Lufthansa Highlights Toronto: "Cultured, cosmopolitan, creative"
The stunted pine is a piteous sight as it desperately clings to the small rocky is- land. The lakeshore beyond it is bare of trees but studded with row upon row of condominiums. “Home Sweet Home” is the name of this depressing painting that hangs on the wall in David Miller’s office. For a moment, the mayor of Toronto ponders the faceless modern buildings in their unhealthy surroundings. Is this a swan song for the Canadian wilderness? Mr. Miller smiles. This is the only picture in his office that he actually owns. “It touched me so I had to buy it,” he explains.
Does it help him to focus on his favorite subject while fulfilling the multifarious demands of municipal politics? Mr. Miller has done a lot more to promote art and culture in Canada’s largest city of about 2.5 million than many of his predecessors. Toronto’s City Hall has been the seat of government since 1965. Built at one end of Queen Street West, its two curved towers flanking what looks like a space capsule, City Hall is a symbol of the 1960s’ spirit of renewal that indeed contributed to a sharp rise in the city’s fortunes. Toronto is undergoing another renewal today, this time a cultural and architectural one.
Star architect Daniel Libeskind sheathed the venerable Royal Ontario Museum in a crystal-shaped structure and placed a 57-story L on top of the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. His colleague, Frank Gehry, enveloped the Art Gallery of Ontario in a cocoon of wood and glass. Other new architecture includes the Sharp Centre for Design, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the Festival Tower. Toronto has over 190 theater groups, over 50 ballet and dance ensembles, a number of opera ensembles and two symphony orchestras. Art and culture appear to be the signs of the times, and Toronto is looking to its creative professionals and to the young, multicultural population of the region (average age just 37.5), around half of whom were born outside of Canada.
Anyone interested in tomorrow’s trends should leave cool, shimmering downtown behind
and head for the edge of town where the avant-garde, working out of often tumbledown 19th century buildings, are testing boundaries and experimenting with new formal vocabularies. The Canadian Stage Company, for instance, occupies a red-brick gasworks not far from the Distillery Historic District. The ensemble per- formed several plays last year based on the Iraq War, including one called Palace of the End, which touches on the torture scandal in Baghdad’s prisons. Iris Turcott sees the provocative program as reflecting the city’s strengths. “Toronto is wealthy but also liberal and cosmopolitan,” says the dramaturge, adding that the city is currently going through a historic phase. “The theater scene has been even more committed since Canadian politics lurched to the right, The fine art avant-garde has its own biotope, too. West Queen West on Queen Street West is the biggest, most fertile and whackiest.
Some 10 000 artists live in Toronto, the majority of them here. West Queen West stretches roughly from Gladstone Avenue to Bathurst Street and is a wild mix of tattoo parlors, designer boutiques, factory warehouses, sushi restaurants and fish ’n’ chips joints. The district is within easy walking distance of the shadowy canyons of downtown Toronto, and as you approach it, you feel like you are entering a sunlit clearing after days in a dark forest. Instead of walking there from downtown, you can also climb aboard the old streetcar that regularly rattles by, causing the cracked asphalt to quake.
In contrast to Queen Street Village between University und Spadina Avenues, a zeitgeisty new district created by investors, West Queen West has in many places retained its rough, original charm. An old Chinese woman hands out brochures proclaiming the all-healing powers of a snakeskin remedy. A young man sitting in front of an empty house has a cardboard box in front of him on which is scrawled “Will take verbal abuse for change.” Moneylenders, cosmetic salons, lingerie shops: the mixture gets wilder the longer you explore the bumpy sidewalk.
“I love how chaotic things are here,” says Chris Hayes, a stocky artist who exhibits his work in the Engine Gallery, one of dozens of small galleries west of Trinity Bellwood Park. People appreciate his pop art, in which he uses wood, concrete, linoleum and acrylic. “I watch what people are doing in my neighborhood and add new elements. That’s how I tell a story,” he explains. “Toronto is actually a collection of ethnic neighborhoods with a village atmosphere where over 150 languages are spoken. I don’t need to travel anywhere for new ideas, I just step outside my door.”
The Engine Gallery also presents the work of native Hungarian performance artist Istvan Kantor, who is fond of styling himself a refugee and lived in many cities around the world before coming to Toronto, which has been his home since 1990. Toronto is also a main theme in his work. A fine example of this is the video production The (Never Ending) Operetta, which was among the winners at the 2009 European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück, Germany. The movie spotlights the housing situation in Toronto and draws on the artist’s own experiences.
Does this mean it’s the beginning of the end for the artists’ paradise in West Queen West? Are investors lurking in the wings? Perhaps. But Toronto is a city that never stands still – a multicultural metropolis where being different has never caused disruption and more often created new identities. And unusual alliances. One mild summer afternoon during a rally on Nathan Phillips Square, some 200 artists publicly demonstrated their solidarity with Mayor David Miller. He wants to raise taxes in order to plug holes in the budget, and the art scene, say the artists, needs the money to survive. Many of them stepped up to the microphone that day. One American artist explained that he came to Toronto because it was safe. A Syrian artist said there was no place more tolerant and she couldn’t work anywhere else. David Miller listened, eyes half-closed. Maybe he was thinking of the painting in his office.