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2006 03 26
The Renaissance of Toronto’s Cultural Sector
Until this year, finding the public face of Toronto's culture was often a hit or miss act of faith. Insiders knew where to go to piece together a cohesive arts experience. Stories about the ROM's hidden treasures grew in scale to resemble urban myths - they tantalized but were difficult to prove unless, of course, you were either a researcher or benefactor.

The rest of us, however, negotiated a sparse cultural landscape of sometimes overhyped blockbuster plays or tired Christmas pageants. All the while, the city's capable artists and arts collections went begging for the venues needed to generate a critical cultural mass.

Still, Toronto rated in the global top 20 livable cities. We chanted the mantra of ''we are a world class city'' until people grew tired of hearing it, but secretly, we longed for those culturally nourishing weekend trips to New York. The truth back at home was that we could not focus our cultural identity long enough to give form to some of the city's most precious assets. The waterfront comes to mind. Then two things happened that changed everything: Bilboa and Gehry.

The word spread. City governments everywhere saw that culture could feed local economies rather than the other way around. People - some call them cultural tourists - jet across continents to experience great art and architecture. They spend money too: lots of it. With real economic benefits on the table, Toronto's cultural ''brand'' suddenly became a bureaucratic concern. Around the turn of the new millennium, politicians put aside partisan rhetoric long enough to agree that Toronto needed a cultural overhaul on par with investing in a new highway.

Now, six years later, we are about to see if their $300-million dollar or so cultural investment will pay off. ''Culture City: New Toronto Buildings,'' is the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibition about the buildings at the centre of Toronto's self-described cultural renaissance. The numbers are surprising.

Some 11 new or renovated buildings have already or will soon reshape the city's cultural landscape - The Art Gallery of Ontario, Canadian Opera Company, Gardiner Museum, National Ballet School, Ontario College of Art and Design, Ontario Science Centre, Royal Conservatory of Music, Royal Ontario Museum, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto International Film Festival, and Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

The AGO's director and CEO, Matthew Teitelbaum, contends that prior to this investment the city's cultural institutions were neglected. He confirms that the importance of expanded cultural tourism to local economies meant that the city had to differentiate itself from other regional centres. With new buildings in hand, Teitelbaum stresses that it will be up to our curators to ''program these new institutions to be distinctive.''

Is our investment in cultural distinctiveness working so far? The city's two category-busting cultural projects are the ROM and the AGO. Both institutions hired superstar architects with tourism-anchoring projects behind them. One even selected their competition winner based on the strength of a few napkin drawings - that plus an enviable international reputation. While critics have weighed in on both sides of the Canadian architect versus international architect debate, the designs will elevate Toronto's position on the international cultural scene.

Much to the AGO's concern, though, people are saying the new Gehry building is not Gehry enough. While in town recently the architect protested, ''I know it's a Gehry building - I designed it.'' Given the iconic forms of the ROM ''Crystal'' and the Ontario College of Art's ''Sharp Centre for Design,'' many expected the AGO to be similarly aggressive. To his credit, Gehry chose another path.

The AGO's design illustrates Gehry's ability to take awkward constraints and somehow find a formal solution that surprises and delights. His creation boasts some typically Gehryesque external elements but it is the design and sequence of the gallery's new interior spaces that will captivate visitors in the end. Find out when the new gallery fully opens in 2008.

The cultural investment is generating some spinoff benefits too. The long neglected waterfront is suddenly getting some serious attention. Is Toronto on its way to becoming a New York? The next few years will tell.

This story also posted in last Thursday's National Post.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 03/26 at 03:20 PM

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