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The Canadian National Exhibition removes a Hercules statue for restoration.Chris Donovan

Hercules, fresh from killing the Nemean lion, lies prone on a flatbed trailer inside a building at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, the hide of the monster still draped across his arm.

While the fabled beast’s skin was supposedly impenetrable, this Hercules – a 4½ tonne, 11-foot-tall limestone sculpture – is not. The statue is marred by cracks and missing chunks that Exhibition Place officials blame on water damage sustained after sand was piled around its base, trapping moisture too close to Hercules’s stone feet. So with the help of a crane, the son of Zeus was hauled indoors in December for repairs.

“He’s laid out like he’s in the morgue,” says Kathy Sutton, the daughter of Toronto sculptor E.B. Cox, who created Hercules and a group of 19 other Greek-myth-themed works in the early 1960s. Ms. Sutton says she fears her father’s work "has been ruined, basically, because it was not looked after.”

This city-owned collection – known as The Garden of the Greek Gods – had been on public display at Exhibition Place since the late 1970s, climbed on by children at the Canadian National Exhibition each summer in its home behind the glass-domed Horticulture Building. But now it is fenced off and largely forgotten – and, Ms. Sutton says, effectively held hostage. For years, she and a small group of supporters have been campaigning to have her father’s art restored to public view, in a battle not unlike Hercules’s own mythological struggle with the nine-headed Hydra. It’s a fight that for many raises questions about how Toronto cares for its trove of public art.

Other public art by Mr. Cox , who died in 2003 at 89, is scattered across Toronto. His life and career, which included canoeing with members of the Group of Seven and later carving their tombstones, was commemorated at a memorial service in 2004, held at the feet of Hercules.

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This city-owned collection – known as The Garden of the Greek Gods – had been on public display at Exhibition Place since the late 1970s, climbed on by children at the Canadian National Exhibition each summer in its home behind the glass-domed Horticulture Building.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Sutton, a 67-year-old retired research technician at the Department of National Defence, says her father – who once boasted that his sculptures would outlast Rembrandt’s paintings – wanted the Greek gods accessible to all.

The saga of how this collection of public art, which also includes plump renderings of the love goddess Aphrodite and the snake-haired Medusa, ended up stranded inside a gated patio begins in the early 2000s. Cash-strapped, city-owned Exhibition Place was looking to the private sector to help keep its many dilapidated heritage buildings from falling down. In 2004, the fairgrounds leased out the Horticulture Building in a 20-year deal, with the place soon reborn as the nightclub Muzik, frequented by celebrities ranging from Justin Bieber to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Not much changed until around 2014, when Muzik-operator Zlatko Starkovski renovated the building’s back patio and installed three swimming pools among the statues, raising alarms for Ms. Sutton, who feared the collection would be harmed by the landscaping work. In 2015, a stone conservator warned that some of the art was damaged and at risk of further decay, and Exhibition Place officials commissioned onsite repairs.

Mr. Starkovski, who rebranded his business the Toronto Event Centre after a double shooting at Muzik in 2015, now runs a Saturday-night “supper club” at the site. He says he is tired of being portrayed as the villain in the story of the Greek gods. He denies the art was damaged at all and points out that it is explicitly included in his 20-year lease. He also says he designed his patio and its pools around the statues, and that taking them away from him without compensation would simply be unfair.

“She [Ms. Sutton] should be thankful for what we are doing and how we protect them,” Mr. Starkovski said. “If they were out there [instead of behind his fence], they would be cracked and spray-painted.”

While he denies he is holding the art hostage, he has been seeking a rewrite of his lease to allow him to host more lucrative banquets, and a 10-year lease extension, which he says he needs to recoup his investment. In 2017, Mr. Starkovksi brought in Joe Pantalone, the former city councillor, Ex board chairman and mayoral candidate, to negotiate a deal on the Greek gods, offering to hand over four statues right away, with the rest to follow when the lease was extended.

Ms. Sutton refused to bless any such agreement: “That’s really like a hostage situation, isn’t it?”

Mr. Pantalone sees it differently. He says Mr. Starkovski was merely “protecting his rights," and that Ms. Sutton was wrong to reject his offer: “If the people who are supporting the Greek statues … understood better the way the world runs, they would be ahead of the game by now.”

Ms. Sutton says Exhibition Place has been negligent and should have rescued Hercules years ago. She now wants the fairgrounds to keep the statue in custody indefinitely. She also says the stone conservator brought in to do the repairs told her this week the statue is permanently damaged, and that even its rescue was done too quickly – with broken pieces of the statue’s base collected in a shopping bag.

But the fairgrounds’ chief executive, Dianne Young, says the Ex did the best it could in rescuing Hercules. She also says the artwork must be returned to Mr. Starkovski once it is repaired – provided he agrees to modifications to his patio to ensure the statue doesn’t suffer any more damage. The other statues, she adds, are not considered at risk. However, after Mr. Starkovski’s lease expires in 2024, the plan is to move all the statues to a new, publicly accessible home near the grounds’ Rose Garden, at a cost of about $500,000.

Ms. Sutton says that’s too long to wait. Both she and some councillors at city hall question how the Muzik lease included the art in the first place. Ms. Young says the Ex board and city council approved the deal at the time but acknowledges that leasing the public art to a private tenant “maybe wasn’t the best direction.” Mr. Pantalone, who was Ex board chairman from 2004 to 2010, says it was his predecessor, Mario Silva, who oversaw the deal, although Mr. Pantalone did sign off on it. Mr. Silva, a former Liberal MP, says it was all done on Mr. Pantalone’s watch.

The mess has now landed in the lap of local councillor Joe Cressy, newly appointed to a seat on the Exhibition Place board. He says he wants to start fresh, but suggests that Mr. Starkovski should simply turn over the art as a gesture of goodwill.

“It’s fair to say these historic sculptures never should have been part of the lease, but they were, and that was an oversight and a mistake at the time,” Mr. Cressy said. “… My hope is that the sculptures can be freed before the end of the lease, so they can be enjoyed by all as they were meant to be.”

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