The Ontario Society of Artists, led by president George Reid, drew a stroke of colour across winter’s white canvas in January 1900 to create the Art Museum of Toronto – later to become the Art Gallery of Ontario.
For decades the group of local citizens, who formed the Society in 1872, wanted a permanent venue to exhibit their art, rather than in venues along industrious King St.
Toronto at the beginning of the 20th century was booming with a population of 208,000 recorded in 1901 – second only in size to Montreal in the Dominion of Canada.
And what a city Toronto was. Why, there was a sewage system in place, flushable toilets, electric lights and navigable streets paved with asphalt. Horse-drawn streetcars had been replaced by electric ones. Majestic buildings, such as the Old City Hall and at the University of Toronto, dotted the landscape.
But the cultural side went unseeded.
Other cities in the British Colonies and in North America had permanent art galleries. Half of these were funded by individuals “who made handsome donations,” the Ontario Society of Artists said, while the rest received grants of public money.
The Society envisioned an art museum for Toronto not just filled with “mere relics” but art specimens. They wanted a venue open to the public for half the week and for a fee on other days, when art supplies and lectures would be offered, according to a pamphlet in the Toronto Daily Star in January 1900.
To help raise funds, local artist George Reid enlisted prominent banker and arts advocate Edmund Walker. Following the art museum’s January 1900 founding, a meeting was called in March of that year for incorporation of the Art Museum of Toronto. The criticisms lobbed at Toronto, describing it as a cultural wasteland, came notably from a professor Coleman, who remarked that – compared to cities like Montreal – “Toronto is far behind in artistic matters,” the Star reported. The scholar even went so far as to call Toronto “the most Philistine city in Canada.”
Later that summer the Art Museum of Toronto was incorporated and in 1903, the museum’s corporation was “confirmed and amended” by provincial legislation, giving it the right to receive money and land by bequest.
That fit nicely into Harriet and Goldwin Smith’s plan to bequeath their home, The Grange (which sat on 2.4 hectares), to the museum upon their deaths. The magnificent Georgian brick manor in downtown Toronto was built in 1817.
With the securing of The Grange not yet realized, the Society held its exhibitions at the Toronto Public Library’s College St. branch in rented quarters at the corner of Brunswick Ave. In 1910, The Grange was bequeathed to Art Museum of Toronto, and the next year the museum leased lands lying to the south of the manor to the City of Toronto in perpetuity to create Grange Park.
The Grange remained shuttered to the public until June 1913. In April of that year, the Society’s spring show was presented in the Public Library, where visitors paid the princely sum of one dollar per two persons for unlimited visits. The show was dominated by “younger men,” the Star reported, with their “virile work, fearless brushing, strange, crude colour.” Among the artists listed as exhibitors were some members of the not-yet-formed Group of Seven: Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald, along with the shy painter who inspired them, Tom Thomson. Thomson would mysteriously perish in Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, in 1917.
The official opening of the Art Museum of Toronto in June 1913 in The Grange was well received and featured the art collections of Goldwin Smith. The Star reported on June 6 that, “It is the nucleus of an art museum which will doubtless grow, as time passes, to be a national treasure house.”
But the museum wasn’t without its critics. One reader groused in a letter to the editor of the Star in October 1913 that although “the man in the street” could view works of art, the museum was only open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., when “the great mass of people are unable to go.” The reader, under the nom de plume “HYPER,” wanted the museum accessible for an additional two evenings a week and bravely suggested the museum be available on Sunday afternoons. The scribe feared this recommendation would be “received with horror by many good people” and predicted the proposal would cause scripture to be quoted by the pious and circulate talk about “the desecration of the Sabbath.”
The First World War raged between 1914 and 1918. In 1916, the museum drafted plans to construct a small portion of a new gallery, designed by Darling and Pearson in the classical Beaux-Arts style. The first galleries opened in 1918. The next year the museum became the Art Gallery of Toronto and in 1920 the gallery allowed the Ontario College of Art to construct a building on the grounds.
Expansion continued throughout the 20th century. Various galleries were added to the museum, which was renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966. Construction culminated in 1993, with 38,400 square metres of interior space.
The AGO has seen four major expansion and renovations since 1974. Frank Gehry’s redesign in 2008 of the Art Gallery of Ontario completely altered it. The Toronto Star’s architecture critic Christopher Hume, in a November article that year, called the revamped AGO, “the easiest, most effortless and relaxed architectural masterpiece this city has seen.”
“Never before has the gallery felt so connected to its surroundings,” Hume wrote.
Compared to New York City’s Guggenheim, “the AGO is a more modest project. It doesn’t seek to reinvent the art gallery, just perfect it,” Hume said.
There are now more than 80,000 works spanning the gallery’s first century to the present day, including the largest collection of Canadian art, with the AGO gallery covering 45,000 square metres of physical space at 317 Dundas St. W. The Grange, designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1970, sits on the south side of the AGO and houses the Norma Ridley Members’ Lounge and exhibition spaces.
What began as a project of a group of local citizens 116 years ago is now one of the largest galleries in North America.