The Design Exchange’s august front entrance – the Art Deco facade of the old Toronto Stock Exchange – faces Bay Street, one of the most famous avenues in the country. But the foot traffic out front is nothing compared with the crowds that flow past the design museum’s back door, which links to Toronto’s underground PATH system. Thousands of office workers stream through the PATH labyrinth every day, yet during one recent lunchtime, the stairway up to the Design Exchange was as empty as the DX itself.
Though Shauna Levy doesn’t mention that stairway, it symbolizes the brief she received when she took over as Design Exchange (DX) president in March. What would it take to get those people to come upstairs? Probably not more displays like the one in the lobby when I visited: a lucid but geeky show about a structural item known to architects and engineers as the Universal Pin Connector.
“The institution had a bit of an identity crisis,” says Levy, who before her new gig was founding director of the long-running Interior Design Show. “On the one hand, it was meant to serve the design and architectural trade, and on the other hand, it was meant to be for the public.”
Those joint purposes came to be in the late eighties, when a posse of designers and interested citizens lobbied the city for a centre of design that could get industry and the general public to think more about design as a cultural and economic force. According to the 1987 feasibility study by consultants Lord Cultural Resources, good design may be worth up to 50 per cent of a country’s trade advantage in finished goods. That was potent news in a country still trying to build an economy based on more than oil and lumber. The city approved the plan and gave the not-for-profit Design Exchange a 99-year lease on the two restored floors of the old Exchange building that were designated as the heritage component of Cadillac Fairview’s Ernst & Young Tower.
The funding was to be (and still is) mainly private, with a $500,000 annual operating grant from Cadillac Fairview that more or less covers the cost of maintaining the space. Realizing the founders’ vision at the bricks-and-mortar institution that opened on Bay Street in 1994 turned out to be a difficult task. The DX’s reliance on private funding and sponsorships sometimes made it seem too beholden to manufacturers, some of whom were inclined to see the DX exhibition space as a secondary showroom. (That complaint surfaced in the Globe’s review of the very first show in 1994.) Half of the DX’s $3-million budget comes from space rentals, which has made the DX better known as a cool party venue than as a place for learning about innovative design.
“There’s always been a lot of potential here, but because the mission wasn’t clear, it was challenging to communicate what the DX was,” Levy says. “That made it harder to secure sponsorships and corporate buy-ins, and to generate strong attendance.”
With the annual Cadillac Fairview grant due to expire in 2014, Lord Cultural Resources was called back in to help rethink the basis of operations last year. The consultants suggested event rentals should no longer be seen to drive the bus, and the board hired Levy in a bid to make the place more of a design museum, and more attractive to the public.
“There’s a seamless integration between culture and commerce that can uniquely happen in a design museum,” Levy says. Her plan to make that happen more often at the DX includes opening the second-level trading floor to exhibitions, redesigning the somewhat incoherent lobby space and being more crafty about squeezing revenue from rentals and gift-shop sales.
Her first exhibition, in January, marks a departure from the intense trade focus of the Universal Pin Connector display. The Happy Show by Stefan Sagmeister, an Austrian-born graphic designer known for album covers for the Rolling Stones (Bridges to Babylon) and David Byrne (Feelings), is a personal multimedia exploration of what happiness is or could be. The show originated last spring at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art – one of several international exhibition partners Levy is courting.
In June, a 20-year survey of the work of French shoemaker Christian Louboutin is guaranteed to make a splash. The show drew more than 900 visitors per day during two months last spring at London’s Design Museum.
“The Louboutin exhibition is a way to talk about the luxury end of the design story,” Levy says. The Bata Shoe Museum had no room or time in its schedule for the show, says Bata curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, but will participate with talks and other supporting events.
Levy’s ambitious three-year exhibition plan will see an emphasis on visiting shows through 2013, projects with guest curators in 2014 and more in-house curating and a design festival in 2015. The DX board has also approved an international expansion of its small collection, which until now has focused exclusively on Canadian design since 1945 and which Levy is showing on a rotating basis.
How the design trade will react is yet to be seen. Cathy Jonasson, a former vice-president of Bruce Mau Design and principal of StudioLAB, wonders if Toronto really needs another museum, but sees a supporting lesson in big-tent phenomena like Nuit Blanche.
“People want to be engaged with something that has a profile, that is event-driven,” Jonasson says, “and that’s what Shauna has been involved with in the past.” Odds are that her future at DX will follow suit.
Editor's note: The Toronto Design Exchange Exhibit contained 30 projects including the Universal Pin Connector. The story did not describe the full extent of the show.