We waited 16 years for the fourth Star Wars movie, nine for Yann Martel's follow to Life of Pi, 15 for Guns 'n' Roses' Chinese Democracy. The payoff for all that anticipation? Meh.
Happily, the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) will not be classed among such disappointments when it opens its doors to the public Saturday evening in downtown Toronto as part of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2012.
A minute's walk from the original home of Sam the Record Man, the centre has been a long time coming. Conceived initially as a modest $8-million revamp to Ryerson University's School of Image Arts on the eastern "shore" of Lake Devo (the reflecting pool on the south side of Gould Street), it was to open in 2007, then 2008, then 2010.
But the impetus for the expansion goes back to 2005 when Ryerson announced it was the lucky recipient of the legendary Black Star Agency photo collection – some 292,000 images in total – plus another $7-million in cash to display the collection in a new photography centre. The donation, valued by some at more than $100-million and still the single largest gift of cultural property ever to a Canadian university, was made anonymously, although sources at the time speculated it came courtesy of the asset-rich Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Foundation, which had reportedly bought the New York-based Black Star collection in 2002 after the agency converted to an all-digital imaging service.
In late 2008, however, Ryerson officials, inspired by a new master plan that cast the university both as agent of urban renewal and public space, decided the School of Image Arts needed more than just a new entrance, gallery and research centre. What was required was a wholesale expansion to turn the school into a global magnet for the collection, study and exhibition of photography of all kinds.
Several construction delays and $71-million later, the elegantly austere design by Toronto's Diamond Schmitt Architects is wrapped in illuminated glass cladding, with 12 huge Black Star portraits of legends such as Andy Warhol and Glenn Gould running along the second-floor facade. It includes a state-of-the-art vault to house the 300,000 prints in Ryerson's collection as well as a recently donated mint-condition cache of every LIFE magazine published between 1936 and 1972. Other highlights include a lecture hall, a "new media" wall, plus three galleries, one dedicated to student work. The largest of the three galleries, 405 square metres of exquisite ash flooring, is home until Dec. 16 to the inaugural exhibition, Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection.
Commissioned and curated by RIC director Doina Popescu and Toronto art historian/curator Peggy Gale, the show features an arresting series of riffs, elaborations and homages of Black Star images by some of Canada's most audacious artists – Stephen Andrews, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Stan Douglas and Vid Ingelevics among them. Douglas perused some 6,000 Black Star images to inspire his Midcentury Studio. In it, he assumes the persona of an agency photojournalist circa 1945-51, recreating, in lustrous oversized prints, the noir-ish big-city imagery popularized by the late Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee). For Losing touch and coming home, Cousineau travelled to Baker Lake, Nunavut, two years ago where she photographed some of the same subjects a German Black Star photographer, Peter Thomas, had documented in 1967.
You might think the centre would emphasize scholarship, say, over collecting. After all, its annual budget is only $1.5-million, exclusive of infrastructure support from Ryerson. But no, Popescu, who came to RIC in 2008 after serving as deputy director of the Goethe-Institut, thinks "we need to unroll the three 'layers' of the centre's work – collecting, research, exhibition – simultaneously. And they need to be unrolled locally, nationally and internationally, also simultaneously. ... The one piece, say, research, doesn't work without the other piece."
Certainly Popescu's not lacking ambition. She wants to see RIC host one major international photography conference each year, preferably in May, to dovetail with Toronto's CONTACT photography festival. She also hopes to "grow the collection to include one-million images." The building has been "constructed in a manner that it could hold two more floors ... There's a dearth of institutions that can take these collections and have the expertise to deal with them."
Regular hours begin Tuesday, Oct. 2. The RIC will be open 11 a.m. ET Tuesday through Friday, 12 noon on Saturdays.
Five to look for at Nuit Blanche
With 150 projects by 500 artists this year, Toronto's Nuit Blanche is a daunting prospect for even the most fleet-footed of art buffs.
WHAT Museum of the Rapture
WHERE Toronto City Hall Underground Parking Garage
Vancouver's ever au courant Douglas Coupland invited Canadians to send him stents, dentures, breast implants, wigs – for "an investigation into what can and cannot be considered you." Visitors pass through "a maze of signage and tableaux vivants that use the notion of the Rapture to embark on an exploration of the separation of mind and body."
WHAT Ou Topos
WHERE Toronto City Hall Underground Parking Garage
Iris Haussler, who twisted minds in 2008 with her He Named her Amber archeology dig/installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario, fills a trailer with cans of food wrapped in lead and concocts a twisty story going back to the Chernobyl disaster to explain how those cans got there.
WHAT The Moth Maze
WHERE Green P Parking Lot, 87 Richmond St. E.
Oliver Husain describes his creation as "a queue management labyrinth ... a combination film and labyrinth." It also includes "a large screen' and bright lights. Go, and go figure.
WHERE CBC Barbara Frum Atrium
Andrew Kearney's Skylum looks like the Hindenburg airship and reportedly the "light-score" on its surface "responds to the proximity and behaviour of the audience around it."
WHAT All Night Convenience
WHERE Bay Adelaide Centre
This Rhonda Weppler-Trevor Mahovsky creation could deliver the perfect Nuit Blanche moment: It's a "life-scale sculptural homage to the common corner store in the form of a 90 sq.-metre lantern," the store shelves filled with 2,000 lanterns in the shapes of sales items.