The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the most distinguished art museums in Canada with a collection of over 80,000 works of art. A renovation in 2008 by Frank Gehry significantly expanded the museum’s gallery space.
The museum is best known for its large collection of Henry Moore sculptures and for its Canadian holdings, the world’s largest, which includes a comprehensive collection of Inuit art.
From Small-town Gallery to Metropolitan Museum
The AGO was founded in 1900. Eleven years later it was able to move into the Grange, a mansion in what was then the town of York.
The museum, at the time known as the Art Gallery of Toronto expanded quickly, opening new galleries as early as in 1918 and again in 1926 and 1935. Thanks to new acquisitions and donations, the museum continued to expand in the 1970s with the opening of the Henry Moore Sculpture Center and a new Canadian wing. In 1993 another expansion added the Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium.
The AGO’s most ambitious expansion project was launched in 2002, when the acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, who grew up in Toronto, drew up plans for a transformation of the museum complex that would end up increasing its space by almost fifty percent. Gehry not only added the eye-catching glass facade along Dundas Street and the four-story titanium wing facing Grange Park but he also integrated the various existing annexes into a more coherent museum complex with the construction of new walkways, ramps and staircases.
Despite the perennial expansion projects the Grange, the original home of the AGO, is still intact. The Grange is one of Toronto’s oldest buildings; it was built in 1817 by D’Arcy Boulton Jr, a lawyer and politician, who designed the brick house himself. He lived here with his wife, eight children and ten servants.
In the mid-nineteenth century the grand house was a gathering place for the upper class and the site of lavish parties. The last owner, Harriet Boulton, bequeathed the house to the Art Gallery. Today you can still access the house from inside the AGO’s modern museum building.
The main strength of the Museum is in its comprehensive collection of Canadian Art. It features many works by the Group of Seven, a group of landscape painters who were among the first to create a Canadian style as opposed to mimicking existing European art. Emily Carr, one of Canada’s best known artists, is also well represented.
The museum also boasts an impressive number of works from the Inuit and First Nations, including contemporary works.
Henry Moore Sculptures
Another highlight in the museum is the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, which opened in 1974 in a gallery designed with the help of Moore himself. The British sculptor donated a large number of his sculptures to the museum, which now owns more than eight hundred of the artist’s works. Besides the famous bronzes there are also plasters, lithographs and drawings on display.
Outside, at the corner of Dundas and McCaul Streets is another sculpture of Henry Moore, entitled “Large Two Forms”.
(Peter Paul Rubens)
The European collection of the AGO is quite diverse and spans a period from the Middle Ages to the mid-nineteen hundreds. Medieval sculpture, ivory carvings, stained glass windows, Baroque sculpture and paintings from Italy, France and the Netherlands are all exhibited here.
The main highlight is the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Also take a close look at ‘The Peasant Wedding’, a painting by Rubens’s fellow townsman Pieter Brueghel the Younger that gives an insight in rural life during the seventeenth century.
Other Permanent Exhibits
The top floors of Frank Gehry’s titanium addition are devoted to contemporary art. The AGO also owns the largest collections in Canada of African an Oceanic art. The African gallery contains many wooden sculptures from west and central Africa while the Oceanic collection focuses on Aboriginal art and includes hundreds of boomerangs. The museum also has tens of thousands of photographs as well as prints and drawings spanning a period from the fifteenth century to the present day.