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Saturday, 8 June 2013

Toronto: New York Run by the Swiss

Massacre of the Innocents in Pride of Place
Company Town
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Welcome to the land of 'live and let live.' Sort of bland. Sort of vanilla. And so, so nice. In a good way.
This village of 2.6-million inhabitants has none of the in-your-face nitty gritty of the Lower 48 Big Five. Hardly the shoot-'em-up OK corral of Chicago; zilch, the Yo-Big-Mama-Tude of Philly, or the Forgetabout-it-No. 1-Bluster of New York. City-wise, this is the Little-Engine-that-Could. And it can.
Where else could the village mayor, a porcine, Chris Christie look-alike, be recently caught -- OK, allegedly -- doing drugs, and there's little public outcry. (At least, that was the results of my informal, non-scientific poll, surveying a college student at the University of Toronto, a sandwich maker lady at Subway, and a guard at the Ontario Legislative Assembly Building). Yes, this a place that has a memorial to the homeless, sponsored by the downtown Church of the Holy Trinity. Come now, brethren, how nice is that? 

Toronto Pearson International Airport
One reason is that Torontonians like, yes, like each other. The divisions that make the United States really disunited, Tea Party insanity, blue-red state rivalries, orthodox religious fanaticism, don't exist here. Whilst the USA is still fighting its contemporary version of the Civil War, these Canadians here -- of every stripe and colo(u)r who, cozily enough, are still under the banner of British Commonwealth  -- can't remember when they last had any internal conflict. (Oh, yeah that Civil War. Let's see? In the 1600s. Between King Charles I and the Roundheads. Class, please repeat). And, yes, you USA fruit-cake nuts who still think otherwise, everyone here actually loves their single-payer national health-care system.
Torontonians get it right. You know, the Gallery in Philadelphia? Well, Toronto has one of those too. It's call the Eaton Centre. The difference? Actual people, actually shopping. It's got a subway system that's cheap, safe, and without any Septa scuzziness. Blight? West-Philly-like slums? Collapsing buildings? Beggars? Fat people? Sorry, homey, none of that in our snug village.
And it's got an airport, Toronto Pearson International, a ginormous modern beauty, designed in part by Moishe Safdie, that serves every continent worldwide. (In North America, only JFK in New York gets to match that).
'Great airport you have here,' I say to the US Airways ticket counter clerk.
'Sure thing,' she says. 'But not as good as yours in Philly.'
'Oh, you mean that dump from the 60s, 70s we call B/C Terminal Death'?
'But it has great shopping,' she enthused.
'Oh,' I said.
All in all, it makes you recall the old saw, credited to Peter Ustinov, relegating Toronto as 'New York run by the Swiss.'
Another wag might cheekily follow up, 'But at least the Swiss have the Alps.'
That's the problem with Toronto: All white bread without any filling.
I came here recently to visit local art museums and buy related books for my on-line bookshop, philabooks|booksellers.
I was disappointed on both counts.
Despite being Canada's largest city, this is a place without any world-class cultural institutions. No top-five symphony like the Philadelphia Orchestra. No university of eminence such as the University of Pennsylvania. No art museum of such stature as the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That last one I learned the hard way.
First, an admission. I had always believed that the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was the city's premier art museum. Wrong. Turns out it's the city's premier natural history museum. Never mind. Had the opportunity to scope out Daniel Libeskind's brilliant facadectomy to the old, existing building on Bloor Street.
Where I really wanted to go, I learned, was the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). When I finally got there, I was underwhelmed. At least, by the museum's permanent collection. Imagine an art museum that dedicates much of its core collection to the works of a talented, but second-tier late 19th century landscapist. Someone like Nathaniel Currier, perhaps?  James Merritt Ives? In this Canadian context, the landscapist is Cornelius Krieghoff, a Currier and Ives knock-off who gets the attention of three or four AGO galleries. At first, given the sheer abundance of Krieghoff's pictures on display, I thought I had wandered into a special exhibit. I was quickly set straight by an knowledgeable guard.
It's all Krieghoff, all the time, I was told.
This is also an art museum that dedicates considerable floor space to a model ship collection. Huh? Hundreds of ship models, by the way. Great collection. Wrong venue. Anyone want to chip in for Toronto's first nautical museum? I know where we can some model ships.
I had also hoped to score some discounted art books in the museum shop. I nailed two. But I also quickly learned that the AGO shop is going the way of many museum stores in downplaying books; enlarging in-store collections of gift-shop 'stuff,' knick-knacks that have particular appeal to the women who constitute most art museum goers these days. (I've noticed this trend in Philly at the PMA's shop, and the shop manger at the Baltimore Museum of Art confirmed the conversion when I was on a book-buying excursion to the BMA not long ago.)
Still, AGO isn't a complete waste.
A recent revamp by Frank Gehry has resulted in an interesting new exterior facade. More important, an interior court has been retooled to incorporate a Gehry-inspired, wooden spiral stairwell. Wonderful design.
Moreover, in a pride of place (AGO has dedicated the work to an entire single gallery!) is Peter Paul Reuben's Massacre of the Innocents. This massive, exceptional work is worth the price of admission alone. (Adults, $18; seniors, $16). But it does seem a bit sad that AGO has to make such a big deal of the painting by devoting a gallery to its display. In an ironic twist, it just seems to highlight how thin AGO's permanent collection really is.
Michelin gives AGO a two stars. A less starry-eyed appraisal would be one at most.