The Art Gallery of Ontario reopens its doors Friday for a free-admission weekend to Frank Gehry’s transformation of its exhibition space. Make no mistake, it has been worth the wait.
After the underwhelming redesign and reopening of New York’s MoMA and the thin bombast of Daniel Libeskind’s ROM crystal, there was trepidation at what was being wrought on Toronto’s Dundas Street. But Gehry’s changes are elegant and understated, more a functional reno than a grand redesign.
What’s new at the AGO is a fully conceptualized rehanging of its collection. The art has never looked better, or more considered. The AGO is now a venue to spend the day rather than breeze through. A special emphasis has been placed on contemporary art, which has been interwoven with historical works to speak on themes that cut across time, and an effort has been made to bring visibility to work by women artists throughout the gallery. There are special installations by Kara Walker and Nancy Spero that inhabit a gallery otherwise given over to 17th-century Dutch painting, and the entry to the contemporary section is framed by sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois. The AGO has a remarkable Rothko that’s now in proximity and conversation with Joyce Wieland’s Time Machine.
The new contemporary spaces are lofty and grand and filled with art deliberately hung in chronological order to cross borders and interweave Canadian artists with international heavyweights. It’s a polemical approach that offers new insights to the art and a level playing field for Canadian artmaking; any lingering provincialism about the stature of our art has been shown the door. Inner rooms off the open time-flow galleries give meditative pause to key figures like Michael Snow, Jack Chambers, NE Thing Co and General Idea.
The historical Canadian collection is riveting. Organized around the themes of memory, myth and power, the works are set into historical and sociological contexts that begin well before European colonization. The stage is set by remarkable wall-mounted collection of stone projectile points from a Fort Erie dig that delivered arrowheads ranging across ten thousand years. Contemporary works by First Nations artists Rebecca Belmore and Kent Monkman offer further friction to European aesthetic presumptions, creating a historical collection that manages to show both a complex history and a fresh topicality. For the newly historical Toronto art of the 1970s, Coach House Press has been chosen as a framework to mirror its countercultural roots.
The multiplex cinema down the street from Grange Park has nothing on the new AGO. It sets a new Toronto standard for looking and thinking. (317 Dundas St W, Toronto ON)