledge or cultural literacy. It aims to let different artworks illuminate and reflect upon one another, engaging in a kind of dialogue, rather than offer a traditional, textbook-style progression of time and place.
It will be fascinating to see how this curatorial approach is received; the AGO is one of a very small number of galleries to try it seriously—the Detroit Institute of the Arts (with which the AGO worked on this) and the Tate galleries are the two others that AGO curators cited as examples. Those experiments have been met with mixed reviews, and we suspect that this one will be as well. There are instances where it works beautifully (we particularly liked the rooms devoted to power and to women) and others where the thematic choices or juxtapositions seem a bit heavy-handed or unfocused (as in the room on diversity). Not everything, it is worth pointing out, is set up thematically: many of the galleries retain the more traditional chronological organization. Devotees of that model can still leave satisfied. As for the new arrangements, it is likely that the public will go through the same process that the curators themselves did: at least a few felt some initial reluctance, but they have grown increasingly appreciative of the potential insights thematic groupings can give. The great danger with this kind of approach is falling prey to the obvious and the politically correct. So long as the themes are well-chosen to genuinely shed light on a subject and the gallery has a reservoir of appropriately enlightening works to display, this is an innovation that can breathe new life into the experience of going to a gallery.
We do have one significant qualm: the price of admission. The regular adult entrance fee is now $18, high enough that it will undoubtedly keep many otherwise interested people away. Admittedly, there are still free Wednesday evenings and passes available for check-out from the library. Some new Canadians and local community groups will be given passes, and high school students can enter free on weekday afternoons. All good things. Nonetheless, the tickets are too expensive and seriously undercut any notion that art is completely accessible. When the question was put to Frank Gehry, he simply described the ticket price as “highway robbery.” It is. The current economic climate and the government’s arguably frosty attitude towards arts funding put all institutions in a serious bind. Nonetheless, the AGO has just exceeded its campaign fundraising goal of $276 million and it should vigorously expand that campaign so it can underwrite not just new art acquisition but operating costs as well.
The brilliance of Frank Gehry’s expansion is that it doesn’t try to force the AGO to be something it isn’t: it doesn’t fight with the original building, and it doesn’t fight with the works it contains. The AGO is, and should be, a place to go see art, and the building’s primary task is to showcase that art as well as it can. Gehry spoke, during his remarks at the press preview yesterday, of the “overwhelming rush to build neutral white galleries—people who do that forget that no character is some character, it’s just negative character.” He has given us, instead of a white box, something that is far less austere, something far more natural, which simultaneously makes the art shine. The building doesn’t compete with the art, and it doesn’t try to render itself invisible: it puts the art in a setting that’s neutral enough to allow you to focus, but warm enough to allow you to relax. It is neither more nor less than it should be.