The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is synonymous with the Group of Seven. But its charm reaches beyond this obvious attention grabber. Like the paintings of these Canadian artistic pioneers, it’s all about the link between art and nature at the McMichael.
The story starts with Canadian art enthusiasts and collectors Signe and Robert McMichael, who gifted the McMichael in 1965 to the Province of Ontario (it opened a year later) with the idea of creating a centre for the nation’s artists and their works.
With grand windows throughout to offer views of the great natural landscape outside, the McMichael may be the best gallery space in the Toronto area. It also happens to be Signe and Robert McMichael’s former home, ‘Tapawingo’, which stood in the lush Humber Valley.
When the McMichael’s bought 10 acres in 1952 to build Tapawingo, the Village of Kleinburg — with its main strip just up the road on Islington Avenue — was itself a hundred years removed from its roots as a milling settlement on the Humber. The coming postwar decades would be pivotal for both the town and the museum: Kleinburg’s aim was to keep its historic integrity amongst suburban boom and the McMichael has its transition from a quiet private residence to an expanding public institution.
Naturally, the galleries exhibit much of the famed works of Group of Seven — Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley — and associated artists Emily Carr and Tom Thomson. The great works of Norval Morrisseau and other Native artists are also present, demonstrating the importance of Aboriginal voices in the institution and helping in answering the perennial questions of “What is Canadian art?” and “What is included — and not included — in Canadian art?”
To keep things in the present, the McMichael also has rotating exhibits of current contemporary Canadian art. The current photo-exhibition on until October 21, 2018, “…Everything Remains Raw”, is about the history of Toronto Hip Hop.
Perhaps more impressive than the galleries themselves is everything outside them. An excellently paced and presented audio guide takes one through the grounds.
It starts with the Tom Thomson Shack where the artist himself lived and worked in the last years of his life, famously for a dollar rent. Its original home was in the Rosedale Ravine in Toronto behind the famous Studio Building. Unfortunately, he left Toronto an excursion to his beloved Algonquin Park in 1907, never returning to his work-live studio. His death remains a mystery today.
A small cemetery nearby houses the resting place of the McMicheals and members of the Group of Seven. The shape of their stones reflect each person’s work and character; Lawren Harris’ triangular marker for example evokes the mountains of his Arctic paintings.
Further is a Sculpture Garden of the works of Ivan Eyre. The picturesque settings of the area as a whole allows the museum to open itself up to wedding shoots.
lichen, a piece by Mary Anne Barkhouse and Michael Belmore featuring canines seemingly waiting for the bus, offers a whimsical yet provocative origin story. The transit shelter idea arose from the introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, oddly enough. In the early 20th century, all large predators were removed from the park as a safety precaution to visitors, allowing the elk population to grow unchecked.
To reintroduce ecological balance, Canadian Grey Wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Biologists who recommended the idea spoke local communities about the development, informing them the wolves would not be waiting at bus shelters for their children. The sculptures also reference the constant duality of effects of humans on nature and vice versa. Iichen was once located in the Toronto Sculpture Garden, too.
Finally, further past Wedding Hill and David Ruben Piqtoukun’s Inukshuk, a path leads one down to the Valley Trails — foot and bike paths which meander along and across the East Humber in a way that might evoke the historic Toronto Carrying Place. A less adventurous but still stunning Gallery Loop Trail leads one around the McMichael’s fieldstone walls and massive fenestration.
The Don Valley Brick Works began operations in 1889 and lasted quite a long time, providing the literal building blocks for the city of Toronto until 1984 — not a long time ago. One can think of the Brick Works as the last bastion for smokestack-raising, pollution-spewing, heavy manufacturing in Toronto.
Following its closure, much like a lot of discussions then and now in how to imagine the post-industrial metropolis, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and City of Toronto looked to expropriate former brickyard as public space. During this ‘transition’ time, the abandoned factory became a haven for urban explorers.
What came out of it was a rejuvenated community hub and parkland with a mandate for environmental sustainability and conservation, led through the efforts of Evergreen. Much of the complex still stands, showing off ovens and other former operations of the Don Valley Brick Works. Today, they make great event and exhibition space which house among other things a great farmer’s market. Only one of the four chimneys remain, though.
The Evergreen Brick Works is a locale full of discovery, starting with its artistic displays. A favourite of mine is “Watershed Consciousness”, which neatly showcases Toronto’s ravines as the sort of veins and life blood of the city. Fitting.
One quizzical installation is a giant pair of metal shoes. This is “Legacy (the mud beneath our feet)” by David Hind, an homage to geologist Arthur Philemon (A.P.) Coleman. Mr. Coleman got his boots dirty many times over at the Don Valley Brick Works, using the quarry’s north cliff to research Toronto’s Ice Ages. A nearby display, “A Rare Geological Study”, presents Coleman’s notes.
The allure of the Evergreen Brick Works is its physical landscape. Each step offers more discovery and new vantage points. Wandering deeper into the Weston Family Quarry Garden and its tall reconstructed wetland, the factory behind disappears, aside from the chimney.
Running between the handsome factory buildings is a channelized Mud Creek (which might be the best and worst name for a waterway in Toronto). There’s a more naturalized version of the stream as well, running under the great Governor’s Bridge as one moves out of the park.
Perhaps the most inspiring experience of the Brick Works is the view from above. Moving up the cliff one takes in the awe of the full expanse of the site, its winding trails and ponds below, and the houses of Rosedale overlooking the valley.
One can only take in this reclaimed natural landscape and think of its layered makeup. The intersection of industrial, geological, and environmental history make the Evergreen Brick Works make it a special place. A walk around it only proves that.
I was first introduced to The Ward several years ago through a compelling archival photograph. It was of an impoverished child standing in the debris-filled lane of what looked like a ‘slum’. In the background were the unmistakable Romanesque Revival towers of Old City Hall. The disparity between the two places – the majestic civic heart of the city and the desperate ‘ghetto’ literally at its doorstep – struck me at the time. And it still does. Even more striking is that photo was taken in what is now the southern end of Nathan Phillips Square.
The story of St. John’s Ward is very much one of lost geographies (like in the photo), lost narratives, and how and why we remember or don’t remember. The Ward’s former borders were from Yonge to University and College to Queen. Those streets still exist of course, but the built form between them largely hasn’t survived. For a long time, the stories associated with those landmarks and their Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and Black communities also went underground.
It’s a fitting locale given the museum’s placement near the historic area of The Ward (and indeed, above the mantle of the ballroom is an aerial photograph of the neighbourhood taken from the location of the museum.)
The challenge of interpreting and showcasing The Ward’s histories is the lack of contemporary borders attached to those stories. Thus, from a museological perspective, it affects the kinds of artefacts one has access to. Photos of The Ward are abundant, so the curators – Paul Bishop, Daniel Panneton & Marisa Strom – had no issues there. Photographer Arthur Goss, at the instruction of the health department of the day, did a remarkable job of documenting the troubling conditions of the enclave.
The show is organized thematically with well-displayed panels and pictures about The Ward’s politics, labour strife, Lawren Harris’ artistic take on the area, and other realities. New to me was Albert Lane was one of Toronto’s notorious laneways.
A nice collection of loaned artefacts offer some physical connections to The Ward. They include a labour union banner, restaurant items and Eaton’s pins, and a copy of the (in)famous 1911 Hastings Report in which Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Hastings, observed and critiqued the overcrowded, ‘diseased’ conditions of the enclave. Slums were not a good look for Toronto, according to the high-ranking civil servant. The report came to be the official representation of The Ward.
The neatest addition for me, though, was the collection of oral histories from surviving members of the neighbourhood. “The Voices of The Ward” offer different realities than the Hastings Report — one that emphasizes its deep community. Stories include the ethnically diverse clientele of its shops, being an Italian during the War, and how Eaton’s would not hire Italians.
The interviews provide an audible, human element to The Ward in a way that faces in pictures or names in old news articles cannot. Archival images and words are certainly great resources, but they can put history at a distance. The recordings are a very important reminder that there are living connections to St. John’s Ward today. After all, 1950 wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of history. Residents of The Ward and their descendants still live in Toronto.
“The Ward: Representations and Realities, 1890-1950” is on until April 23, 2016 at Campbell House Museum at 160 Queen Street West. Admission is free, although donation is always appreciated.
Deep in the heart of suburbia on Wynford Drive just off the DVP, one can find the newest addition to Toronto’s museum scene – the Aga Khan Museum. It’s a curious place for an arts & culture hub, even with the Ontario Science Centre just a hop away.
In addition to its non-downtown location, the arrival of the AGM was marked with curiousity and a bit of controversy. The opening was delayed, its thematic content is unlike any other museum or gallery in the city, and its construction came with the demolition of the Modernist-designed Bata Shoe Headquarters. Talk surrounding the Aga Khan Museum overwhelming features the question: “Was it worth it losing one unique building for another?”
As I walk up to the museum, I don’t have an answer because it is tough to justify that kind of loss. That said, I can admit that it is a very impressive structure and a fine addition to Toronto’s architectural scene. The entire site consists of the museum itself, the Ismaili Centre, and, between them, a garden and terrace. It’s all a marvel, but I can’t help but wonder how it all looks in the summer (see below).
The inside is as much a visual wonder. Geometric patterning is a big part of the aesthetic of the Aga Khan Museum. I made a venture out into the courtyard after dropping my belongings at the (complimentary) coat check, which proved to be ill-advised because it was quite chilly. Again, I imagine a different vibe in warmer temperatures.
The main floor exhibition space features the museum’s permanent collection, which is essentially a historical journey through Islam. For me, it’s a subject matter that I did not encounter during my time as an undergrad of history, so it was a nice treat. The layout, design, and use of the space was very well done (not to mention, it’s got a distinct ‘new museum’ smell!).
The upper level dons ‘The Lost Dhow’, a temporary exhibit on loan to the AKM which features the recovered objects from a sunken ship in Indonesia. So much of the details of its sinking is unknown, but the interpretation and presentation is very well done!
Also on the second floor is the ‘Garden of Ideas’, a more contemporary art exhibition that overlooks the permanent collection below (people watching, anyone?). Towards the end of the exhibition was a fun artistic piece featuring a picture books of individuals saying ‘I love you’. Clever!
The Aga Khan Museum is also unique in that it contains a performing arts centre! The theatre itself is modestly sized and has great acoustics. The white star-like ceiling is a sight. The angular staircase in the lobby is also of great note.
In all, between the entire collection and the space itself, the museum doesn’t feel too big, but it’s not underwhelming either. It also helps that the building in of itself makes the Aga Khan Museum a destination. I spent a little over two hours exploring and taking in everything and would gladly return in the spring or summer to take it in again.
Update: Aga Khan Museum Park and Ismaili Centre, Summer 2015
I get off the 100C Flemingdon Park bus at Broadview and Mortimer and cross the street. To the west, Mortimer becomes Pottery Road and is my route on the way to Todmorden Mills Heritage Site. A sign ushers me to the descent.
And quite the descent it is! There are several topographical kinks within the city, and this street is definitely one of them. I’m no cyclist myself, but I have to feel for the people coming up the hill. In fact, as I read more about it , Pottery Road ranks up there for people on bikes as the toughest to navigate. My pity pretty soon turn inwards, because I realise that I’ll probably have to muster the climb on the return trip. D’oh.
Another sign and a bricked path ushers me into the Todmorden Mills grounds. Located in the Don River Valley, it’s a site that claims both industrial and natural heritage. In 1967, it was re-adapted as a historic site and operates today under the City of Toronto Museums to help tell the story of Toronto. I was here once before, although very briefly to help out to an event. Today is a long overdue chance to do some more exploring of the museum and the great Wildflower Preserve I’ve heard so much about. (Although, ironically enough, I still don’t have an adequate amount of time to do a just visit). I also read about an intriguing photo exhibition in the Papermill Theatre, which is my first stop.
On the way toward the building, I have to look up to the smokestack, which was nominated for a 2013 Heritage Toronto Award for its recent restoration. Anyone who has ridden down the Don Valley Parkway has seen the chimney and its giant lettering.
Inside the Papermill Theatre is an art show entitled ‘The Past is Never Far.’ It features the work of three people who have visually captured the city at various points in its history: Elizabeth Simcoe, who painted some of the first images of Toronto, William James, who took 6000 some odd photos of the city which are all digitized in the Toronto Archives, and Summer Leigh. If the last name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because she’s the artist behind the show.
Summer takes the images of her predecessors and photographs their subjects in their modern locations. So we can find James’ photo of the dirty foot of Yonge Street in 1909 mixed in with her take of the same site the 21st century. Or Lady Simcoe’s view of Toronto harbour in 1793 with the current incarnation of the shore as we see it today. It all makes for a great visual look into Toronto’s past and present.
Taken together, the exhibition tells a great story. Its message comes in the title, and is something I have been saying and thinking for a while now: Toronto is a layered city. Some of its (her?) landforms and landmarks have changed a great deal. Some haven’t. Perhaps some of the changes aren’t immediately apparent to us, but they are there nonetheless. The past isn’t far. You just have to dig for it, do some analysis, maybe even put on a photo exhibition.
That said however, perhaps some things do stay the same. Summer has one image up of William James that features the Don River Valley flooded in 1910. 100 years and a parkway later and we’re still facing the wrath of the overflowing Don. I shake my head and smile at that. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, n’est-ce pas?
As a nice and unexpected treat, the artist herself is on hand, and I am able to pick her brain about what I see – whether she was actually at the disputed location of the Simcoes’ Castle Frank residence, as an example. Among the random things we talk about are old school horse drawn streetcars and being de facto tour guides for people in our lives. Through that chat it quickly becomes clear that she is a true buff in Toronto history, whose knowledge, talent, and vision really shows in her work. We probably can geek back and forth about the city for another good chunk of time, but alas, time isn’t abundant today and I graciously thank her again and make my exit.
I head up to the brick path and continue down it. To my left, I see a familiar blue marker. The Ontario Heritage Trust sign gives my the need-to-know of Todmorden’s history. I briefly circle around the exteriors of the buildings. I did some reading prior to coming, and, if I had more more time, I would enjoy a tour, but it will have to wait until next time.
Also happening on the grounds of the museum is Eco-Art-Fest, an arts, heritage, culture festival put on by No. 9, who I first heard about during Jane’s Walk preparations. There is a designated ‘chilling’ area which has some pretty soothing country tunes going, an elevated platform (I think it’s also a stage) with an oven, picnic benches, and craft table where a few children try their hands at water colour painting (shoutout to Elizabeth Simcoe with that activity).
I continue on the brick path once again, heading toward the bridge. I see a few joggers around, and I have to admit that it that this would be a very good place for a run. I would run through here if I loved closer. A few feet before the bridge is a swirly blue line with the words ‘Don Was Here’ in bold lettering. No, some guy named Donald hasn’t marked his presence. It’s actually a public art initiative commissioned by No. 9 and curated by Labspace Studio in partnership with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. There are several of these ‘Don Was Here’ markers from Todmorden Mills to the mouth of the river which shows the meandering route of the Don before it was rerouted and straightened. It’s a pretty amazing tribute to the city’s natural heritage. The project has got an interactive site too…with a map!
I notice some letter on the side of the bridge as I cross it, but may little mind to it (more on this later). Instead, I focus on the green area it overlooks. I walk around (passing another ‘Don Was Here’ marker) and inspect it a little better. Beyond that it looks really beautiful, I can’t pick out any species or just the entire ecological significance of it.
I circle around and head back to the open area with the benches so I can give the Wildflower Preserve a walkthrough. I am greeted by a pair of signs to explain everything. It turns out the area under the bridge was the last area on the trail. I get the signs on my phone because I know I’ll need them. And hey, now I know what an Oxbow is.
I spend a few minutes at the pond to take in everything. Gazing out and down at the green surface, I am hoping to spot something alive. Instead, I just see a pop can half-submerged in algae and just think somebody has really missed the point. I do catch movement, something skipping across the water. I can’t tell if it’s a fish or a frog, but I take it anyways and move on.
The tree canopies are tall enough to make me feel closed in and away from everything, but even with the rustling wind, buzzing insects, chirping birds, I still can hear highway traffic. It’s a weird thing spot to be in. I feel like I’m in a secluded spot, but really, I am not. Actually, it reminds me of wandering the Betty Sutherland Trail near the 401. A city within a park, indeed.
At one point, my curiosity is piqued when I spot what looks houses floating in the oxbow. I have to maneuver through and over things to get to the water’s edge. Yup, they are floating houses. Either some trekkers got really mischievous and creative or this is something deliberate and tied to the museum. I suspect the latter. I do some research after the fact, and the Ec0-Art-Fest website and its scrolling banner images provide the answer. The houses are an installation for the festival – as is the lettering on the bridge (which read from the other side says ‘Like a Bridge’) and the ‘Don Was Here’ project. Eureka!
As I walk the paths, I try to see if I recognize any flora. I think the yellow flowers are goldenrod, but I’m not willing to bet my guitar on it. In co-creating a nature walking tour last summer, I was introduced into identifying certain floral species, but it does not help me out here. Instead, I just go back to marveling at the Preserve in a big picture sense.
I remember something Summer said about our former industrial centres. Places like Todmorden, the neighbouring Evergreen Brickworks, and the quarries of Greenwood and Smythe Parks were pretty dirty looking once upon a time. To see their conversion into beautiful natural and park lands is just remarkable. Tormorden and the Brickworks in particular have their own ecosystems, which makes this preserve more amazing to be in and think about.
For a while I try to go off the main path onto offshoot routes, but then I realise that I really have no idea where they would end up. And I’m being stupid with time. So I turn back and get to the end of the wooded area. I’m at the back of the parking lot, and instead of walking through it, I turn around and tour the Preserve again. When I reach the beginning, I spot a warning I missed the first go around. I smile at the mention of the ‘East York’. The borough lives on.
Walking back to Pottery, I give the museum one last look and then head off to do the climb. Part of me wants to visit the Brickworks, but I know this is not doable. I convince myself it would be a real beneficial exercise to power through at a quick pace, but halfway I’m a bit gassed and cursing my idea. Fortuitously, I do break beside a Sumac, though! Happy that I recognize something, I leisurely finish the ascend and then make it back to The Danforth.
I have never stepped inside Sam the Record Man, and I shamefully admit my memories of walking by the famous neon signs at Yonge and Gould are vague at best. My experience is limited to exploring my father’s record collection which he purchased at the store in the 80s, and sifting through what would be become new favourites like Bowie’s Let’s Dance and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. With this said, personal memory and collective memory are separate yet connected ideas, and while my own past does not directly intersect with the life and times of Sam the Record Man, I feel part of a collective whose past indeed does – even if those memories aren’t mine.
The issue to me is not losing the store itself. Business is a tricky endeavour, and recent high-profile examples unfortunately show that even the most profitable and high profile enterprises can fold. There are many that would like to see it in existence, and I am not diminishing those sentiments. But since it is gone, we are faced with a ‘now what?’ situation.
Well, the ‘now what?’ is what do we do with the giant neon signs. The signs are the most tangible remnants of that store, along with perhaps the records purchased from the record shop that still exist in the collections of its former patrons and the auctioned memorabilia distributed in the store’s final days. The issue is commemorating, through the signs, the importance of Sam’s and its owner Sam Sniderman in the narrative of our music and cultural history.
Many assign Ryerson University – a rapidly expanding institution and the current owners of the former site of the store – as the villains in this saga. Many lament the loss of the Yonge Street Entertainment Strip (located between Queen and Gerrard Streets), of which Sam’s was a big part of, and dismiss its current incarnation as a soulless commercial and educational strip filled with an upcoming Ryerson student buildings and a mix of big and small name shopping destinations.
For me, times change and there should be no qualms about new epochs coming into fashion. That’s fine. The fascinating thing about Toronto is its layered history. Different occupants, one after another (or sometimes at the same time), move into an area, set up their establishments, and in doing so they transform the character of their locale. This is perhaps no better manifested than in Kensington Market.
As these transformational processes take place and time, the altered urban landscapes have the power to reveal and conceal the layered history of their use. From the 1960s to about the 1990s, The Yonge Street Strip was for the most part a music and entertainment epicentre in Toronto. The sites which have contributed to this characterization have largely disappeared. Some buildings currently employ different uses (like Friars Taven at Dundas), others have been demolished completely (like the Colonial Tavern at 203 Yonge St). The loss of Sam’s and the Empress Hotel (which has quite the history itself) were the latest in this episode. The only visible reminder is Zanzibar’s, although even that has shifted identities from a music club to a purely adult entertainment establishment. Take this further and one hundred years ago the history of the Yonge Street Strip comes a bit full circle with how we might see it today. In 1912, for example, Sam’s was Curtis-Wilson Furniture Co. and Byers Albert Jefferies, Ltd., furries. 349 Yonge – Steeles Tavern, which Sam Sniderman eventually took over – was Hele’s Ceramic Art. Co. A&A at 351 Yonge was owned by Walker Frank, a man in the clothing business. In other words, this was a retail strip in its own right.
Today, the site of Sam is occupied and owned by Ryerson Univeraity – a booming educational institution that has seen tremendous growth since its days as a polytechnic. One has to guess that growing levels of enrollment within existing programs and the addition of new programs has necessitated its spatial growth, so as much as we might curse the ‘takeover’, perhaps we cannot fault that from occurring.
So the question remains: where do the signs end up? They are doing no favours to anyone stored in a North Toronto trailer.
The original plan was to have them mounted within the new student centre as a part of the deal struck by the Ryerson-Sniderman deal. Much fuss has been made about a broken promise on Ryerson’s president who has said that signs would clash with the modernist style of the new building.
Recently renewed talk has called for the need of a Toronto Museum. Whether we have the site and leadership to finally execute such a needed endeavour is another story. It does remain, however, that the neon signs would be ideal artefacts within such as a space. This would help in telling the musical and cultural narrative of Toronto as well as the role of Yonge Street.
Ideally, I’d like to see them back a part of the street, which also was the proposal put forward by Councillor Wong-Tam and supported by Mayor Rob Ford. The signs are best preserved and presented in context. Sam’s was an important part of a certain era of Yonge Street, and its signs should be displayed at its historic intersection. In doing so, in the end, we are putting them in a museum – albeit one that lacks physical plant and invites the components of the urban landscape to be the artifacts themselves.
Urban landscapes as museums are not a new idea. The Textile Museum’s mobile app TXTile City turns the city of Toronto into a museum whose artifacts are the sites – the built forms and their related oral histories — themselves. A recent TedTalk promoted the idea of the built and natural forms of Indianapolis – the city itself – as a science museum. A Toronto Star column has outlined the importance of Yonge Street. This is our Saint Laurent Boulevard of Montreal fame. Like The Main, Yonge Street, our spine, bisects the city, connects neighbourhoods, serves as cultural and commercial epicentre, and has a very layered past. In other words, it is important in the historical, geographic, cultural, natural, economic, sociological development of Toronto.
Fortunately, we already have something like what I’ve been proposing already underway. Youryongestreet is an online crowdsourcing initiative, launched by the Toronto Public Library, aimed at celebrating the history of Yonge Street. The potential age range of participants (and backgrounds in general) allows for exactly what I’ve been talking about: the presentation of the diversity of Yonge Street. The exhibits collection features a range of images, videos, audio accounts, and written tales about Yonge Street.
Youryongestreet and the urban landscape museum I have presented are two parts in an grander museum that showcases Yonge Street’s past. No doubt the Sam the Record sign should be an artefect in that museum, too.