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Collection Building: The Gardiner Museum

Since its inception in 1984, the Gardiner Museum—the country’s national ceramics museum—has been a jewel of Toronto’s cultural core. But two decades later, the museum needed room to grow. In January 2004, the museum embarked on a $20-million expansion and renewal through the generosity of philanthropists George and Helen Gardiner, who donated the initial pieces as well as a building to house them in.

Two and a half years later, the revamped museum threw its doors open for a special exhibition this past June and opened all its galleries in mid-September.

The reopening marks not only an important moment in the history of the museum, but another milestone in Toronto’s recent cultural renaissance. Two new performance venues opened this year, too: the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (home to Soulpepper Theatre Company) in January, and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (home to the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada) in June. The Gardiner’s facelift is the first in a wave of significant renovations to the city’s museums and galleries, ahead of the Daniel Libeskind–designed Royal Ontario Museum (scheduled to open mid-2007) and the Art Gallery of Ontario‘s transformation by Frank Gehry (with a 2008 completion date).

AWARD-WINNING ARCHITECT
The Gardiner’s expansion unfolded under the visionary eye of Canadian firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB)—the same designers behind the Distillery District’s Young Centre. They envisioned a vertical expansion, with the addition of a third-floor pavilion, a grand front entrance, a glass terrace overlooking the city, an open-concept space to house the museum’s unique collection and an expanded museum shop and clay studios.

The architects aimed to respect the intimate scale of the museum’s original design, created by Keith Wagland in 1984, while maintaining the personable scale of the museum. “We re-imagined something that was already very good and took it to a new level of growth and excellence,” says Bruce Kuwabara, the design principal on the project and the 2006 recipient of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal—the highest honour bestowed in the industry. “We gave this great small museum an intimate monumentality,” he says.

The designers completely reconfigured the museum’s layout, incorporating spaces that both reflected the needs of each gallery and also allowed for further growth. The Gardiner gained two new galleries to house the Asian and contemporary ceramics, plus a whole new third-floor pavilion. This new top floor features a special exhibitions gallery as well as a multi-purpose space that leads to an on-site restaurant—run by acclaimed chef Jamie Kennedy (see “Jamie Kennedy’s Plates,”)—with a glass terrace that boasts views of the ROM, Queen’s Park and the University of Toronto.NATIONAL COLLECTION
Custom-designed cases with shallow glass displays serve as an understated backdrop to showcase the museum’s extraordinary collection.

North America’s premiere institution devoted solely to collecting, exhibiting and interpreting ceramics features an impressive assemblage of more than 2,900 pieces from Europe, Asia and the Americas across centuries. Highlights include an internationally renowned collection of 18th-century European porcelain, 17th- and 18th-century English delftware and slipware, Italian Renaissance maiolica and the largest collection in Canada of ceramics from the Ancient Americas. Generous acquisitions over the years have included the Robert Murray Bell and Ann Walker Bell Collection of Chinese porcelain from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and the Aaron Milrad Collection of international contemporary ceramics, which include works by artists such as Robert Turner and Roseline Delisle.

The vast compilation also includes whimsical pieces such as 107 porcelain scent bottles made from 1715 to 1780 in the shape of birds, bunches of fruit and small figures, and significant items such as Vessel With Lovers (1957), a figurative piece by Marc Chagall (1887–1985) considered one of the most important ceramic pieces in North America.SPECIAL EXHIBITS
The Gardiner commissioned Canadian artist Jean-Pierre Larocque to create a special exhibit—his first solo Canadian showing—to celebrate the reopening of the museum. “Clay Sculpture and Drawings,” on display until October 9, features drawings and large-scale sculptures of horses and figures.

“Battle of Britain: Terracottas and Other Work” opens on October 25, with pieces by Paul Day to commemorate a turning point of World War II. The acclaimed British-born sculptor was commissioned by the Battle of Britain Historical Society to create a 25-metre-long monument located on the Thames Embankment by Westminster Pier in London. On exhibit at the Gardiner are the original terracotta sculptures of this monument, with themes that reflect heroism, as well as a unique perspective of Canadian involvement in the battle.

The Gardiner Museum is open daily. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for students, and children age 12 and under are admitted free.

TIP! Admission to the museum is free Friday from 4 to 9 p.m., and all day the first Friday of each month.

To read more about Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, please read Jamie Kennedy’s Plates.—Linda Luong

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