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Art & Architecture AGO’s Infinity Room exhibit was a hit, but will fans pay for a permanent room?

HELLO TORONTO! How much do you want see the new Yayoi Kusama? I can’t hear you …

Last spring, the answer to the question would have been a deafening roar: 169,000 people lined up to see a Kusama exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario that featured several Infinity Mirror Rooms, little mirrored cabins in which visitors can take pictures of themselves in beautiful vistas of twinkling black space. But today, as the AGO struggles to meet an ambitious crowdfunding target that would bring a $2-million Infinity Mirror Room to Toronto permanently, the fans seemed to have quieted down considerably. Friday, with one week left in the month-long campaign, the AGO had only reached 32 per cent of the goal.

The AGO is using its long mailing list from the exhibition to reach out to people who had bought tickets last spring, promising that anyone who gives $25 will get a sneak peak at the new baby before it’s unveiled to the public. As of Friday afternoon, 3,128 people had contributed, raising about $414,000 toward a $1.3-million goal. (The AGO Foundation is putting up half the price of the $2-million work; the public is being asked to cover the other half plus the costs of bringing it here.)

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Let's Survive Forever by Yayoi Kusama at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Infinity Mirror Room.

Maris Hutchinson/The Canadian Press

To reignite excitement, Friday the AGO released the name and description of the mysterious piece it is buying: Infinity Mirrored Room – Let’s Survive Forever is filled with mirrored orbs and includes a mirrored column to multiply the reflective effects. It is larger than some of Kusama’s other pieces and can hold four people at a time. Kusama makes four copies of each room; another copy of Let’s Survive Forever can be seen at Chicago’s Wndr Museum as part of an experiential exhibition where it is on loan from a private collector.

The AGO, which had launched the fundraising campaign on its own, is now partnering with Giving Tuesday, the charitable giving movement tied to U.S. Thanksgiving, to help raise the rest of the money. An AGO representative confirmed that, with the foundation’s half of the funding secure, the gallery has an agreement with Kusama’s dealer and the room is already being built for Toronto. Asked whether the gallery has made a down payment, Andrea-Jo Wilson said the AGO has a policy of not disclosing details about financial arrangements.

The scale of the AGO’s crowdfunding campaign is without precedent in Canadian museums, which tend to rely on private donors to buy art, and its slow start suggests that the hype over the Kusama exhibition in Toronto may have been just that – rather than a deep engagement with the artist’s work. The three-month exhibition that opened in March was a thorough retrospective of the Japanese artist’s career since she emerged as an experimental artist on the New York scene in the 1960s. It argued convincingly that she was an important figure whose innovation had often been overlooked and whose idiosyncratic art persisted thematically from pop through to contemporary installation. It placed her current popularity in the serious context of an interactive art that specifically addressed issues of self and community. It seems doubtful, however, that many visitors had time to grasp the curatorial argument: Only three visitors at a time were allowed a mere 20-second stay in each Infinity Room and lining up to get inside all six in the show would have taken well over an hour.

Phalli's Field by Yayoi Kusama at the Infinity Mirror Room.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The success of the Kusama show may be an example of the blockbuster or festival phenomenon where audiences respond very strongly to an exciting moment on the arts scene – and to the pressure of a deadline – without necessarily forming a long-term commitment to an institution or an art form. It’s the same psychology that sees the ranks of museum membership only temporarily inflated by big-ticket shows or that makes it easy for TIFF to attract people to the September film festival but harder to build a year-round audience for its programming at the Bell Lightbox.

Were Torontonians merely infatuated? They have one week to prove that Kusama has made a permanent impression.

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