Canada gets its own 'Louvre'

Most museums don't have the prestige and wealth of the Louvre in Paris or the Met in New York.

But occasionally, a smaller museum aspires to, if not join that exclusive club, at least make a name for itself. That's what Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario - North America's 10th-largest museum - hopes to do with a new double-barreled development.

The AGO announced that billionaire Canadian businessman Ken Thomson is donating his 2,000-piece collection as well as $45 million (US). Valued at more than $200 million, his collection includes 500 European objets d'art and 1,500 pieces of Canadian art.

In addition, architect Frank Gehry - designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle - is masterminding what the AGO calls its "transformation," which it wants to complete by 2007.

The museum is one of seven cultural institutions in Toronto planning facelifts using more than $200 million in government funding. The Royal Ontario Museum, for instance, also hired architect Daniel Libeskind to make renovations after it received $60 million from the government last year.

For 103 years, the AGO has been a middling player on the global art scene. It has built a respectable international reputation and a loyal local audience by mounting innovative shows, such as a Yoko Ono exhibit, and by specializing in such areas as Canadian art.

Its Canadian paintings include windswept pines, moody lakes, and rugged mountains by the Group of Seven, the landscape pioneers whose works are now Canadian icons. The museum has a solid collection of European art, and its grouping of sculptures by Britain's Henry Moore is considered one of the world's best.

Mr. Gehry was an obvious architectural choice for the museum's $116 million refit. His fluid, flamboyant designs arguably elevate museums from straight-lined display cases to sensual works of art themselves.

"It's not going to look like Bilbao, it's going to look like Toronto," he says, referring to the city known for its mix of the modern and traditional.

The AGO's home is currently a wide two-story brick and concrete building.

Gehry plans to pull the building's facade street-ward and add a new entrance and 40 percent more gallery space. He also expects to cover the exterior with metals and stagger the building's height. His initial designs will be complete next year.

Gehry doesn't want the architecture to clash with the AGO's neighborhood of old homes, low-rise businesses, bohemian haunts, and a Chinatown.

"I know this neighborhood," says Gehry, who grew up in the area, then moved to the US. "I'm very interested in making a building that fits into it."

What Gehry is to global architecture, AGO benefactor Thomson is to Canadian business. The publicity-shy billionaire controls Thomson Corp., a media powerhouse. Outwardly modest and conservative, Thomson lights up like Broadway when the subject turns to art collecting.

He began collecting "selfishly," but he says now, "a more important pleasure ... is seeing others enjoy it, too."

Thomson assembled his collection over 50 years. A self-taught connoisseur, he belies the Charles Foster Kane stereotype.

Thomson "is not an amasser," says Christina Corsiglia, the AGO's European decorative arts curator. "[He] is a true collector, who has gone about it very deliberately."

He stunned the art world last July by buying "The Massacre of the Innocents" for $76 million. The oil by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens - one of the most expensive paintings ever sold - will be the museum's centerpiece.

Ms. Corsiglia says Thomson's 500 art objects - from carved ivory German tankards, to figurines, plates, and pendants - rival collections at London's Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere.

One showpiece is The Malmsbury Chasse. The shoe-box-sized 12th century Limoges reliquary - thought to once hold the bones of a 7th-century Scottish missionary - features blue and green enamel depictions of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and angels. To Corsiglia, it is as important in its own way as the better-known Rubens painting.

Also significant are Thomson's Canadian paintings - including pieces by Lawren Harris, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul-Emile Borduas, and David Milne.

AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum hopes the museum becomes an even more compelling place to appreciate art. When renovation is complete, the museum will even open its conservation labs and archives to visitors.

Visitors at a recent show of French masters say they're thrilled.

"Maybe it's not on the world-scale yet," says Kathleen Armitage, "but give it time and perhaps we will be."

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