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By Felix Shuster

In the words of Mr. A. Charles Baillie, President of Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) Board: “the new AGO is an extraordinary home for extraordinary art”.

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This bold statement reflects very strong belief among AGO Board and many people in the cultural community in the country, that the transformed AGO has joined the circle of world-class museums and by its present status has similar meaning to Toronto as Hermitage means to St. Petersburg, or Louvre to Paris. There is a couple of great reasons for such belief:

  • one – Frank Gehry designed and performed architectural transformation of AGO complex and,
  • two – new sophisticated approach in exhibiting vast collections of the museum, especially with the impact of magnificent gift – collections by Canadian philanthropist, late Ken Thomson.

Choosing Frank Gehry & Partners for the project was obviously influenced by the fact that in the last 20 years every project designed and built by Frank Gehry had instantly become a tourist attraction. It is worth to note that with many great buildings Frank Gehry created in USA, Europe and Asia, the AGO Transformation is the first one performed in his motherland. Yes, Frank Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929, and first 18 years of his life lived in the area nearby AGO, which up to late 1940s was considered one of Jewish neighborhoods. In one of the interviews Mr. Gehry said: “I wanted to make something that reflects Toronto and embraces the neighborhood.”

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Frank Gehry

Back in 1989 Frank Gehry has received Pritzker Prize for Architecture (equivalent of Nobel Prize) for his lifetime achievements. In the following 20 years his great creations: like Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. or Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park of Chicago have proven that Frank Gehry was not the man ‘to rest on laurels’. It appears that his work conforms to definition of ‘architecture as frozen music’ made by Goethe centuries ago.

In her 1990 essay on Frank Gehry’s architecture, critic and member of jury for Pritzker Prize, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote: “He pushes modern miracle of radically redefined structure into sudden bursts of ‘pure’ form – a surprising exterior stairs in a sky-lit room that offers as much abstract art as illumination”. That passage almost reads as part of description of AGO Transformation by Frank Gehry.

Art Gallery of Ontario - One Day Ontario Tours - www.felixtours.com

Transformation AGO project has increased display space by 47%, which was absolutely vital for growing collections of museum, but more important to notice that it caused major shift in the way gallery views its function now adding research and education as focus areas for the interaction with public.

It is not ‘how many and which objects’ of art are presented to people, but rather ‘how and when’ becomes main concern of the staff.

It shows prominently in the Jackman Gallery, where historic art work of Indian masters is juxtaposed many well-known paintings and sculptures of Canadian artists to reflect idea of power being established and resisted or accepted.

In R. S. McLaughlin Gallery great works of Paul Cain showing Indian life in 18th century is presented alongside of sculptures carved by Indian Haida artists, depicting European sea captains and sailors.

The P. B. Fudger Gallery uses contrast between one wall fully covered by many paintings of French artists of 19th century in the typical ‘salon style’ of the time, and on the other wall paintings of French impressionists hang in one line, in order to illustrate the struggle between the artistic styles.

Another important shift: AGO offers regular guided mini-tours of specific collections and 1-hr long tour on highlights of AGO and architecture of Frank Gehry as part of admission to the museum and specialized tours guided by docents – educational staff.

These and other changes were intended to make experience of AGO visitors much more rewarding and memorable, and for the last couple years the Transformed AGO is well received by public.

By Felix Shuster

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