When you live in Toronto, it’s pretty easy to take the Art Gallery of Ontario for granted.
But it took a trip there with my cousin Bunny (who is not my cousin, and whose name is not actually Bunny) to let me see the place with fresh, appreciative eyes.
First: Bunny, who lives in B.C., is actually named Mary, after her mother Mary Kitchen, who was best friends with my Aunt Blanche Teahen when both were young women in Windsor and before marriage took Mary Kitchen to West Vancouver, where she raised her family and lived the rest of her life. Blanche and Mary the elder, who was widowed at a young age, stayed close through all the years, often travelling together when both were retired. Years ago, Bunny and her siblings told me, “it’s too complicated to explain the relationship every time. We just call you our Ontario cousins.”
So now that you know …
My B.C. cousin Bunny and her two B.C.-based sisters were coming to Toronto in 2013 for a family event and we arranged to meet. I suggested a trip to the AGO and got them tickets for the special exhibition of work by Chinese artist Ai Weiei, According to What? That exhibition was, indeed, spectacular, but what I wasn’t prepared for was their jaws dropping at the regular collections, particularly the Canadian galleries on the second floor. “We’ve got nothing like this in Vancouver,” cousin Margaret said. “We forget how big Toronto really is.”
A year later, Bunny returned solo to Ontario and a return to the AGO was on her must-do list, particularly to see the special exhibition featuring the work of Maritime artist Alex Colville.
The opening hours are shifting to include First Thursdays, where there are bars and bites and activities and music buzzing from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., and evening hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. Permanent exhibitions are now regularly shaken up with new juxtapositions and rotations of the collection.
Chief among those new juxtapositions is a renewed commitment to exhibiting the work of Aboriginal artists alongside the standard Canadiana of the Group of Seven and other European-origin artists. This got a big boost in 2014 with the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes.
Also that year, the AGO commissioned a new work, The Wisdom of the Universe by Métis artist Christi Belcourt.
The photo here, taken on our most recent visit to the AGO, can’t do justice to the piece. It spans 282 cm, just over nine feet wide, is created from acrylic paint, but looks like intricate bead work. In 2015, the gallery asked visitors to vote for their favourite pieces in the collection and Wisdom of the Universe was the No. 1 choice.
That is the allure and beauty of galleries: no matter how many online images or or art books you look at, you just don’t get the power of a work of art until you are standing in front of it, seeing the brush strokes, the texture, the subtle differences that even the best camera can’t capture.
Main photo: some lovely person who said, oh, let me get a picture of the two of you! In the Galleria Italia, AGO.