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Art & Architecture Kate Taylor: Why Toronto’s Aga Khan Park risks becoming a white elephant

Around five on Tuesday afternoon, the northbound traffic on the Don Valley Parkway at Eglinton Avenue was almost stationary. The southbound lanes, however, were flowing nicely, fast enough to emit a continuous roar that could be heard from the newly inaugurated Aga Khan Park. But as I walked along the southern perimeter of the park, with the cool granite exterior of the Aga Khan Museum to my left and the smoggy DVP to my right, a bird began to sing in one of the newly planted trees that may one day help obscure both the view and the noise of the highway.

Will the delights of this place eventually outweigh its disadvantages? Let's hope so, because this rich museum and its gracious park bear many of the characteristics of a white elephant.

The chief delight of the development is the museum's permanent collection, a selection of historic Islamic art drawn from the family holdings of the Aga Khan, the European billionaire businessman and noted humanitarian who is the 49th hereditary leader of the Ismaili Muslim community. The collection includes magnificent pieces of Persian ceramics dating back as early as the 10th century, a selection of fine Indian miniatures from the 1500s and 1600s and a few rare Asian robes that had miraculously survived for centuries, as well as illuminated copies of the Quran, decorated tiles and handwoven rugs.

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The museum has good international connections and also offers first-rate temporary exhibitions: It started out last September with an impressive show of current Pakistani art that dispelled any notion this institution was not attuned to living culture. Right now, it has a nice collection of Mughal miniatures and paintings on loan from Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum and, in June, thanks to a loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum, it is opening a show of historical Western paintings that includes images of Asian carpets.

I wonder if Canadians understand what a huge compliment was paid to this country when the Aga Khan Development Network, to which the museum belongs, decided to locate the new institution here and move the collection, which had been housed in Geneva and London, to Toronto. The decision is testament to the gratitude Ismailis feel toward Canada for welcoming them as immigrants after many were driven from East Africa in the 1970s. Speaking at the inauguration of the park Tuesday, the Aga Khan told a joke about the visitor to an Ismaili home in Canada who was surprised to find a photo of Idi Amin on the wall. The explanation was that the family thanked the Ugandan dictator every day for sending them to Canada.

And yet if Canadians are to understand the importance of this gesture, they have to get themselves out to Don Mills and pay $20 for an adult admission, plus $3.50 an hour for parking. It's a long trip from downtown Toronto – a trip that will be slightly easier for tourists when the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line finally opens in 2020, but right now is best done by private car. Twenty bucks is a hefty price tag, on par with the Art Gallery of Ontario and higher than the Royal Ontario Museum, both of which offer much larger collections. Sure, every parent in the GTA has made the pilgrimage to the nearby Ontario Science Centre but the Aga Khan Museum offers a specialized collection of more interest to connoisseurs than kindergarteners.

Since the museum opened last September, 85,000 people have visited: that's a strong showing, several times the number that currently visit the downtown Gardiner Museum of ceramic arts across the street from the ROM, but you would expect a lot of interest in a first year. The museum will have to work hard to get repeat visits and, since February, has started offering free admission Wednesday evenings and extended special invitations to its neighbours in Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, many of whom would not be expected to have extra money for museum-going.

My hope, after a visit on a rainy day last fall, was that the new park that links the museum with the Ismaili community centre that shares the site, was going to make this elegant place feel that much more welcoming. Landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic has designed a serene central space of reflecting pools and wide gravel pathways with narrow treed alleyways at its sides; the edges of the site are occupied by more conventional parkland with grass and benches.

It's a beautiful achievement, but it took its inspiration from famed Islamic gardens in India and Spain – that is, from warmer climates. What he has created will feel like an oasis for those few months of the year when it does not feel like a steppe. I picture January winds buffeting those few hardy art lovers who know the Aga Khan Museum is worth the drive to Don Mills.

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