You can tell this is an artsy meeting. At least two men wear ascots, speakers manage to work in the words "frisson," "magical" (twice) and "noblesse oblige," and another member invokes "the mythical spirit of Frank Gehry's youth." Nevertheless, last week's meeting on the new Art Gallery of Ontario design, which brings together AGO reps, Gehry's architects and local residents, is a far from genteel affair. To the AGO's problems with furious patron Joey Tanenbaum and security fears raised by Ken Thomson's looted miniatures, you can now add rebellious neighbours.
Locals point to 1989 and a city bylaw the AGO agreed to stating that no further expansions would occur on this site. "Part of the rage and the anger is that you want to change your minds," Grange Park Preservation Group member Ceta Ramkhalawansingh says to AGO officials attending the confab at the University Settlement House.
Now, you might wonder why residents, some of them homeowners, wouldn't be excited that their neighbourhood is getting a high-profile facelift and possible real estate boost. Put it down to decades of mistrust. Thus, the packed meeting organized by the preservation group proceeds under a banner proclaiming, "Grange Park belongs to the people who live here."
The complaints are many and varied. Among the most important: the building's excessive height, which promises to dwarf the Grange; the design's lack of physical interaction with the park or surrounding neighbourhood; its imposing facade.
Beverley Street resident Phyllis Platter speaks to the contrast between the redesign of the Ontario College of Art and Design - where she participated as a member of the neighbourhood- and the AGO reno. "I felt that OCAD made a tremendous effort to include the community and make sure our voices were heard. The contrast between that and what has happened with the AGO has been quite stark."
OCAD's new building, which looks like a gigantic graph-paper-wrapped block perched atop precarious tripods of pencils, isn't universally loved. But OCAD's administration seems to have constantly considered the residents who live around it. Locals say that has never been the AGO's style.
"There are people in the AGO who I feel are connected, but as an institution the gallery needs to listen to the community," says Kevin Lee, executive director at the Scadding Court Community Centre and former director of University Settlement House.
The Grange (the home that sat on an estate consisting of both Grange Park and AGO properties) was from its earliest days, in journalist Robert Fulford's words, "the symbol of a smug colonialism." Its original owners, the Boultons, were minor members of local aristocracy the Family Compact. They left the house and the six acres to the south, including Grange Park to the city's Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO).
Could this legacy of insular, self-celebrating elitism be manifesting itself in the fact that the gallery not once engaged the rabble in the consideration of its redesign?
"I recognize good process and I recognize not-good process," says Olivia Chow semi-diplomatically at the meeting. She quickly proposes some of the former in the form of a community advisory group that City Hall could support.
But artist Charles Pachter (the one who slipped in "frisson") pleads for tolerance. "I think this (design) is a brilliant solution to a very difficult problem. Give these guys a chance."
Indeed, Gehry's rep at the meeting promises to refer the community's concerns to the master.
Thank goodness for irascible meeting chair John Sewell. Along with Chow, he somehow plucks the following consensus from the aggrieved locals: "The consultation process has been disastrous so far. There is some interest in seeing what kind of physical connection there might be between the north of Grange Park and the building. There is a problem with the bulk."
He even works into a resolution one resident's random complaint about the parking lot not being turned into parkland despite provisions in the original 1911 agreement between the AGO and the city. The resolution is quickly adopted by all present and clarifies that the gallery should turn the lot into extra park as a goodwill gesture.
The architects and AGO management say they want dialogue, however belated. Woe to them if this ends up as just the latest public relations exercise.
Grace Morris, who lives in an apartment across the road, sums it up. "Consult the people," she says, "because that's always nice." Doncha think?