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Since its opening in 1984, Toronto's Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art has been regarded as a "minor" cultural and tourist attraction. All of two storeys tall, its pink granite exterior was a paragon of discreet modernity, sitting back from the sidewalk directly across from the behemoth that is the Royal Ontario Museum. Billed as the only Canadian museum dedicated to the exhibition of fine ceramic art, its cozy confines each year would host crowds in the mid-to-low five digits. It was, in short, more passed by than entered into.

All that begins to change this week, thanks to the imminent completion of a $20-million renovation and expansion. Yesterday, assorted media types, benefactors and government officials attended a preview of the new Gardiner, which opens to the public on Friday at 10 a.m. on an admission-by-donation basis. (A more formal admission regime will be in place in September when all the museum's galleries are fully installed.)

"Elegant," "expansive yet intimate," "uncluttered," "airy," "sophisticated minimalism" were just some of the descriptors on people's lips yesterday as they took in the Gardiner's inviting limestone-and-glass façade and roamed among the roughly 10,000 square feet of new public space added by Toronto's award-winning Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects.

Of course, museums these days don't -- or can't -- survive solely on the merits of their collections, something the new Gardiner, which has a permanent collection of more than 3,000 objets, is supremely conscious of.

The most (politely) blatant manifestations of this are the expanded gift shop on the museum's main floor and the new, light-filled third-floor built atop the original $6-million design by architect Keith Wagland (who, by the way, recently told KPMB principal Shirley Blumberg that "he was delighted" with what she and her colleagues had wrought).

It's here that the Gardiner has placed a 50-seat restaurant and bar overseen by one of Toronto's super-chefs, Jamie Kennedy, as well as an L-shaped outdoor patio that offers one of the most quietly spectacular views of the core of Canada's largest city.

Observed executive director Alexandra Montgomery: "We really want to welcome people into the place and have them weave it into their lives. It's not going to be done just through exhibitions but through the amenities we're providing." Part of this welcoming will involve "free admission Fridays" from 4 to 9 p.m., with the first Friday of each month being completely admission-free from 10 a.m. to closing.

Originally budgeted at $15-million, the costs of the Gardiner upgrade have crept up by $5-million over the past two years. Right now, Montgomery says the museum is looking for $3-million to complete the project. Like the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Opera Company -- the so-called "big guys" in Toronto's much-heralded cultural renaissance -- the Gardiner has been a beneficiary of the capital-assistance programs of the federal and Ontario governments, receiving a commitment of $2.5-million from each of those jurisdictions in May, 2002.

More recently, the Ontario government agreed to give it $1-million in "top-up" funding, and yesterday the province's new Culture Minister, Caroline di Cocco, announced a $100,000 donation from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund to help lure visitors to the Gardiner.

Meanwhile, as with the other cultural capital projects currently under way in Toronto, the museum awaits word from Stephen Harper's government as to whether it will be investing additional dollars. The Gardiner is hoping for $1-million more.

At yesterday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, federal representatives were decidedly conspicuous by their absence -- the result, one supposes, of being a minority government running a still-sitting House of Commons. Nevertheless, a letter by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty "praising the elegance and efficiency of the design" was read out near the end of the ceremony as were similarly toned missives from Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda and Tony Clement, the Conservative minister responsible for Toronto affairs.

Globe and Mail architecture critic Lisa Rochon will critique the new Gardiner building in Saturday's Weekend Review.