The New AGO
- Matthew Teitelbaum, Michael Koerner, Sonja Koerner
- Media Type:
- Item Type:
- Several slides are shown during this speech. An acknowledgement of donors and others in the audience that helped to make the new AGO possible. Difficult times to lead a cultural institution and how that is so. Looking at the future of the AGO with optimism. The times we live in – looking for ways to speak to one another. Frank Gehry’s vision, with images. Challenges met. Some history of Frank Gehry and the project. Balancing the notion of the institution and the notion of home. More images. Reaching out to visitors. Creating points of access. Wanting people to come back. More images. The AGO as the largest public project in North American to use wood. Some anecdotes about the collection and the building, with images. Some numbers to illustrate the site of the collection and the building, with images. The changing face of Toronto. The notion of change. The Art Gallery of Ontario as one of the great civic institutions in Canada. Giving us confidence about thinking in new ways about the future. Some concluding remarks and reiterated thank yous.
- Date of Original:
- Oct 30 2008
- Language of Item:
- Copyright Statement:
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address
Fairmont Royal York Hotel
100 Front Street West, Floor H
Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3
- Full Text
October 30, 2008
Michael and Sonja Koerner Director and CEO, Art Gallery of Ontario
The New AGO
Chairman:Jo-Ann McArthur, President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
Alison Dalglish-Pottow: National Director of Development, CANFAR, and Director, The Canadian Club of Toronto
Sara Abuzinadah: Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute
Reverend Vic Reigel: Honorary Chaplain, Christ Church, Brampton
Dr. James Fleck: President, AGO Foundation
Charles Baillie: President, AGO Board of Trustees
Tony Gagliano: Executive Chairman and CEO, St. Joseph Communications
Michael Koerner: President, Canada Overseas Investments Ltd.
Sylvia Morawetz: Principal, S.A.M. Solutions, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada
Avie Bennett: Chairman, AGO Board of Trustees
Rupert Duchesne: President and CEO, Groupe Aeroplan Inc.
Helen Burstyn: President, The Canadian Club of Toronto, and Chair, Canadian Trillium Foundation.
Introduction by Jo-Ann McArthur
The AGO was founded in 1900 by a group of private citizens, as the Art Museum of Toronto. It was renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966. The current location of the AGO dates from 1910, when the gallery was willed the land known as “The Grange” upon the death of Goldwin Smith.
In 1999 Matthew spoke at the Empire Club on “What We Learn From The Past”—where he talked about the changing nature of museums by thinking about the past and wondering what doors it might open at the close of the 20th century. Well in November 2008 Matthew Teitelbaum is opening one very big door!
He has been named one of the key people behind the current cultural revival in Toronto and is a leading ambassador for the importance of Canadian art, in Canada and abroad.
He is also a big believer in the role of art to open up boundaries, so I know he will appreciate this quote from Twyla Tharp: “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”
Please join me in welcoming Matthew Teitelbaum and prepare to embark upon a transformative journey.
Several slides were shown during this speech.
I want to begin by thanking everybody because this moment, which is a great moment for Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario, couldn’t have happened without so many of you in this room—donors, heads of corporations, the wonderful Bank of Montreal, who is our lead inaugural sponsor and our membership. There are moments like this where I stand and represent an institution with a great history. I know deeply and with great humility that I stand here on behalf of many, many people and many of you are in this room.
It seems as though these are difficult times in which to lead a cultural institution and they are. The economy is on a roller coaster, confidence and optimism have decreased, gas prices are going all over the place, tourism seems as challenged as disposable income, and I would just say as a director of your Art Gallery of Ontario I’m either the luckiest guy in the world with a great job or just about to go into a chapter in my institution’s history that none of you can imagine.
I want to tell you why I do feel lucky. I want to tell you why when I look at the future of the Art Gallery of Ontario, notwithstanding the context in which we exist, I feel nothing but optimism.
I think that we live in a time in which we are looking for ways to speak to one another. We are looking for that across national borders, and we are looking for that within our own communities. Forty per cent of new immigrants to Canada live in Toronto. There are 175 nationalities represented in our schools. Seventy-five different languages are spoken. People come to Toronto because they want to meet. So I say to you at this time of great challenge in our economic and cultural life, there’s nothing but great opportunity for museums to be a meeting place of values and of populations.
I feel very lucky to say that the great architect of our time, Frank Gehry, spent a lot of time with us thinking about how we imagined our Art Gallery of Ontario could be and what you see on the screen is the model of the front of the Art Gallery of Ontario as we unveiled it over five years ago. And what you see here is a photograph of the front of the building taken just two weeks ago.
I said to Frank that the challenge was to create a public institution that declared boldly to the world what it stood for. His response was to create this 600-foot-long glass promenade across the front of the building so that when you walk in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario you see people looking at art. And that in fact of course is what the mission of the Art Gallery of Ontario is—to bring art and people together and to boldly say that art can actually change the way in which you think about the world. It can give you a new language to think about the way in which you might approach different issues in today’s society. You can walk in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario now and see people engaging with art—a truly magical moment.
Frank Gehry was born in Toronto and he had his artistic epiphany in the Walker Court, which is the 1926 Bozar Square of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and there’s an image up on the wall of the model of that space. This is what it looked like two days ago with the magical staircase that goes the equivalent of 12 residential stories high shooting up through the middle of the Walker Court. He wanted to make the Walker Court into a temple because he believed that his experience and his associations with a changing life moment in front of a work of art should somehow be communicated to others.
Ken Thomson and Frank Gehry were two leaders who grew up with the Art Gallery of Ontario as the museum of their childhood. Working with that notion of childhood and what constitutes that magical moment when you really believe something is possible which happens in moments of childhood and wonder, to work with someone like Frank Gehry who thinks in that way about our space and thinks in that way about the Walker Court meant that he would do something special; that somehow he would take that memory from his past and bring it into the experience of the space for the future.
The great challenge we have in building a great institution, a big institution and all those things that institution means—concrete, size, money, support—is somehow to balance that notion of the institution which is power and momentum with the notion of home. How do you create the institution with all of those positive attributes and at the same time create a sense of home which is this notion of welcome, belonging, we want you here?
This is the model of the new entrance to the Art Gallery of Ontario that is made out of limestone and wood. When you walk in we hope what you feel is we want you here, we want you to come forward, and we want you in this space. I think the language of the new building is wood and light—two optimistic materials; two materials that surround you wherever you are. The image shows an information desk at the front so the first encounter you have is with people engaging you in the experience of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The notion of how you reach out to populations and say you belong here is a function not only of the space but also the notion of visitor welcome. We recognize that we have populations that are very diverse and we need to find ways to talk to their experience. We also need to make an accessible institution. So when we reopen in just a few days we will have an institution that is open to high school students for free every day high school is in session. We are maintaining our Wednesday night openings as part of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship, which is a program we began two years ago to give out free memberships to new Canadians. If new Canadians have chosen Canada as their home, then so too do we want them to think of the Art Gallery of Ontario as their home. We are part of a library-pass program, in fact the leader in this program, where we actually give out passes to the Art Gallery of Ontario as if you are checking a book out of a library.
If you want your institution to really reach out to be a place where people feel they belong, you want to create points of access. And once you’ve created an institution that truly is about accessibility then you’ve created an institution where people feel at home. Accessibility, visitor welcome, and the comforts of an institution are expressed in many levels. The point size of the label, the amount of seating in different galleries, the price point in the restaurant to make sure it’s affordable are all aspects of reaching out and saying that we want you here, we want you to come back. These are aspects of the new Art Gallery of Ontario that we have thought about very carefully.
This is a very special and magical space in the Art Gallery of Ontario. You are seeing here a model of the sculpture promenade designed by Frank Gehry to create a connection to the city, because one of the goals we gave to Frank was to create a building that celebrates its position in downtown Toronto, that celebrates its relationship to the city in which we live and he created this great sculptural promenade. And then Tony Gagliano, one of our great leaders on the AGO Volunteer Board, came up with the idea that maybe he could call on some leaders in the Italian community and engage them in a connection to the Art Gallery of Ontario that didn’t exist before and we can call it the Galleria Italia, which we did. Tony showed great leadership in approaching many leaders in the Italian community and it is now with pleasure called Galleria Italia and it is 465 feet long and 50 feet high. It is truly an extraordinary space for the viewing of art.
The AGO is the largest public project in North America to use wood and there’s nowhere more evidence of this expression than in Galleria Italia where you see wood on the floor, wood on the wall and in fact the beams are Douglas fir timbers that are used for structural purposes. There was a point in the project when we were trying to make the budget work and we did. But there was a moment when I was talking with Frank and I said to him, “How about taking the wood off the wall and we will put drywall up and we will paint it brown?” There was purpose in that question because I actually knew if he said yes there would be a reason for it and if he said no there would be a reason for it and if I could understand his response it would allow me to understand the building better. And he said, “We can’t do that.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because the power of this building is going to be the institutional scale and the domestic feel and the tension that’s going to throughout the building. You will experience the core of the experience of the building in that space. So if you insist that I take the wood off the wall you’ll take away that sense of enclosure, of domestic feel.” So I didn’t. We found the $400,000 somewhere else because did I tell you that we are on budget? We have created a truly, truly magical space.
From our own point of view, we thought what an extraordinary gift back to the Italian community would be to ask an Italian artist to do a work in that space. So I went to Tony and asked if he thought that would be a good conversation. He thought there was promise in that idea and we approached Giuseppi Penone who is a great artist from Torino in Italy. You could see him working in the gallery last week on one of 28 elements that are going to go into that space. He has actually carved trees out of white pine. Somebody explained to me the other day that white pine was the engine of the Ontario economy at the turn of the 20th century in the same way that Douglas fir is important to the British Columbia economy. So white pine in Ontario and Douglas fir in British Columbia and there’s this conversation going on which is really very powerful. This is going to be up for the opening and it will be up for about 18 months.
Just before we announced our project to the public, Ken Thomson bought this painting, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” by Peter Paul Rubens, a truly great world masterpiece. In fact whenever I see Phillipe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum, he asks how his painting is because he was the underbidder. I tell him he can come and visit anytime but if he’s not a member he’ll have to pay. What was great about this moment, and I remember so vividly that Ken phoned me up 10 minutes after he bought it to say that he had done this incredibly foolish thing with a sort of lightness in his voice, was that it expressed for him and for the institution at one and the same time the ambition that he had for the institution. He wanted to declare boldly that for him as a collector this was a summing up of his interest in anatomy. But it was also both for him and for us a clear expression of the ambition of the institution that we might actually in some way or other take on the world. So I’m pleased to tell you that the painting will be gloriously on view when we open.
This is one of the small galleries around the Rubens that shows Ken’s collection of portrait busts of famous folks. This is a whole group of works by Cheverton who was an important British miniaturist. The curator of Mediaeval art at the Met called Ken Thomson’s collection of European small-scale sculpture the finest collection put together in the world in the last 30 years and I’m pleased to say that it is one of three parts of the Thomson collection that becomes the catalyst for our expansion.
The other two of course are his Canadian collection of more than 800 Canadian paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and an extraordinary collection of ship models. I am a member of an international group of museum directors who have very serious meetings once a year. Every time I’m with Phillipe or Neil MacGregor from the British Museum or Mark Jones from the Victoria and Albert Museum I always want to talk about what one might do with a collection of ship models and how to actually bring a collection of ship models into an art gallery. Some museum directors think we should do it on the basis of miniaturization. Some think we should do it on the issue of craft and that we should show all of the drawings that ship builders used to create these models but we’ve chosen a different route. We’ve created what I think you’ll find to be a truly magical room designed by Frank Gehry. It’s all about the notion of the journey and exploration; not exploration in the sense of maps, but imaginative exploration. We think that if we can use these ship models as metaphors for anything they are metaphors for the experience we have with art. Maybe by engaging with these images as symbols of our aesthetic journey, we can actually replicate the notion of that’s what art does for us. It takes us on a journey and perhaps even takes us somewhere completely new.
This is a Lawren Harris painting, one of 80 Lawren Harris paintings given by the Thomson family.
And this is one of the most wonderful ships. It actually comes apart and you can see the insides of it.
If we want to be an institution that reaches out and says to people you belong here, we have to find a way to look at art from different points of view. We cannot be Eurocentric, we cannot be art historical in the sense that our installations or our presentations of works of art are presented only in terms of art movement. We have to find a way to present art in a way that reaches out to personal experience. Robert Rauschenberg, the great American artist, said that he wanted to exist in the gap between art and life and the way we translate that is we don’t necessarily want to operate in that gap but we want to find a way as a public institution to bridge the way we think about art and the way we lead our lives. What might we do to bring contemporary thinking, cultural experience, our own notions of home into the public institution?
This is just a snapshot of one small corner of one small room, where we have these two important nineteenth-century Canadian paintings done by English artists who had immigrated to Canada. In front of them we have placed these really lovely small Inuit boats, so you have the image of the marine paintings in the back and the Inuit point of view in the front. Perhaps if the Inuit work doesn’t speak to your personal experience at least it raises the point of view that in this imagery there might be more than one way to think about the representation of the journey or the voyage. These aren’t actually in Ken Thomson’s ship model galleries. We are doing that in another part of the gallery.
The way in which people create meaning in public institutions is also changing. The notion of the passive visitor is I think less relevant and powerful than it has been. I know this from my 17-year-old son, who spends a lot of time on the Internet, no surprise. What he does on the Internet is create meaning by creating content. He’s not a passive receiver. He is doing what Don Tapscott, the great thinker about new technology, calls the pro-sumer, the producer and consumer. Rather than just passively receiving things, he is actually creating meaning by giving them back. I think that notion of the pro-sumer, somebody who is actually creating meaning and finding ways to share it in a space, is very important. And so we are going to have drawing stations at the Art Gallery of Ontario. We are going to have places where you can leave your comments. We are going to have places on our Web site where you can engage with others about the experiences you had because if a work of art is truly going to come alive today, and I say this knowing full well how hard it is to get my 17-year-old son off the Internet, we have to do it in ways that truly engage the way people are learning.
Just before we closed we did a project called “In your Face” and we asked our membership to send to us their self-portraits. We thought we’d get a couple of thousand. We’d put them up because our commitment was that whatever we got we would put up. We got 22,000 and we put them all up. We just kept expanding the space. The project then became the founding exhibition for the new national portrait gallery in its now nomadic existence. It actually went up to Ottawa. It was I think a very powerful message to us and we learned from it. We learned that people actually want to be in a museum space and find a way for their own expression and their own articulation of meaning to be expressed. And so with the new AGO we are doing another project called “In Your Home,” where we are picking up on this notion that people come to Canada, come to Toronto, come out into public space with an idea of what their home might be, and we are going to find ways to actually create this project, ask people to share their images of home, and bring them into the museum space.
One of the great pleasures I’ve had in being part of this project from the art story point of view is that we have created a context in which curators and educators are working together from the very beginning. We are installing 110 galleries with 4,000 works of art of which 40 per cent on view are new. They did not exist at the Art Gallery of Ontario before. When we stand in one of those 110 galleries, we should have different ways of understanding them. One of them should be without reading anything or hearing anything. A visitor should be able to put together some meaning. And then there should be two or three other ways in which you get to different levels of understanding.
This is the Salon in our nineteenth-century Canadian galleries. It looks a bit like the Salon that we had before but it isn’t. The colour is different which is symbolic and there’s some writing about why it means something different. On the left-hand side it starts with how Salons were organized in the 1860s. As you go around the room it slowly starts to change. The right-hand side of the wall is how salons were hung in 1918. What we articulate here is that the Salon was the main vehicle of power in the art world. Now it is Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s, but at that time it was the Salon and by the time you come around the wall to the 1918 side, 50 per cent of the art on that wall is by women although this isn’t factually true.
The back of the building is a blue cube covered in titanium. The blue is titanium. Frank’s poetic idea is that the blue will combine with the sky at certain times of the day and that this great volume will disappear. Early on in the design process a couple of board members, none of the ones in this room or on the stage might I say, said to me that the problem with our building is it is not quite Frank Gehry enough. They wanted something a little more Frank Gehry-like. I told Frank and he actually designed a different back. He put them both in front of me and said you can do either one for the same price but the blue box is better. I asked why. He said because it related to the Ontario College of Art and Design, the great building by Will Alsorp, right next door to us and it created an urban moment.
I was walking through the gallery the other day looking at some of the paintings that we put on the walls and realized how Frank has truly created a great gallery for art, for the viewing of art.
This is a small room in the contemporary tower, which is inside that blue box. There’s a room for at least the next year for the work of Betty Goodwin, the important Montreal artist. You can see a skylight, just the edge of it, bringing the most beautiful light into the space. I can only tell you from having experienced it now for the last number of months there’s nothing better than seeing works of art in natural light. This really is a great compliment to an important artist.
Earlier this week Frank Stella came into town. He is a New York artist who’s had some connection to Toronto through David Mirvish and the Princess of Wales Theatre. We had come up with the idea of approaching Frank to do something for us and decided that the light well in the restaurant was the place to do it. This is just an image of the work just about to go up.
This is the back of the building, the blue building, as you can see it from the roof of the Ontario College of Art and Design.
I think about Toronto as a very different place than I did five years ago and I think about what has happened at the Opera and what has happened at the Gardiner Museum, what’s happened at the Conservatory, and what’s happened at Roy Thomson Hall. I think about the programming at the Textile Museum. I just think about Toronto so differently than I thought about it five or seven years ago. I think that we’ve been fortunate at the Art Gallery of Ontario to have an incredible project that people have believed in.
What we wanted to think about, and I think my colleagues in the cultural world in Toronto have thought about this with power and conviction as well, is the notion of change, because when you take a building away as we did for a year and half, when you ask people for support, when you ask politicians to give public money, you are asking them to invest in a dream. You can’t actually prove it is going to happen. You articulate all these different ways in which change will take place and then you keep your fingers crossed. You work hard. You have the benefit of an extraordinary board. You hire well. You focus people on the end result. And then you really truly keep your fingers crossed. I just want to say that I think the great change to the Art Gallery of Ontario is the best opportunity it has ever had to truly declare that art matters, that art can actually change the way in which we think about the world, where you think about our own creativity, as the way in which we can think about possibilities for the future. I say it again not only in the notion of community coming together and cultures speaking to one another, but I say it also in the notion of what constitutes possibility as we look forward. I think the Art Gallery of Ontario can be one of the great civic institutions in this country to give us all confidence about thinking in new ways about the future that is so challenging for us.
I want to end again by saying thank you for believing in us. Thank you all for being card-carrying members of the Art Gallery of Ontario and we are opening up in about 10 days. I realize I’m at that point in the project that if I say it enough it will have to be true. I am looking forward to welcoming all of you. I would like to take questions but I just wanted to end again by thanking you very much for believing in what we do.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Helen Burstyn, President, The Canadian Club of Toronto, and Chair, Canadian Trillium Foundation.