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Index for my Toronto Budget 2004 project
Controversy Over the AGO
10/03/2004

If you have been following the news about the Art Gallery of Ontario over the past couple days, you've been reading about a fairly significant controversy.

Major benefactor Joey Tanenbaum has quit the AGO's board in anger over the plans for an expansion and renovation of the gallery by Frank Gehry.

Over the past 35 years, Tanenbaum has given $90-million in cash and art to the AGO. He has several concerns with the proposed new design. Partly he's upset that, in order to build the new addition, other fairly-recent additions that he paid for will have to be destroyed or modified. One of the rooms that will be destroyed is the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium which Tanenbaum describes as "the most beautiful space in Toronto" (according to the National Post) or "the finest entertainment and meeting space, bar none, in Toronto" (according to the Globe and Mail).

Tanenbaum is also concerned about the cost, which he claims will be at least $250-million, not the $190-million claimed by the AGO. Since the federal and provincial governments have committed $50-million to the project, he wonders where the rest will come from. He told the Globe "they're not going to be sucking me dry".

Now, it is possible that Tanenbaum might just be feeling some rivalry with billionaire Kenneth Thomson. The new Gehry addition will house the more than $300-million worth of art that Thomson is giving, and Thomson is throwing in $70-million in cash to help pay for it. If I was Tanenbaum, I, too, might be annoyed to know my $90-million contribution was being brushed aside and covered over to build the next guy's monument.

In fact, rivalry or no, I think Tanenbaum has a point. Money isn't free or easy, so it doesn't feel right to wipe out a major part of a recent addition just to build a new one a decade (or so) later.

Furthermore, I don't buy into the Frank Gehry hype. This design isn't great, but I've never been a big fan of Gehry's anyway. I've only experienced one Gehry building in person, but my reaction to it was "so what?".

I feel part of the excitement over Frank Gehry is some sort of dream that this building will be a major tourist attraction for Toronto. In my opinion, however, that idea is about ten years too late. This kind of thinking reminds me a lot of when I was living in Windsor and listening to the people in Detroit talk about what would happen if they built a new baseball stadium. They expected some sort of magical response from the nation. But Camden Yards in Baltimore was so noteworthy because it was the first stadium to break a multi-decade string of crap. A Frank Gehry design in Toronto -- especially a second-rate design -- isn't going to acheive anything at this late date.

I also think part of the excitement over Frank Gehry must have to do with ego. I mean, in 2004, after all the talk and amazement about Frank Gehry, it must feel very good to be on the board of directors that plans and executes a Gehry expansion to your gallery or museum. Hype and status being what they are, this must be just about tops for a philanthropic board member. But I don't think the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Anyway, it's for all these reasons that I sympathize with Joey Tanenbaum. On the other hand, I do recognize that the AGO is in a bind. They have to expand and have no land to do it. I can't think of any great suggestions, but how about building a second building across the street?


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