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MoCCA artistic director and curator David Liss saw beyond the Sterling Road building’s decrepit state. (Peter Power For The Globe and Mail)
MoCCA artistic director and curator David Liss saw beyond the Sterling Road building’s decrepit state. (Peter Power For The Globe and Mail)

Toronto’s MoCCA gets a new home, in an old space Add to ...

Over the years, while pedalling his bicycle southeast toward his job at a repurposed textile factory near the intersection of Toronto’s Queen Street West and Shaw Street, David Liss occasionally would glance at the 10-storey former factory just north of the giant Nestlé Canada chocolate plant on Sterling Road. “Hey,” he’d think as he whizzed by, “that’d be a cool place for a gallery.”

True, the Tower Automotive Building was graffiti-tagged, pigeon-infested, fetid and begrimed, and many of its windows had been shattered since bankruptcy closed its doors as an auto-parts factory in 2006. Rubble, too, littered its perimeter. But with a height of almost 60 metres and a gracefully proportioned exterior of indented brown brick, buff-coloured concrete pilasters and mullioned glass, the building easily lived up to its name.

Opened as a manufacturing plant by Northern Aluminum Co. Ltd. in 1919, it dominated and continues to dominate the funky semi-industrial neighbourhood on downtown Toronto’s western outskirts, much like the famous cement monolith on the cover of the Who’s classic Who’s Next recording from 1971.

David Liss, artistic director and curator, walks with board member Christina Zeidler outside the future new home of MoCCA at 158 Sterling Rd. (Photos by Peter Power for The Globe and Mail)

Now Liss’s seeming offhand thought is about to become reality. On Tuesday this week, the trend-setting Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, of which Liss has been director and curator for close to 15 years, signed a binding memorandum of understanding that will see MoCCA occupy the first two-and-a-half floors of a renovated Tower Automotive Building in late 2016 or early 2017. The cost of MoCCA’s portion of the renovation is estimated at $6-million.

Announced Friday, the deal with Castlepoint Numa developers represents the successful culmination of some six years of meetings, discussions and negotiations the museum conducted with 47 developers and property owners.

It’s a slog being contemplated and, in some instances, undertaken by art and cultural institutions in large cities elsewhere in the country, cities where sky-high real estate prices often are a hard ceiling to even modest ambition. The MoCCA deal will almost triple the 990 square metres the museum has occupied at Queen and Shaw since 2005. Expectations, in fact, are high that, over the course of its 20-year lease with Castlepoint (which includes renewal options totalling another 20 years), MoCCA could see its presence expand to as much as 5,400 square metres on the site. In other words, big enough, physically and metaphorically, to realize the national “boast” of its name.

Mark Savoia, MoCCA communications, takes photos during a tour of the Tower Automotive Building.

“We’re looking at this as our permanent home, for all intents and purposes,” a happy Liss said the other day. He was happy not just with relief but with what the Tower deal provides. A facility in Canada’s largest city within walking distance of two streetcar lines, two stops on the Bloor-Danforth subway and a GO station, among other transportation nodes. Placement in a neighbourhood already home or becoming home to artists and galleries. A dramatic street-level main-floor entry zone of 900 square metres, with a ceiling almost five metres high, that will house a boutique, café, rotating exhibition space for works from MoCCA’s 400-piece permanent collection and “a social space” suitable for talks, performances and screenings.

The second floor, also 900 square metres, is, at this stage at least, dedicated to new exhibitions and possibly the thematic presentation of contemporary works from the National Gallery of Canada, a MoCCA partner since 2010. Meanwhile, 450 square metres of the third floor are being allocated for MoCCA’s offices (talks are under way about MoCCA leasing the other 450), plus the museum will have access to a ground-level outdoor plaza on Tower’s west side for programming and installations.

Observes Castlepoint president Alfredo Romano: “They will virtually own the first three floors … and the first thing any visitor to the building will experience is the MoCCA presence.”

MoCCA will occupy the first two-and-a-half floors of the renovated Tower Automotive Building in late 2016 or early 2017.

The exterior of Tower Automotive, granted heritage designation by the city in 2005, will be restored by Castlepoint in association with Toronto’s ERA Architects. The interiors of the first three floors, by contrast, will have to be brought up to museum-level standards, with appropriate humidity, lighting and temperature controls. The architect for the renovation will be Peter Clewes, best known for his design of condominiums in inner-city Toronto.

Necessity is the prompt for MoCCA’s relocation. Founded as the Art Gallery of North York in 1993 and housed in what was then the North York Performing Arts Centre (later Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, now Toronto Centre for the Arts), it became a not-for-profit, arms-length agency of the city of Toronto in the wake of North York’s 1998 amalgamation with Toronto.

Liss, former director/curator of the Gallery of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts in Montreal, took over the reins in 2000. Upon MoCCA’s eviction from its northern suburban site in 2002, he set about finding a new home, this time in the heart of downtown Toronto. The protracted search finally ended in January of 2005 when the city, on MoCCA’s behalf, signed a 10-year lease for its current home at Queen West and Shaw. The city also chipped in $500,000 to bring the location up to museum standards while committing to an annual support package of $332,000, including $148,000 for rent. In short order, Liss made MoCCA at once a popular and serious fixture in the hip cultural hotbed that by this time was being called West Queen West. In fact, when Vogue magazine last year named West Queen West the second-hippest neighbourhood on the planet, the first institution cited in the celebratory blurb was MoCCA.

The interiors of the first three floors will have to be brought up to museum-level standards, with appropriate humidity, lighting and temperature controls.

Liss, however, couldn’t afford to rest on these laurels. In 2012, MoCCA had new owners, a consortium of developers who told the museum it should be prepared to vacate its premises in spring 2014. Liss already had been casting around for new digs – “A 10-year lease for an art institution means you’re either hoping for a lease renewal or looking for a new place pretty much from the day you sign” – but the warnings of the new owners proved an especially sharp prod.

The hope, of course, was that MoCCA’s new home would be larger, permanent and a standalone, one with strong street presence and proximity to public transit. But it didn’t take long for Liss and his board, chaired by Julia Ouellette, to realize that, with an annual operating budget of $1.2-million, “in a property market as competitive, overheated and expensive as Toronto’s, we didn’t have $50-million to start going around to the few empty plots in downtown Toronto to make a play against the big guys.”

Keen nevertheless to heighten its autonomy, MoCCA in August of 2012 recast itself as an independent charity, transforming its board of advisers into a board of directors. MoCCA Corp., as the new entity was called, subsequently caught a break when the owners of the Queen West location throttled back on plans for a nine-storey, 151-unit condominium and, as they adjusted their proposal, agreed to extend MoCCA’s lease to the end of August, 2015. Another break: To help ease MoCCA’s move to independence and new quarters, the city quietly increased the museum’s annual operating allocation by $100,000 for calendar years 2012 through 2014.

The building opened as a manufacturing plant by Northern Aluminum Co. Ltd. in 1919.

Liss actually had met with Castlepoint’s Romano around 2009 as he began his rounds to find a sympatico developer who might be prepared to find – or make – room for a modest-but-resourceful not-for-profit art institution. Discussions at this time centred on land Castlepoint had in east Toronto near the shores of Lake Ontario. Tower Automotive was mentioned as well, Castlepoint having bought it in 2008 as part of a larger 3.2-hectare parcel shaped rather like the bottom end of a hockey stick as devised by a jigsaw-puzzle maker. Castlepoint and the building’s previous owner, Rio Tinto Alcan, were in the process of spending “many millions” to remediate the lands adjacent to Tower to make them fit for redevelopment. Romano’s initial vision was to use a revamped Tower as the hub for a large film studio campus built in association with Pinewood U.K.

When this fell through (Castlepoint and Pinewood eventually partnered in the eastern portlands), Castlepoint looked to turning Tower Automotive into a mixed-use development, fiercely courting game developer Ubisoft as the site’s key tenant. This scenario failed, too, so Romano next proposed reinventing Tower as a condominium high rise, leaving the ground floor for commercial development but adding three new storeys on its top as penthouses.

Though a hit with wannabe condo dwellers (“We sold out all the proposed units,” Romano reports), the scheme raised the ire of nearby Nestlé Canada. It feared condo owners in the Tower building and residents in a planned series of adjacent mixed-use structures would press for expensive environmental upgrades to its 24/7 Aero/KitKat/Smarties/Coffee Crisp factory. “More condos mean fewer good jobs,” read one Nestlé flyer.

Consultant Doug Simpson locks up his bicycle outside the building. In May this year, MoCCA hired Simpson, senior managing director of NetGain cultural consultants, as its project manager.

The dispute lasted for almost two years before being settled in May last year. The result? Castlepoint abandoned its plan to condominiumize Tower Automotive; instead, the restored building would “support new commercial and office uses targeted towards the arts and digital media sectors.” Six other towers dedicated to “new office, retail, cultural and commercial [uses]” would be built in proximity to Tower. None, however, would be taller than the landmark former factory which, during the Second World War, produced fuselages, helmets, bullets and bayonets for the Allies.

With the settlement, Castlepoint and MoCCA quickly reconnected and by fall 2014, talks were in earnest about putting the museum into Tower Automotive. (In May this year, MoCCA went on to hire Doug Simpson, senior managing director of NetGain cultural consultants, as its project manager.) Of course, during Castlepoint’s hassle with Nestlé, MoCCA had continued to meet with other developers; indeed, in late 2013, it came very close to inking a deal for a place in the city’s rapidly gentrifying, decidedly youthful Liberty Village district.

Today Romano likes to wax philosophic about how things are turning out. “I have to be honest with you: It’s a bit of a silver lining that we did not proceed with the condos. Quite frankly, the building as a commercial operation is better than a private residence for the community, better for the site and better for our development, as an identifier, as an icon, as a robust building that will draw lots of activity.”

“Ironically, we have to thank Nestlé because MoCCA would not occur in this building if it wasn’t for their objection. It would have a different character and life. It may still have had some ground-floor activity of a more commercial orientation but MoCCA would not have been possible in that configuration.”

Consultant Doug Simpson rides away from the building. MoCCA's new space will almost triple the 990 square metres the museum has occupied at Queen and Shaw since 2005.

MoCCA, in the meantime, has hired a consultant on fundraising and capital campaign planning, although “no target figure has been determined at this moment,” says Liss. MoCCA’s Queen West location will go dark in late August; and while the museum has no plans to relocate to a temporary location in the next 18 or 20 months, it does intend to mount short-term “pop-up” exhibitions around the city, perhaps in properties controlled by Castlepoint or in partnership with other cultural institutions it’s collaborated with previously, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Power Plant and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Of more immediate concern to Liss is installing the last-ever show to be held at MoCCA’s Queen West locale. Opening June 25, Dean Baldwin: QWYC is described as “a multi-faceted project” orchestrated by the Montreal artist that will include “dinners, performances, screenings and related events” using materials salvaged from MoCCA Queen West and adjacent neighbourhoods. It’s intended, a MoCCA release declares, to “mark the end of one era and the beginning of another … [to spark] critical thinking about the role and function of museums and MoCCA’s future.”

This is the first in a planned series of articles about the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s move to a permanent home in Toronto. Dean Baldwin: QWYC, the last exhibition at MoCCA’s current space at 952 Queen St. W., Toronto closes Aug. 23. Also June 25-Aug. 23: Daily screenings of the 2007 satirical video Drama Queens by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, organized in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada.

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