I spent a long weekend in Toronto looking at art. It changed me.
I realized that art is NOT measured in dollars and cents. Or sense. It is measured in experience and connection, in relation and revelation.
Art can live outside a museum or gallery. It should live where it reaches people.
I discovered that art can be timeless or temporary.
My discernment peaked during Nuit Blanche (“White Night”), a one-night art event spread throughout Toronto’s downtown and neighborhoods. Its audiences experienced more than 75 projects by 400 artists ranging from performance art and interactive installations to sculpture, mixed media and beyond.
The concept of Nuit Blanche originated in Paris. Toronto adopted and adapted it in 2006. Planned as a one-time event, the night was so successful that the city is planning its 14th annual for 2019.
The festival’s mission is multifold, says Joe Sellors, Toronto’s programming manager of city cultural events. Those who measure with dollars know the previous 12 Nuit Blanche nights have had a $355 million economic impact on the city. That comes from the million or so visitors who patronize restaurants, hotels and other city businesses during the night.
“It’s about sharing culture with people. Art is outside of galleries and on the streets, where it’s accessible for everyone to experience,” Sellors said. “Art has a highbrow reputation. That’s a misconception. You don’t have to go to the gallery, where you might be intimidated. This is art; you don’t have to get it to enjoy it.”
Art ranged from 24 vintage suitcases decorated by 24 artists to a massive cloth shroud in front of city hall by world-renowned artist Ibrahim Mahama of Ghana.
Before attending Nuit Blanche, I got into the art zone at two significant Toronto museums — the brand-new Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto (re-opened Sept. 22) and the Aga Khan Museum (opened in 2014).
MOCA Toronto moved from the Queen West neighborhood to the Lower Junction Triangle neighborhood, re-opening three years after it closed. Its new space occupies the first five floors of a 10-story, 1919 one-time aluminum manufacturing building. Brick on the outside, the building’s inside maintains its raw industrial nature with bare concrete pylons, flat-slab architecture and minimal built walls. At 55,000 square feet, MOCA Toronto is about two-thirds larger than MOCA Cleveland.
The first floor is free to visit and features an interactive display known as ”DEMOS — A Reconstruction” by Greek artist Andreas Angelidakis. Its 74 colorful, oversized vinyl-covered foam modules build towers, tunnels, nooks and nests. Adults and children alike are drawn into the magic.
Upstairs is a rotating selection of exhibits. Most significant is “BELIEVE,” which continues through Jan. 6. Through more than 20 pieces in a variety of media — including two adapted pinball machines — 16 artists provide perspectives on how we believe and perceive.
Curator David Liss points to vinyl window overlays by Turkish artist Can Altay. The vinyl colors the view, and holes interrupt the viewer. That, says Liss, shifts perspective: “Perspective shapes how our beliefs are formed. And beliefs are the lens through which we understand the world.”
Apply that to art. Then, take it one step further to factor in “doubt,” which challenges beliefs. Beliefs coupled with doubt influence how we interpret the world and how we interpret art. They influence how we perceive reality.
American artist Barbara Kruger’s work draws that conclusion in 10-foot-tall, white Helvetica text on a red wall that reads “Belief + Doubt = Sanity.”
Visitors should allow an hour to wander through and wonder about the physical exhibits. Then, they should add another hour to watch films that play with concepts of belief and doubt.
About 13 miles from MOCA, in the Don Mills neighborhood, the Aga Khan Museum was built to “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage.”
A permanent collection of more than 1,000 secular and religious objects from the 8th to 21st centuries fills about 9,000 square feet on the first floor, while the second floor is reserved for visiting exhibits. Visiting is worth considering by everyone, especially Americans, whose culture is struggling with ethnic acceptance. Non-Muslims step outside their comfort zones and view historic, scientific and beautiful artifacts of a culture that influences 24 percent of the world’s population. (Christianity is the only larger religion, with 33 percent of world population.) No doubt visitors will see parallels and convergences in the art and history of various world cultures.
As a writer, my favorite collections were manuscripts such as holy Quran from Spain, Iraq, India and Egypt. Most of the Quran is elaborately illustrated by artists using a single chipmunk hair to paint the finest detail.
In the “Emperors & Jewels” special exhibit (running through Jan. 27), I admired ruby-and-emerald-encrusted gold-handled katars, two-handled daggers from the 17th-century Indian subcontinent.
After the one-hour morning tour, a break at the museum restaurant is required to digest information and lunch. Like the artifacts, Diwan’s menu is Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian. Dishes are familiar yet exotic. The onion bhaji, a crisp onion fritter made with chickpea flour, is served with a tamarind chutney. And,a long-roasted, spiced beef short rib melts into hummus.
I returned home from this mini-arts and culture tour feeling like I’d glimpsed the soul of the city. Because of my time spent here, I shifted my understanding of art’s purpose and my appreciation of it.