Sunday, August 30, 2009

New AGO Shows Strength of Good Design

I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) today for the first time since their extensive renovations. Although this doesn’t have anything to do with Internet topics, it does relate my thoughts on design and functionality.

My wife and I were members of the AGO for years, but with the arrival of my daughter, we let our membership lapse. Considering that the ROM’s remake has made it child-hostile and with Toronto’s equally hostile climate, we needed something to do indoors. So we renewed our membership (the coming of King Tut was a determining factor).

Overall, I really like the new AGO. If you haven’t seen it, check out these Flickr pix. The collection and architecture are quite good. But there are few missteps and missed opportunities.

Here are my thoughts as we traversed the gallery:

The old building was drearily forgettable. The new building isn’t Gehry at his most delightfully whimsical, but considering the restraints of the retrofit, I think it is excellent. (I was hoping he’d get a brand new site, but that’s too grand for Toronto).The new façade gives the front grandeur and drama. While passing aboard the streetcar, the gallery is stylish and inviting. The back has a new blue, squarish building floating above the Grange. The building is a nice companion to its colourful, eccentric neighbour, OCAD. At night or sunset, the building is even more dramatic and striking.

Glad to see Henry Moore’s sculpture is still present to greet visitors and now has more space around it to show it off properly. My daughter loved climbing it and remarked “It’s so nice they have art for kids”.

The gallery is set close to the street and I like how the gallery shops and restaurants open out directly to encompass the activity of the street. However the space under the façade is otherwise lackluster. Toronto has some great outdoor out, which I’ve blogged about, but other than the Henry Moore, there’s none at the AGO. Even two pieces along Dundas St. would not only invite people into the gallery but interact with the community. Come to think of it, considering Grange Park’s attachment to the AGO and OCAD, why isn't there any public art there? (Okay why don’t most Toronto parks and civic locales?)

Entrance (ground floor)
The first thing one notices – its not the Gehry touches - but the reception desk. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it sets the tone for a drab entrance. A serpentine wheelchair ramp is the only point of interest, albeit a really imaginative and child-pleasing one.

I love how Gehry re/aligned the central axis of the building to include the entrance, Walker Court, and the Grange. It is definitely easier to situate oneself now. This is about the only improvement to way-finding as signage is otherwise missing or vaguely useless.

Walker Court (ground floor)
This is Gehry’s interior piece-de-resistance here. The spiral staircase is incredible, such that a security guard described it as “the feature staircase”. Architecture is an art, so its fitting it’s featured in a gallery. Unlike the ROM none of Gehry’s features get in the way of displaying objects, navigating space, or overshadow the collection. The AGO seems so set on showcasing this staircase they have denuded the Court of all other objects, save some dubious cow sculptures. I like the openness and lightness of this room, but its minimalism is sterile. I wonder if this minimalism based on aesthetics or economics as keeping it empty makes it easier to set up for cashcow weddings – hey, now the cows make sense.

Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium (ground floor)
This used to be my favourite room in the old gallery. The atrium was glass above and to the side that beautifully embraced the historic first gallery, the Grange. It was (and still is) a lovely setting for sculptures. But to call it an atrium now is a stretch. The new back building has reduced it significantly, a necessary trade-off, no doubt. There is a wonderful, surrealist sculpture that fills and invites one to play with the space and work.

The Grange (ground floor)
This is now the member’s lounge. It is a pleasant place to relax or have a coffee. Membership has its privileges. Much as I like this lounge, I was saddened to see history purged from it as it is one of Toronto’s most historically significant sites. I recall much of the Grange furnished in period pieces and volunteers baking period snacks in the basement oven (I definitely remember free yummy food). I can see how the art gallery would want to stick to its mandate, but I think they could have found a more appropriate use for the building than as a lounge.

Kids Area (basement)
My daughter had fun here, so that’s the ultimate appraisal. It had inventive and playful ways to engage children in creating. Their best feature are sculptures to assemble using found art of crocs, dishes, pool noodles, toys, etc. Flower pots and walls can be decorated with chalk. There were also the obligatory drawing, Lego, and reading centres. We also devised a scavenger hunt to help engage (and placate) my daughter. We were golden for one trip. But overall, I am a bit worried that repeat visits with kids may be strained. So hopefully the kids area will evolve (unlike the ROM’s).

Ship Models (basement)
I am eternally grateful to Ken Thompson’s unprecedented cultural philanthropy. However, what is up with the huge space in an art gallery devoted to hundreds of ship models. Yes, they are beautifully presented and yes the workmanship is exquisite, but whom is this extensive collection serving?

Galleria Italia (second floor)
The only thing that would make a stroll down this enchanting space more pleasant is a gelato – and maybe more pleasing artwork. Fronting Dundas, this curved atrium of glass and douglas firm beams affords an engaging view of the pretty Victorian buildings across the street that now house cafes, galleries, and art supply shops. With this space, Gehry has taken the old, closed box that was the AGO and integrated it into the community. Art should be part of society not elitist and cloistered. If Gehry had got a blank slate of a site, it would have never been this close to the streets of the city and consequently been able to so successfully bridge this gap. The artworks in the space (3 variations on tree themes) blend so well with the architecture they are seemingly invisible. More engaging, dare I say colourful, artwork that could be seen from street would further strengthen the effect.

Third floor
The third floor is devoted to event space. Considering insufficient support for arts in Canada, I appreciate that such spaces generate necessary income. Still it is sad that an art gallery has to devote so much of its space not to showing or fostering art or even administrative functions, but to catering to the rich.

Fourth floor
I believe this new space now houses Canadian contemporary art, with many pieces previously undisplayed. The AGO should be proud of so significantly increasing its ability to showcase this type of work.

Fifth floor
A photography collection will be coming. Currently the main reason to come to this floor (other than the café) is for the good view of the city and to begin one’s descent down Gehry’s two staircases. The vantage point to view the city is one of the best in the city.

Looking out at the city from a Gehry building, I was struck by how little of the cityscape is actually worth viewing (OCAD, CN Tower, Canada Life, & TD Centre are worth a look). While standing in the gallery that puts architecture on view as art with its “feature” staircases, the view of architecture was largely dismal.

I haven’t mentioned the AGO art collection. I noticed some new ways of organizing the artwork that were interesting. Toronoist seems to be the only site covering this curatorial departure. For years, I’ve enjoyed the AGO collection with its one of every great artist and strong Group of 7 and Inuit art - now there's more to love.

After the debacle that was the ROM renovation (which I have also blogged about), I was worried that once again I’d feel like the scorned lover (the ROM left me for a narcissistic affair). The new AGO may not provoke a mad a passion in me, but it has definitely rekindled a love affair.

1 comment:

Canadian Tourism said...

What a great experience re-discovering the AGO.

For your readers who are interested in a video tour of the gallery, we recommend the following link -