Art Gallery of Ontario – Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Canadian Art – Past, Present, and Future

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the finest museums in North America, with a collection that encompasses both Canadian and international art. Founded in 1900 by a group of Toronto citizens, it currently holds more than 36,000 works, dating from the 11th century to the present. The museum’s European collection includes works by Tintoretto, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Gauguin, and van Gogh, while its contemporary collection includes Andy Warhol’s Elvis I and II and works by Robert Smithson, Gerhard Richter, Claes Old­enburg, and Franz Kline. But you’re in Canada, after all, so head for the Canadian collection, which represents more than half the museum’s holdings.

The chronologically ordered galleries focus on the breadth of Canadian art history, beginning prior to Confederation and contin­uing to the present day – including 19th-century portraits and landscapes; scenes of early Canadian life by artist Cornelius Krieghoff; a showpiece late-19th-century salon, whose stun­ning red walls feature masterpieces by Canadian icons such as Paul Peel and Lucius O’Brien; and a comprehensive installation of paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, early 20th- century Canadian artists whose work celebrates the country’s national splendor. The AGO also boasts an extensive collection of Inuit art, including signature works by sculptors Shorty Killiktree, George Tataniq, Paulassie Pootoogook, and Oviloo Tunillee.

In 1974, British sculptor Henry Moore was moved when the citizens of Toronto pitched in to purchase his sculpture The Archer for their new City Hall, after legislators had refused to provide funds. As a result, he donated more than 800 works – bronzes, woodcuts, lithographs, etchings, plasters, and drawings – representing the world’s largest collection of his art.

The news these days, though, is about the future. In November 2002 the museum announced that not only its collection but also the building itself were about to undergo radical changes. Kenneth Thomson, a leading Canadian art collector and businessman, recently donated nearly 2,000 works, including Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents; masterpieces by Canadian artists Paul Kane, Tom Thomson, Cornelius Krieghoff, and Lawren Harris; and a stunning collection of rare European art objects dating from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century. To accommo­date the additions and bring the museum into the 21st century, a physical redesign and expansion will be led by renowned Toronto native Frank Gehry, the architectural genius behind the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The project will break ground in early 2005, with a target completion date in 2007.

Connoisseurs should also visit the impres­sive Royal Ontario Museum (which is undergoing a major expansion), with its remarkable collection of Chinese art, a wing dedicated to European decorative arts, a working paleontology lab and many dinosaur skeletons, a Canadian heritage gallery, and a whole lot more – some 6 million pieces in all. Kids love the Bat Cave, a walk-through dio­rama replica of Jamaica’s St. Clair cave, with 3,000 very lifelike bats flitting about.

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