Pretty facades still need substance; Without good art, a museum is just a building
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 3 July 2007)

When building an architecturally striking public art gallery, it's easy to forget that the place exists to show art. It's great to have a world-famous architect create a handsome new building, but what if the art within proves only marginally interesting? What if people come to see the building, utter gasps of appropriate admiration, check out the exhibits, have lunch, visit the gift shop and then forget about the place till the next time a friend comes to town and asks to be shown around?

That way lies declining membership, dwindling attendance and institutional death, a possibility that must haunt all ambitious museum directors.

This autumn, the Art Gallery of Ontario will wave goodbye to visitors, close its doors and spend about a year finishing its Frank Gehry reconstruction. Right now it's offering an eclectic and fascinating cluster of exhibitions that amount to promises for the future. They suggest that, however impressive the new structure will be, future AGO content won't run on automatic pilot.

The summer shows range from the newsworthy (first look at Bernini's magnificent 17th-century bronze of the dying Christ, donated recently by the Murray Frum family) to the totally unexpected (Chuck Close daguerreotype portraits turned into tapestries). The AGO has also imported its first-ever exhibition of contemporary art from India and a Victoria and Albert Museum show of medieval and Renaissance objects, including a Leonardo codex, a pen-and-ink notebook written backward in his famous mirror-script. Beginning on July 18, the AGO will open a collection of objects made by the Tsimshian in British Columbia and only recently brought back to Canada after spending 150 years in Britain.

Chuck Close displays his recent work in A Couple of Ways of Doing Something. A major American portraitist for decades, Close has always based his gigantic paintings on photographs. Here, he adopts two techniques associated with the past and digitally modified. He's made a series of portraits by daguerreotype (the earliest form of photography, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1838) and used seven of them as the basis for large-scale tapestries.

The tapestries combine weaving with digital technology. The weaving is done in Belgium, where traditional craft is enhanced by computers. The original portrait is scanned to make a program that organizes the warp and weft of the threads; from that, a digital loom produces the finished work.

Close picked friends as his subjects, including Philip Glass, the composer, Cindy Sherman, the photo-artist, and Lorna Simpson, an experimental photographer who had a 20-year retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York this spring. Simpson, a wonderful subject, becomes the basis of perhaps the show's most memorable portrait.

The art from India appears under the collective title Hungry God, the god in this question being globalization, which enriches many Indians and leaves many wretchedly poor. In a sculpture called Death and Distance, Jitish Kallat reproduces a one-rupee coin blown up to the size of a chair. It sits on the floor of the gallery beside an electronic screen that tells the apparently well-known (in India) story of Sania Khatun, a 12-year-old girl in a village north of Calcutta who committed suicide after her mother told her she couldn't afford one rupee (about two cents in our money) for a school lunch.

Her mother, a domestic servant, usually fed Sania with food brought from houses where she worked. Normally, the child had no food at school. But when she saw classmates eating puffed rice and oil cakes, she asked her mother for a rupee so that she could join them. Her mother refused her -- she and a son together earn about $13 a month. Later, returning from work, she found her daughter hanging from the ceiling with a sari. The data running on the screen concludes with a UN report that says half the children in India remain undernourished.

Taken together, the AGO summer exhibitions say something interesting about the two big museums in Toronto, the AGO and the Royal Ontario Museum: Once carefully differentiated by what they showed, they now overlap. At the AGO, the change of emphasis reflects the late Ken Thomson's interests. His fascination with European culture ran to the decorative arts, traditional ROM territory. In the past, the Victoria and Albert exhibition would have been a natural for the ROM. Likewise, Canadian Indian art has rarely interested the AGO in the past but has always been part of the ROM's mandate.

Meanwhile , the ROM, a dozen blocks northeast, has been shifting onto AGO turf. A big exhibit already installed in the otherwise mostly empty Crystal is History of History, a show from Japan by Hiroshi Sugimoto. As a modern artist's imaginative rumination on the past, it would have been an obvious AGO exhibition till recently. (Is this institutional poaching and counter-poaching? Haven't heard any complaints yet.)

Presenting these shows, the AGO is struggling to remind everybody that they are open all summer, even if from a distance they look like a construction site. You enter by the side door, as if you were sneaking in -- not a good start.

When all the hoarding comes down next summer, I'll be anxious to compare the Gehry renovation with the two other transformations of the AGO I've lived through, in the 1970s and the 1990s. First of all, I'll want to examine the front door, a crucial, mood-setting element in museum design.

In Berlin this summer, they are fighting over plans for their great Museum Island and, in particular, over the design of the door to the island's jewel, the magnificent Pergamon Museum. One critic recently called its proposed door "a simple opening in the wall," unworthy of a well-proportioned building.

The AGO's last two remakes got the doors dead wrong. The 1970s renovation repelled the visitor; it was like crossing a moat to enter. The 1990s renovation was worse -- budget cuts forced the architect to reduce the size of the door and move it to one end of the facade, so that the building always looked out of whack.

Does Toronto have trouble with doors? One obvious flaw in the mainly enchanting new ROM facade is that the front door is much, much too small, in relation to the building. Those who live to see the ROM's next reconstruction will probably notice a radical change in the door treatment.

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