The Art Gallery of Ontario
Frank Gehry gives the Toronto museum a face-lift
Will starchitect Frank Gehry’s redesign transform the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) into a world renowned building? That certainly seems to have been the goal of much of the recent museum-building in the city, though the results have been uneven. Just down the street is Will Alsop’s CDN$42.5 million Ontario College of Art and Design, which preserved residents’ views of the park by putting the institution on stilts, though the project’s scale was ultimately limited by budget constraints. Meanwhile, Daniel Libeskind’s recent addition to the Royal Ontario Museum feels tacky and slightly out-of-step with the city. While it’s still too early to gauge how both Toronto and the international community will respond to the AGO, my own impressions are mixed: the CDN$300 million renovation, inspired by the late Ken Thomson’s recent bequest, is impressive but far from perfect. The building’s location is less than ideal, many of the exhibitions lack sufficient curatorial direction and levels of accomplishment within these spaces is too often linked to the interests of their main donor.
Some 2000 works from Thomson’s collection now occupy more than a quarter of AGO’s 110 galleries – making up nearly 50 % of the works displayed – though you’re more likely to read about how the architect’s early life in the city influenced the building than the complex effect a major gift can have on a museum’s collection-building strategy. Given the criticisms that Gehry’s blockbuster museum projects have drawn – a perceived lack of sensitivity to the local area, for one – one would imagine his Canadian heritage would fuel hopes for this project. As far as exterior treatments go, it’s difficult to say that Gehry has successfully integrated the AGO with the surrounding buildings: the narrow, adjacent street flanked by Victorian homes obscures all full-frontal views. Notably, the two largest physical changes to the building – the blown glass-like façade and the new addition of a cube housing contemporary galleries resting atop the old building at the rear of the museum – are much more impressive from within.
The interior itself marks a return to Gehry’s earlier deconstructivist work, a decisive break from grander projects such as the Guggenheim Bilbao and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall. Intentionally subdued, the AGO is more response to the art it houses than the city block it was assigned. The exhibitions themselves – comprising Canadian, photography and contemporary, to name a few – hit some fairly significant highs and lows. While none of these lows could be attributed to Gehry’s masterful and relatively restrained redesign, it may have inspired some ill-advised curatorial decisions. For example, while Gehry seamlessly threads new architectural structures and finishings throughout the pre-existing rooms (virgin wooden floors; twirly staircases; recessed skylights), the museum’s strategic placement of recent work amongst the older art in the collection feels forced and awkward.
In other instances, the museum’s holdings are more thoughtfully placed. Probably the best example of this is demonstrated in the Thomson Collection Canadian gallery, in which a large overhead window shapes Toronto’s northern light to fall in the same angular pattern as in Lawren Harris’ mountain-top paintings that hang just below. Rarely has a relationship between architecture and painting been made so explicit through light alone.
A very different work, David Altmejd’s sprawling sculpture The Index (2007), couldn’t be more perfectly placed in the first-floor atrium. The lattice and windows integrate with Altmejd’s taxidermied animals and mirror shards so seamlessly that the architecture and the exterior landscape look as though they could belong to the same piece. Similarly, Giuseppe Penone’s The Hidden Life Within (2008) is remarkably improved when placed against Gallery Italia’s 450-foot-long view of neighboring Dundas Street framed by oversized wooden arched supports.
Yet these works – as well as Thomson’s exquisite European and medieval art collection, and the impressive early-twentieth-century galleries – are somewhat compromised by haphazardly curated spaces elsewhere. The contemporary portion of the museum – a field largely unexplored by Thomson’s collection – is amongst the worst surveys I have seen. Poor curatorial direction and a lack of high-quality work means that the two chronologically organized floors resemble a cluttered flea-market. A Helen Frankenthaler on the fifth floor is hung on a wall far too short for the size of the painting; a large black cube by Mona Hatoum obscures all the work around it; Brian Jungen’s golf bag totem poles are surrounded by so many other pieces that the usually grandiose structures appear cheap and tawdry. World class institutions don’t make these very basic mistakes.
With that said, the museum did have the foresight to hire an architect who understood the importance of creating a building with the primary purpose of showcasing the finest works in its collection. In this respect, the AGO has done very well; the galleries, the building, and the curation all achieve the highest levels of accomplishment. The hope is that Gehry’s clarity of vision will eventually extend throughout the museum.