A new art museum is a proud beast. It's in the business of mass self-esteem. An event such as the opening of the radically redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario inevitably turns into an assertion of civic pride, a demonstration to the world that the city deserves to be admired for the intelligence and good judgment of the people who made the building and its collection possible.
But to justify itself, a new museum must do far more than simply symbolize civic virtue. It must be a loving home for great art (and some not so great), it must forge connections with its own community while enriching the tourist trade and, on its best days, it must generate ideas about the making and seeing of art. Above all, it must welcome the people who use it and, being taxpayers and members, own it. It must never overwhelm and must not be so pleased with itself as a structure that it bullies or coerces. It must make visitors anxious to return often.
We won't know for years whether the people of Toronto and Ontario will make a long-term habit of visiting the AGO in the new form that's about to be revealed to the public. My guess is that we will. It has certain qualities that will make us see it as not only a grand public statement but also as a good friend.
It's now stunningly big and rich, made much bigger and richer by the art and money donations of the late Kenneth Thomson, who was by far the most generous benefactor in the gallery's history. His major Peter Paul Rubens canvas, The Massacre of the Innocents, will almost certainly be the most talked-about painting in the new building.
The AGO's bigness is combined with the collection's startling newness. Hundreds of art objects, including a great many of Thomson's, have only been witnessed in private.
Still, big as it is, the new AGO comes across in many places as surprisingly intimate -- and, for a major museum, agreeably relaxed.
Frank Gehry, the architect, has delivered an impressive building that contains many small, highly manageable spaces, all of them cleverly connected. As a designer, he knows precisely when to work in broad strokes and when to focus on modest compartments. He displays a certain literary quality, revealing himself (in concert with the AGO curators) as the architectural equivalent of an accomplished essayist who knows how to move smoothly from the generalized idea to the specific detail. He arranges space in segments that are easy to comprehend. There are many places where we will find ourselves almost alone with the art.
The glass canopy that stretches across the Dundas Street front of the building announces the AGO's uniqueness and its separation from the other buildings around it. It also contains one of the most enchanting interiors of the building, the Galleria Italiano, a kind of promenade, dominated for the next year or more by a work commissioned from the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone. As people look out from the Galleria on to the street, they'll become living advertisements for the liveliness within. As they turn back into the building, they'll find themselves slipping into one of seven galleries ranged east to west -- the Henry Moore collection, the Frum African art collection (designed under Gehry's supervision by the Toronto firm of Shim-Sutcliffe) and five galleries filled with Thomson's collection.
The two floors of contemporary art installed in the blue titanium-sheathed tower on the east side of the building function as full-size galleries (with large art objects) that contain smaller galleries focussed on a single artist. Michael Snow, for instance, has a room of his own, showing some of the infinite variety of his art. The work of late Jack Chambers (1931-1978) fills another room.
An open-ended approach to contemporary work obviously guides the selection of contemporary paintings, sculpture and photographs. The new AGO seems intent on subverting any attempt to define and shape the future of art. It doesn't like the idea of an emerging canon of acceptable art. It likes historic periods, such as the 1960s, and it doesn't mind social movements in art (there's a section on feminist political art), but it likes questions better than answers. The fact that art has made its way into the collection obviously means that it's high-quality work of its kind; beyond that, the AGO doesn't care to go.
Walking through the entire building, examining the arrangement of the 4,200 art objects, I thought several times of the word "staged." Scores of objects are treated as stars, given carefully arranged contexts that intensify their effect. Nothing is made to seem unimportant. Never do the curators suggest that anything they show is routine. Again and again, they illuminate the collection with delicate cross-references. If, for instance, we are looking at the work of Antoine Plamondon, a 19th-century painter of the Quebec bourgeoisie, we find that the curators have placed beside it a dress designed by Rebecca Belmore, a contemporary Ojibway, who integrates clothing with Native identity. Beside a tree-dominated Emily Carr painting from the early 20th century, we find a recent Rodney Graham piece in which a tree is turned upside down.
The style of the architecture is elegant and sophisticated, dominated by Douglas fir, often lit in daylight by skylights that are cunningly tilted so that the visitor keeps in touch with the sky while no ultraviolet light endangers the art. This makes its strongest impression in the gallery devoted to Thomson's Lawren Harris collection, a richly deserved tribute to the central figure and most original member of the Group of Seven -- and, not incidentally, Thomson's favourite Group member.
Elsewhere, Thomson's astonishing collection of David Milne's work honours a contemporary of the Group of Seven who until recent years was probably never given his due by the art public. Whatever Gehry touches becomes interesting and engaging. Consider the core of the museum, Walker Court, opened in 1926 and named for Sir Edmund Walker, the banker and intellectual who was the gallery's founder. Gehry has made Walker Court the core of the building. A direct line leads there from the front door and gives coherence to the whole building. Walker Court is placed as a kind of building inside a building, the 1926 design form gracefully enclosed by the 2008 revision. This is not, like the old AGO and many other museums, a place where people will be heard frequently asking the way out.
The AGO is an art gallery designed by an architect who sees himself as an artist. His working drawings often appear in print and sometimes in museums; one of his many books, Frank Gehry On Line, has just been issued by Yale University Press. Famously, Gehry identifies with the goals and accomplishments of the vital artists of his time, from Claes Oldenburg to Richard Serra. In 1982, long before he became fashionable, Gehry developed a belief that a building should do the job his clients want done but much else as well. Aside from establishing itself as first-class architecture, it can also "allow a society to use architecture as one of the means by which it expresses individual and collective consciousness."
Is there a single Toronto and for that matter an Ontario collective consciousness that a new museum can express? Once you could have argued there was, but no more. As a multicultural city, a richly diverse civic bazaar inhabited by many peoples from many places, we live by diversity rather than uniformity. It may well be that Gehry's AGO, with its multitude of surprising corners and half-secret spaces, amounts to a subtle, condensed expression of the way we live now. The audience will decide.