Exploring Art in Hip and Trendy Toronto
The last time I was in Toronto was nearly 20 years ago and decided it was time to revisit this little gem to soak up a bit of art and culture. Sure, Toronto is Canada’s financial center, and I’ve heard of it referred to as, ‘New York run by the Swiss,’ but I was eager to explore a different, grittier, more hip side to this city and its art. Since 2006, 22% of Toronto as a whole has undergone some form of gentrification and I was eager to see it for myself.
I found a great deal on AirTransat out of London in the dead of winter. Yes, I strongly believe the cheap ticket price reflected the chance I could seriously be stranded ass-deep in snow at any moment, but ‘carpe-diem.’
Since I was only going for three nights, I needed to be uber methodical about where to stay and what to see to get the most out of the city’s art scene without schlepping all over town.
I focused on the western part of the city – the areas around Little Portugal and Trinity-Bellwoods. Of Toronto’s 22% percent gentrification, the intersections alone of Queen Street West and Ossington Avenue account for over 25% of that 22% – so chances are it would be a happening sort of place.
In reality, this art and design district is a bastion of Toronto’s affluent hipsterism and a great base for exploring first-hand the mix of the old and grungy, and the hip and trendy. Strolling down Queen Street West you will quickly discover it’s the hipster epicenter. Around every corner you’ll be greeted with numerous artfully-trimmed, bearded guys sporting the perfectly-positioned, slouchy beanie. To be honest, all the guys looked similar and I could have sworn the same guy passed me five times, but no, I think it was five different guys. Or maybe it was, I couldn’t tell. Café after café, designer furniture shop after another, the social and economical change is apparent. This is a really fun neighborhood. Some of the old shop fronts have been ‘tarted’ up, but it’s clear the condos just behind them are shiny and new.
Toronto’s hotels can be quite expensive – on par with London or New York. And while I chose to stay in hotels, you could consider Airbnb-ing a new apartment at a fraction of the cost and score yourself a great spot in one of the condos nearby with super views of the city and everything on your doorstep.
The first night I stayed at the Gladstone Hotel – 1214 Queen St West, for multiple reasons. It’s both a hotel and an art gallery, it was close to a music venue I was interested in, and it had great reviews. This landmark Victorian hotel, and Toronto’s longest running, was built in 1889 and tastefully restored in 2005. It has 37 unique, artist-designed rooms and somehow I landed the Red Room. On Valentine’s Day. Alone! Even the elevator operator was chuckling when I said Room 303. I didn’t get it at first, but after entering the room I understood. I had the ultra red romantic room for one! Dear Gladstone Hotel, I love you too, but was there not a couple deserving of this room?
The Gladstone has a massive chill feel to it with an intimate café/restaurant on one side of the lobby and the large swanky Melody bar on the other. Both have tall ceilings, lots of wood furniture and art installations to keep you entertained while you dine or relax. The hotel is a funky place to chill with unique weekly happenings, like Humpback yoga, Karaoke, life drawing classes, live music and music bingo. I was surprised to see 10 people quietly doing yoga within the second floor lobby one morning. And the walls up to the various floors also have art on them – some you can even play with.
Each floor offers an art display, and on the 3rd where I was staying, was The Love (Actually) exhibition. It was a collection of wedding photographers who, “focus on the candid and genuine interactions between people that create truly real moments in photographs.” It was quite appropriate for February. Guests from outside the hotel are allowed to view the spaces from around noon until 5p. After that, it’s for hotel guests only. It was a beautiful display of in-the-moment imagery.
Another floor offered a tribute to Black History month and the Black Lives Matter movement in Toronto and the US. The photographs were part of a series of shows called, “Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest.” The Gladstone highlighted photographs from a couple of Toronto photographers, Zun Lee and Jalani Morgan, portraying different sides of the protests. It was quite powerful imagery. The exhibits change monthly so it’s a great way to see some interesting artwork, particularly if the weather is inclement.
The nearby Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St West, is another hotel-come-art gallery. Original built in the 1890’s, it is considered a ‘Hotbed of Culture’. Since reopening their doors on Valentine’s Day in 2004, they have offered guests a permanent as well as rotating collection of contemporary art. Their art is a mixture of old and bold, and new art. The Feb 2016 exhibition was Qualia, which asks viewers to pay attention to their own aesthetic experience while viewing the artworks. It’s well worth checking out. The exhibits change frequently.
The Drake Café is a great place for coffee, scones and free Wifi. Ironically, while sitting at the counter, I ran into a guy who happened to be at the music venue where I was the night before. He was a photographer doing a model shoot, as you do, at the Drake. It’s a small world!
The next two nights I moved to the Hilton Toronto. It’s central location let me easily explore the downtown/Entertainment area as well as the Historic Distillery District of Toronto.
Art Gallery of Ontario
No trip to Toronto would be complete without a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario – 317 Dundas Street West. It’s an easy walk from the Hilton. While it is all excellent, I was fortunate to see the Story of Negotiation exhibition by Belgian-born, Francis Alÿs. The exhibition is a mix of journalism-turned-art. His REEL-UNREEL (2011) is a wry look at the depiction of the war in Afghanistan in the eyes of the Western media.
As a degreed journalist, I LOVED this exhibit as it reflected what we see in main-stream media does not reflect reality. I quite liked his ‘color bars’. You remember what you saw at the end of the night when your station goes ‘off-the-air’? Those color bars on top of a black screen? It meant transmission was done for the night, right? But in reality, it’s not done. Life, turmoil, continues – you just don’t see it. He juxtaposes these bars in front of provocative images suggesting what you see is not the real story. Really thought-provoking.
Street Art on Graffiti Alley
While you can find street art all over the city, the most epic and condensed can been seen strolling down a kilometer-long alley way called, Graffiti Alley in Toronto’s Fashion District. It runs south of Queen Street West from Spadina Ave to Portland Street on Rush Lane. While the mayor has tried to crack down on graffiti, the art community has put up a few fingers fighting back with new art appearing almost every day somewhere here or in other hotspots for street art like Kensington Market and Ossington Laneway. It’s a lovely alley of raw art as it’s perceived today. Well done to the artists for continuing to bless these areas with their creativity.
For more unique art that is easy to see and free, head to the Historic Distillery District – which is an historic and entertainment center east of Downtown. There you will find a variety of shops, restaurants and around every corner you will encounter some interesting piece of contemporary art to ponder.
I stumbled upon the Locks of Love. I love things like this. It’s heart-felt. In an effort to impede lovers from weighing down Humber Bridge with sentiments of love, the municipal put up a metal installation spelling ‘Love’ for the amoreux to attach their tokens of emotion. I was wishing I had a lock I could attach for posterity…’Dear Red Room…my love for you will never wane.’ You’ll also find cubes made of padlocks that look more like makeshift benches and you can’t miss the cool brick lanterns hanging above in the El Catrin Restaurant alley. It’s a great place to explore.
Be sure to check these areas out the next time you are in Toronto.