Henry Moore in Toronto

It often seems surprising to people when they learn that the most comprehensive and important public collection of Henry Moore's sculptures in the world is at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario and was donated by the sculptor himself.

Moore, born in Britain, was a leading light in the English Surrealist movement, and his sculptures have been called "revolutionary" and "brilliantly crafted."

One of the first indications that the Toronto museum could be a haven for Moore's work is the huge "Large Two Forms," which has settled comfortably into a downtown intersection in front of the gallery, near Chinatown.

As you enter the lobby you see, sitting high above the entrance, another imposing figure – "Draped Reclining Woman." Inside the museum, there are 131 bronzes and original plasters, 73 drawings, and 689 prints by Moore.

The AGO, as it is known, was founded in 1900 and named Art Museum of Toronto. Over the years new galleries were added. In l966 it officially became the Art Gallery of Ontario. But it wasn't until 1968, with a new expansion, that the construction included the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre.

The indoor sculpture court, where the giant Moores sit like valiant warriors, serves as one of the major attractions for the half-million annual visitors.

Why Toronto? Moore never lived in the city, but there is an interesting story about how his work ended up here. In the mid-1960s, when Toronto's new City Hall was being built, its architect envisaged a major sculpture for the civic square in front of the building. Moore was invited to see the site and visited the city.

But no one had foreseen the controversy that erupted when he was commissioned to do the sculpture. It reached the point that the mayor, Philip Givens, an ardent admirer of Moore, lost the next election because of his pro-Moore stand.

In those days, Toronto was a very conservative city and sometimes known as Toronto the Good. Many residents considered abstract forms startling.

But a daring few formed a committee to raise the necessary funds from the private sector. And "The Archer" was unveiled in l966 at Nathan Phillips Square in front of the new City Hall.

In l968 Moore indicated that he intended to donate a large body of his work to the city. In l974, the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, with its shiny marble floor resembling a reflecting pond, was officially opened. Moore had made suggestions on all aspects of the project, insisting on overhead natural lighting, for example, to create an airy feeling even though the art forms are massive. Moore's gift to Toronto has received worldwide acclaim and made the Art Gallery of Ontario a must-see for art lovers and city dwellers alike.

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