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At the AGO

Posted by on 02 Aug 2010 | Tagged as: Music and Arts, Toronto

We renewed our membership at the AGO this year. I’m not sure J. was entirely convinced, but I kind of like the idea of supporting at least one local museum and you never know what interesting thing may show up to justify a visit to McCaul and Dundas. We paid a visit to the AGO one Sunday afternoon last year after it re-opened, but we didn’t see much aside from Frank (the new restaurant), the European art and artifacts in Thompson collection (most memorably, Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents), and the new Frank Gehry contemporary art space on the 3rd-5th floors. (We weren’t there for very long and I think we paid more attention to the space than the art therein.)

So I decided to use my Civic Holiday today to get a sense of what the new AGO is really like. I didn’t go back to the new Frank Gehry space, preferring to concentrate my efforts on the first two floors.

In general, the new space is clean, well-organized, and visitor-and-art-friendly. There’s a small but functional and reasonably welcoming cafeteria in the basement where I had a quick lunch (grilled club sandwich and coffee). If all you are looking for is a decent bite to eat, this is a much better bet than Frank — which is high-concept and expensive but not really memorable as a food experience. I later discovered the Members’ Lounge in Grange House which serves (I suspect) essentially the same food as the cafeteria in a more attractive setting.

As far the collections go, the AGO is in a rather strange situation. They are the lucky recipients of the Ken Thompson collection, which has incredible quality and depth in the kinds of art and artifacts that Thompson was interested in. There are rooms full of works by well known Canadian painters (from Krieghoff to Lauren Harris to David Milne), an enormous collection of of model ships, and a large display of Chinese snuff boxes. And much more. Not everything is to my taste but it is clearly the work of a serious collector applying intelligence and taste to the investment of a very considerable personal fortune. Apparently Thompson did not collect a lot of European painting, but what he did collect was and is memorable — notably, of course, that Rubens but also some early Flemish paintings. In the Canadian paintings rooms the curators have given up on finding wall space for labels, opting instead for a read-and-return Gallery catalogue for each room.

By contrast, the Gallery’s own main collection is a much more hodgepodge affair. Essentially, they have a few really good pieces from here there and everywhere, and a lot else that is not as memorable. They have dealt with this situation in a fashion that is interesting though only partially successful. Sensibly, they have eschewed a chronological approach, beginning their European Gallery with a room full of some of their best stuff — Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, Cuyp, etc. In other galleries they have adopted a more thematic approach, mixing old and new, European and decidedly non-European. Some of these galleries work better than others. There is an room full of paintings of women, which makes for an interesting reflection on how women have been portrayed in the arts through the ages. (There is also the suggestion, worded so cautiously as to say almost nothing, that men have portrayed women differently from women — a theme perhaps worth exploring further.) Not quite as successful but still worth considering is an attempt to group together a number of European paintings (and a contemporary shadow-puppet film) as exploring themes of multiculturalism and cultural conflict.

Some other attempts to make use of this approach are not nearly as compelling. Perhaps the most striking failure of curatorial imagination is the presentation of the older pieces in the Museum’s Canadian collection. The paintings are thrown hodgepodge (Pitti-Palace-style, as it were) on to a wall, without any kind of labelling or identification (to be fair, I think a number of them were also presented this way under the old regime). The one piece of curatorial text that is supposed to assist the viewer is the suggestion that we should look for the power relations expressed in these paintings. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. The best I can come up with is that the curators don’t think they’re very good paintings (some of them clearly are not), but they’ve been on the wall so long that people will complain if they take them down, so why not leave them up as an exercise in deconstruction for the viewer?

The curators have unfortunately done something similar, minus the hamfisted political overtones, for the gallery with their Impressionist and pre-Impressionist European paintings. The Impressionists (some nice Pissaros, but nothing spectacular) get their own space and actual labels; the unidentified (largely but not entirely?) pre-impressionist works on the other wall get the Pitti Palace treatment. I suppose it’s a statement of sorts (they point out that these methods of presentation are faithful to the respective approaches taken in the salons where these paintings would have been first shown), but frankly some of the paintings on the non-Impressionist wall are more interesting than those on the Impressionist wall and it would be nice to know more about them.

This kind of thing is really a failure of curatorial intelligence, and this is the most disappointing thing about the new AGO. We all know the AGO is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they need to work with what they have. As some of the new galleries demonstrate, the thematic approach can be an effective way of presenting art that is arguably not of the the first rank but nevertheless not lacking in value and interest. Perhaps it’s just that this approach needs to be handled in a less hamfistedly political way.

Along the same lines, I started my day at the Gallery with the Drama and Desire special exhibition. There are a few really impressive pieces here, as well as some stuff that is at least worth seeing. (I suspect the unstated theme of the exhibit is to some extent “it’s what we could get our hands on”.) It’s mixed in with a lot of fairly ordinary French and English painting, especially in the earlier galleries of the exhibition. Like the other galleries, it’s a mix of really good, decent, and indifferent, which could be redeemed by some kind of context/history/whatever for the viewer. And there’s clearly a story here, but we’re not getting much of it from the curatorial notes on the wall.

Real estate geography

Posted by on 12 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: Toronto

Where would you guess this is:

Beautiful Semi-Detached 4 Bedroom Brick Home In Annex, Corner Lot, Det Brick Garage, Private Drive.

To be generous, Seaton Village? Past Christie Pits? But no:

Steps To Public/ Seperate Schools, Dovercourt Park And Tennis Courts, Dovercourt Boys & Girls Club (Full Daycare/Children s Programs). Minutes To Dufferin Grove Park…

It’s here.

Through the magic of real estate the central city could be reduced to a handful of neighbourhoods with inflated boundaries — a whole different neighbourhood map.

Blame the victim (again and again)

Posted by on 26 Jan 2010 | Tagged as: Current Events, Toronto

Even when the circumstances in pedestrian deaths clearly point to driver error, Toronto police don’t hesitate to point the finger at the person who wasn’t behind the wheel of the vehicle:

Sgt. Tim Burrows said the victim was crossing slightly west of the crosswalk at the intersection.

“It’s difficult to determine who is at fault,” he said. But he added the pedestrian was crossing in a way that was “not predictable and not the safest place to be” but was walking on a green light.

“I’d rather just say that road safety is a shared responsibility and everyone has to do their part and abide by the laws and common sense.”

I’m sure that’s what he’d rather say, because to say otherwise would suggest that the pedestrian was not at fault and, like the vast majority of those struck down by cars in the last couple of weeks, had every right to expect to make it across the street alive if every user of the road was alert and obeying traffic law.

However, it’s just dishonest. If the pedestrian was crossing Davenport “slightly west of the crosswalk” while the car coming north on Symington was turning left, i.e. west, on a green light, the driver could not have been looking while making the turn or else she (as the story reports her to be) would have seen the pedestrian. Take a look at the intersection in Google Street View if you doubt me.

Comments sections of the major papers, always depressing, are full of self-righteous drivers who complain of pedestrians who “dart in or out of traffic.” Toronto police seem to have decided that, all evidence to the contrary, this “darting” phenomenon is the cause of pedestrian-car accidents and is pulling walkers aside to reprimand them for jay-walking — which, of course, is legal as long as you’re not right beside a crosswalk. Wouldn’t it make more sense to educate drivers on that point so they’re keeping an eye out for legal crossers? Perhaps the fact that most of the accidents have actually happened at crosswalks is telling? And I know it’s a lost cause, but perhaps some real, sustained traffic enforcement is a thought?

Preposition watch

Posted by on 08 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Stuff, Toronto

They’re endangered.

From a BlogTO review of Te Aro:

This newish Leslieville cafe may not have a ton of tables to plunk a laptop, but the beauty of the space more than makes up for it.

What is so hard about turning it into English by adding “on which” before “plunk”, or even just “onto” after “tables”?

One-way battle in the spin wars

Posted by on 03 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, Toronto

The Star lovingly recreates Bryant’s last night as a man not under suspicion, while in the meantime, Partisan Hobo notes:

…there’s no PR firm to save the deceased man’s image. I don’t even know him, but I know he came from a broken home, that he is a visible minority, that he has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, that he’s the unmarried father of several children, that he had no formal “career”, that he had more than one interaction with police in more than one city prior to his death. None of this is really relevant to the public interest. Mostly it’s just prejudicial detail that helps some people imagine a man who lived on the edge and was bound to experience violence of some kind at some point.

Blood on Bloor

Posted by on 02 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, Toronto

Everything about the recent cyclist death on Bloor is upsetting and horrific. Take first the location: Bloor St. outside Sephora, between Bay and Queen’s Park Circle, a pair of blocks everyone has walked along at some point and that were, at quarter to ten on a summer night, far from empty.

Take the absolute insanity of the car’s progression along Bloor, going at high speed the wrong way on the wrong side of the street and then onto the sidewalk to bang into whatever might detach the cyclist from the car’s side, all in front of horrified witnesses.

That is enough to make it one of the grisliest and most public deaths in the city in recent years. But then comes the fact that the driver, charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, is the former attorney general of the province, responsible for, among other things, stricter legislation on street racing.

I’ve met Michael Bryant more than once. Smart, personable, perhaps somewhat arrogant, but with the drive and accomplishments to make that easier to swallow. I was warned he could be hard to work for — “a difficult boss” — but don’t imagine that description was meant to indicate anything more than impatience and the occasional outburst of bad temper.

I spent a couple of beer-soaked hours defending Bryant and his abilities to two less enamoured ex-Queen’s Park staffers a few months back. And I wrote this on Twitter when he was named CEO of Invest Toronto: “Bryant to Invest Toronto is good news for the city.”

This is upsetting and sad in every way. It’s sad for Darcy Allen Sheppard’s fiancee, children, friends and family. It’s sad for Michael Bryant’s wife and young children, whose lives are changed forever. It’s sad for the city of Toronto, which could have used the energy and drive that Bryant brought to his other portfolios. And it’s just sad in general, because no matter what the circumstances, and we’ll no doubt hear a lot more about them in the near future, no one should die the way that Darcy Allen Sheppard did.

We < heart > our libraries

Posted by on 24 Jul 2009 | Tagged as: Books, Toronto

Bloor-GladstoneFrom the Fans of Toronto Public Library’s blog post on the renovated Bloor-Gladstone branch:


I have finally been able to put my finger on a thought that has half-occurred to me on my now-numerous visits to renovated libraries. Here’s a slogan to get you started: “Your tax dollars at work!” TPL keeps getting awarded modest increases in budget, even as it carries out budgetary trimming here and there, because we want to reward something that’s already working.

But what I’ve really been ruminating on is this idea. We live in a city that is otherwise so wedded to mediocrity it becomes indistinguishable from outright championing of mediocrity. Nonetheless, we build giant palaces to every form of learning, all free of charge and open to everybody. What we do here is we build palaces of learning. Ninety-nine of them. And when they wear out, we fix them. We throw good money after good because we think libraries are that important – which they are.

Toronto really does do a great job with libraries (see also: Runnymede branch, Jane-Dundas, Lillian H. Smith….). It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Metro Ref.

Hell is other people (in Toronto)

Posted by on 25 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: Stuff, Toronto

I’m not sure how or when it happened, but at some point Toronto residents became the unhappiest and least pleasant people on the planet.

What’s behind the transformation? Is it the sudden growth in population through the last two decades that has made the city so miserable, or the proliferation of Tim Horton’s (Toronto was once almost Tim’s free) since the turn of the millennium?

What is it that makes Toronto residents today so very unpleasant? Well, there’s the extreme selfishness — the belief that each citizen in a large city should be able to get around without any impediment, and that your problem is never, ever mine.

There’s the non-stop intolerance, whether it’s of delayed streetcars, Tamil protesters, crowds —in a city, noise, weather (hot, cold, humid, dry), cyclists, car drivers, unionized workers, and most of all, each other.

And, of course, there’s the whining — or, more accurately, bitching and moaning, which better captures the anger underlying the whole thing — that never really stops, just redirects itself. As Christie Blatchford asks in this morning’s Globe, “who feels stressed out on the third day of any strike, you may well ask? Torontonians, that’s who.” The Star headline on TUESDAY claimed that parents were “desperate”. If one day of scrambling makes you “desperate”, what happens on day 10? In the 1970s, there was a lengthy TTC strike and people picked up hitchhikers to help fellow citizens get around. A walk down Queen St. W. last night shows little evidence of that civic spirit, with discarded coffee cups and food wrappers already, three days in, lining the sidewalks. At some point will Toronto residents realize that they are, themselves, the problem? I won’t hold my breath.

Posted by on 06 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts, Toronto


I’m probably showing my age, but I’m relieved that the grownups have intervened and cancelled a planned rave in the old Don Jail. The new owner’s site had the wrong tone, and something like this was probably inevitable. More here and here.

The old jail could be used as a performance art venue, but in all decency it has to be in a context that works with themes around suffering and despair, both experienced by the inmates and by their victims, and by the people who worked in the building before it was a Doors Open curiosity.

The place has a dark history – not playfully Gothic dark, but really seriously dark, and I don’t think that’s registered with the people offering ‘ghost tours’. More below the fold.

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Boy takes bus, story at 11

Posted by on 02 May 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, Toronto

Whose nephew is little Gabriel Blake, the four-year-old who is the focus of an inexplicable top-of-page article in the Saturday Globe? There must be some reason so many words are dedicated to the story of a little boy who went missing for a total of — count ’em — two hours. Not to ruin the suspense, but the subhead shares the exciting outcome of the 120-minute ordeal: “Child Home Safely.”

I’ve no doubt these were two worrying hours for this child’s parents. But let’s take a look at what actually happened:

– the boy boarded a bus that came by his house to take his older brother to school.
– the four-year-old said his parents weren’t home.
– the driver called the house and got no answer. (The boy’s parents were asleep.)
– the driver took the younger son to his brother’s school, which called his parents.

So, with some minor variances, the system worked. Rather than leave the small boy at an apparently empty, parent-free house where the phone rang without being answered, the driver, who was new to the route, took the kid directly to his brother’s school. The reward? The driver has been suspended for a violation of protocol.

I have some questions: if the bus stopped at the house every morning, why didn’t it occur to the parents that their little boy might have got on it? Where was their other son — the one who takes the bus every day — that morning? Why does every article about a missing (or temporarily AWOL child) think it’s important we know he/she is “blond haired, blue eyed”? (And — now that I think about it– why can’t I recall ever reading a story like this about a brown-haired, brown-eyed tot?) Why the constant amazement at children having misadventures that result in no harm?

And the most important question of all: what the fuck is this doing in a newspaper?

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