Public Art Caught in Middle of Muzik Nightclub Negotiations
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Public Art Caught in Middle of Muzik Nightclub Negotiations

Daughter of sculptor E.B. Cox claims the statues are being held "hostage" to gain leverage in lucrative lease negotiation.

The Garden of the Greek Gods in 2003, before Muzik’s lease. Photo courtesy of Kathy Sutton.

Amidst ongoing negotiations over Muzik nightclub’s lease, a small cluster of sculptures has become a bargaining chip for the nightclub’s lobbyists, according to the artist’s daughter.

The “Garden of the Greek Gods,” sculpted by the late E.B. Cox and donated to the city in 1979, is currently located on city-owned property that was leased to Muzik in 2004. Along with the historic Horticulture Building, the initial lease included Cox’s sculpture garden, and has since become a source of agitation for the artist’s family, who claim they were neither consulted nor informed when the sculptures were included in the lease.

As Muzik seeks to extend their lease, Cox’ daughter contends that the nightclub’s high-profile lobbyists are holding the public art hostage in order to negotiate on behalf of their client.

The Exhibition Place’s Board of Governors agreed to relocate the art in 2014, but despite the formation of a working committee meant to establish alternative options for the Greek Gods’ placement, the art-rescuers have come head-to-head with Muzik nightclub, whose owner Zlatko Starkovski wants to extend Muzik’s Exhibition Place lease by by 10 years. The lease is scheduled to expire in 2024.

The nightclub’s lobbyists, who have renewed a push for Muzik’s lease extension since May 2015, come in the form of high-profile lawyer and political fundraiser Ralph Lean (currently the Chair of Muzik), and former mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone. Both Lean and Pantalone were, at one point, chairs of Exhibition Place’s Board of Governors (Pantalone was the chair during the time when the board first leased the art to Muzik).

According to the artist’s daughter Kathy Sutton, Lean has suggested that the art will not be returned unless Muzik receives a 10-year lease extension. Sutton recounts a meeting with Lean at city hall last November: “I asked [Lean] if he would be willing to let the sculpture be moved as a goodwill gesture, but he just leaned back and said, ‘not going to happen.’ To me, that’s treating the art like it’s a pawn or hostage…[the art] belongs to the public realm, not trapped away in the nightclub to be used as a negotiating item for his lease.”

Neither Lean nor Pantalone could be reached for comment.

The public art is now fenced off. Photo courtesy of Kathy Sutton.

Starkovski and Sutton first arranged the meeting on an informal tour of Muzik that Starkovski gave Sutton. According to Sutton, they both agreed that a meeting must be called in order to address the sculpture situation, but, come meeting time, the owner was a no-show, and was represented by Lean and Muzik’s lawyer, Michael Binetti. At that point, Sutton says she realized what Muzik’s intentions were.

“I don’t see why the nightclub, like Ralph Lean and Zlatko Starkovski, don’t say ‘Ok fine, our clientele did not appreciate the sculptures. It should never have been here in the first place. Exhibition Place can pay for moving it and repair the patio afterwards.’ I don’t see why they won’t do that. But I guess the fact of the matter is they see it as a way of getting what they want.”

Located on a patio that Muzik built in May 2014, the sculptures have become a convenient spot for club-goers to put out their cigarettes, and are slowly deteriorating.

Although the family would like to see the art relocated, Sutton notes that, on principal alone, the trade-off isn’t worth it. “As a citizen of Toronto, I think that’s just not right to have an untendered lease extension for a nightclub…that’s not a good trade. I think they should just give up the art.”

Muzik is not new to controversy. Last August, the club became the focal point for criminal activity in Toronto, when an attendee was shot and killed during Drake’s OVO-fest after-party. Following the incident, councilors Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) and Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) penned an open letter requesting that the AGCO either remove or suspend Muzik’s liquor license, highlighting a trend in assaults and violence that has occurred at Muzik over the past dozen years.

Layton, who is on the board and who has previously motioned to relocate the art, said that he’s skeptical of Muzik’s lease request, and not simply because of Muzik’s past incidents.

“It’s a sole-source extension for 10 years to someone who’s only 10 years into their lease. It’s not like their lease is about to expire,” he said. “You’re essentially locking it in until the 2030’s…Why would we want to put ourselves in such a negative financial position that we’d have to buy ourselves out of a lease like that?”

Eight years remain on the club’s 2004 lease, meaning that an additional layer of extensions could grant them access to the Horticulture building until 2034.

Perks added that “the history of violence and the problems for the community that come from [Muzik] make me believe that they’re not fit to run an establishment. Extension or not, they should be closed tomorrow.”

The Exhibition Place Board of Governor’s passed club owner Zlatko Starkovski’s motion for a lease extension in May of 2013. Following the August shootings, Layton motioned the board to defer negotiations regarding the lease extension, but was outvoted 4-2. The city’s executive committee then deferred the request until 2016. Now, in order for the extension to be approved, the request must pass through the City Executive and then through City Council.

The Board of Governors will hold a meeting on February 22 to discuss Starkovski’s request for a lease extension, where Sutton is hoping there will be an opportunity to discuss reclaiming the Greek Gods. She adds that, despite her grievances towards Muzik, the crux of this problem lies within the 2004 Board’s decision to lease the art in the first place.

“In a way, I don’t blame [Muzik]. It was part of their lease. They didn’t ask for it to be put there. Exhibition Place basically gave away the public art along with the land and the building to the nightclub.”

UPDATE: 3:38 PM We updated this article to indicate that Joe Pantalone could not be reached for comment.