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Image Makeover: The AGO Re-Opens

Six years ago the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most renowned architects, would undertake a massive redesign of its eclectic and oft-expanded space. The ambitious project, dubbed Transformation AGO has had Toronto’s cultural community buzzing ever since. The gallery’s wildly successful grand opening marked yet another milestone of this city’s architectural renaissance, joining such high-profile edifices as Daniel Libeskind’s “Crystal” addition to the Royal Ontario Museum and the renewed Gardiner Museum, courtesy of lauded local firm KPMB.

Known for his radically sculpted metallic structures including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millenium Park, Gehry was a logical choice for the AGO not only because of his famous resumé—though based in Los Angeles, the architect was born in Toronto and grew up just streets away from the downtown institution. The renovated building features a variety of Gehry’s stylistic hallmarks, but is also respectful to its surroundings, mingling well in a bustling neighbourhood that includes everything from heritage row houses to the campus of a major art and design college.

Among the new AGO’s most striking visuals is the arcing, 600-foot-long glass facade along Dundas Street West, which is prominently buttressed by huge and numerous planks of Douglas fir and houses a sculpture gallery viewable from the street. Gehry also built skyward, adding a stout glass-and-titanium-clad tower that overlooks bucolic Grange Park to the south. Inside, the gallery’s historic heart, Walker Court, has also undergone a makeover: imported limestone flooring, wood accents, skylights and a grand spiral staircase add to the elegance.

Already one of the largest public art museums in North America, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s $276 million renovation adds 97,000 square feet, increasing its art-viewing space by almost 50 per cent and providing a well-deserved boost to its reputation as a world-class cultural destination.

Long noted for the breadth of its extensive collection—currently the gallery’s holdings number more than 73,000 works across many genres and media, spanning over 1,000 years of artistic history—the newly expanded AGO can now, of course, hang even more of those impressive pieces on its walls.

A number of these works come from what was Canada’s most significant private assemblage of art, the 2,000-piece Thomson Collection. One of the prime forces behind the AGO’s renewal, billionaire media mogul Ken Thomson donated his enormous collection (along with $70 million in cash!) to the gallery. Though he passed away in 2006, his legacy is evident throughout the new building; such masterpieces as The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens and Scene in the Northwest by Paul Kane are on display due to Thomson’s generosity—not to mention a number of important works by Canadian artists like members of the Group of Seven, David Milne and Jean-Paul Riopelle, plus European decorative treasures including the legendary 12th-century reliquary known as the Malmesbury Châsse.

Another major bequeathal has allowed the AGO to bring into focus a vast store of modern and vintage photographic works. A recent anonymous gift provided the gallery with nearly 1,000 images by famed Czech photographer Josef Sudek, plus an astounding 20,000 social-documentary prints dating to the 1930s and ’40s from the historic Klinsky press agency. These, along with original photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Edward Burtynsky and many others, comprise a vital, thought-provoking exploration of what is arguably the most popular of all visual art forms.

Contemporary art is also a major beneficiary of the gallery’s transformation, with the top two floors of Gehry’s new, blue-tinted tower dedicated to works by modern artists. Visitors will find it impossible to miss David Altmejd’s stunningly imaginative installation The Index—composed of, among other things, steel rods, shards of mirror, quartz crystals, fake fur and sculpted birds—and works by artists as diverse as award-winning Inuit printmaker Annie Pootoogook and abstract painter Joyce Wieland. Sections dedicated to famed visionaries including Michael Snow and Gerhard Richter lend further depth to the contemporary display space.

Of course, there is much more to see within the new building’s 110 spacious galleries. From such European masters as Monet, Rodin, van Gogh and Cézanne to Canadian icons like Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris; from Renaissance-era sculptures to postmodern paintings to traditional art and artifacts from Africa and Australia, the new Art Gallery of Ontario now exhibits a diverse collection that rivals the very best in the world.

Architect Gehry isn’t the only famous “Frank” associated with the AGO. Renowned New York–based artist Frank Stella contributed two impossible-to-miss metal sculptures to the gallery that mark the entrance to its sleek new restaurant. And just recently, the AGO acquired another Stella work—the vibrant abstract painting York Factory (Sketch) IV, which now hangs prominently in the contemporary art centre.

The ROM’s C5 Restaurant Lounge and Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner Museum have proven that cultural institutions and culinary inspiration make a perfect pair. While cuisine has long held a respectable place at the Art Gallery of Ontario—thanks to Anne Yarymowich, executive chef for the gallery’s restaurant for the past 12 years—the promise of a new Gehry-designed space and an updated menu has Toronto foodies frothing with anticipation. The 130-seat AGO restaurant matches modern Euro-chic furnishings with contemporary cuisine highlighting local ingredients and an Ontario-heavy wine list. Families looking for a relaxed alternative can also head to the gallery’s concourse-level café, which offers a similarly wholesome but more affordable spread.

To read more about the AGO’s shop, please see For Up-and-Coming Collectors.

—Craig Moy

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