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Toronto Tony Gagliano, the unlikely messiah behind Luminato

Tony Gagliano, head of St. Joseph's Communications and president of the Art Gallery of Ontario is photographed at the AGO's Galleria.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Even good Catholics feel the need to knock on wood sometimes, and fortunately, Luminato chair Tony Gagliano is surrounded by it. The Galleria Italia at the AGO that he was instrumental in creating is filled with the stuff: those massive curved beams of Douglas fir visible from well across Dundas Street, a hollowed-out cedar tree shaped by Arte Povera sculptor Giuseppe Penone, even the twisted Frank Gehry chair he's leaning against are all available to ward off Luminato's last-minute outbursts of unexpectedness.

Mr. Gagliano has just come to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he serves as president of the board, from a two-hour meeting in the Luminato offices, where he's been informed of some last-minute changes to the festival programming, the result of a late $2.5-million grant from the federal government. Though the news is good, the surprise element still unnerves him.

"There are always going to be a few surprises," says the soft-spoken 51-year-old chief executive officer of St. Joseph Communications, a man whose instinct on voicing the s-word is to look around for some knockable wood. "But on the whole, it's going well."

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The ever-calm and optimistic Mr. Gagliano helped create Luminato, but not necessarily in his own image, even if Luminato CEO Janice Price sometimes refers to him as "the messiah." The 10-day arts festival now filling Toronto's theatres, concert halls, parks, squares and atria prides itself on being unpredictable: You don't invite the willfully opinionated Rufus Wainwright to be a headliner if you like to everything to go according to plan.

But as the ultimate overseer of Toronto's artistic impulse, Mr. Gagliano likes things to go according to plan; the last thing he wants is for reality to fall short of his boundless promises and dreams.

In many ways, four-year-old Luminato is an exercise in barely controlled chaos, the kind of festival you get when you go huge from the beginning by trying to position Toronto as a place where the spectacular is the norm: A giant red ball becomes a moveable artwork that turns up at Old City Hall one day, squeezed under a Harbourfront bridge the next. A canopy of colour-changing balloons hovers above a dance floor at Yonge-Dundas Square, where part of the art involves giving thousands of people instant dance lessons. Guitarists assemble from far and wide to play Neil Young's Helpless in an attempt to set the en masse guitar-playing world record (they fell short by 179 - a rare Luminato flub).

Which makes the subdued Tony Gagliano an odd fit for Luminato for those who see him as just the business-plan, due-diligence kind of guy who finds the funds, tidies up artistic messes behind the scenes and is at his most genial when things are going just as expected.

Don't be fooled. He's a suit by profession and an organization man by upbringing, but the stereotypical divide between art and business doesn't work with Tony Gagliano. "I'm very hard to pigeonhole," he says in his matter-of-fact way, and because he's an observant Catholic, the self-description lacks the prideful tone other people might bring to it.

Yet the stereotypes abound when your name is Gagliano. It's fundamental to the Toronto Italian experience that people have been making assumptions about you all your life, that they can fit you to too-easy generalizations about what it means to be the seventh of 10 children of poor Sicilian immigrants, someone who helped turn his father's basement print shop at St. Clair and Dufferin into a 2,000-employee communications business based in Concord, Ont. When he bought Toronto Life magazine from publisher Michael de Pencier in 2002, or ascended up the AGO board seemingly out of nowhere, at least by the old Establishment standards, Mr. Gagliano inevitably attracted his share of "Who is the guy?" responses. But if he feels any resentment against the old regimes, he doesn't show it: Doing good is the best revenge.

"Public recognition is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about," he says. "Here's what I'm looking for: I want to live a successful life, I want to do it as part of a successful organization and I want to be living in a successful city. In my personal life, I see that I'm a better person because of the involvement I have with so many of these different missions."

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Missions - note the word. What's especially intriguing about his artistic good works is how closely they manage to mesh with his more traditional values. Luminato is meant to be exuberant and energetically in your face, whereas Tony Gagliano is understated and low-key almost to the point of self-effacement - the classic good listener who absorbs the ideas of people around him.

"Italians have this wonderful expression, testa giu, keep your head down," says Roberto Martella of Grano restaurant and a Luminato board member. "And that's characteristic of Tony: Keep your head down, keep doing what you're doing, turn the other cheek and don't draw attention to yourself."

He's not an operatic Italian by any means. "He doesn't feel the need to impress anyone," says Charles Baillie, the former CEO of TD Bank Financial Group who fixed on Mr. Gagliano to be his successor as AGO president. "The ideas bubble out if you ask him something, but he doesn't feel the need to say anything unless there's a reason to say it."

But then that's consistent with the first waves of Toronto's immigrant culture, where the imperatives of hard work often suppressed the more frivolous side of self-expression.

"He carries this huge sense of responsibility and discipline," adds Mr. Martella, who presided over the lunch where Mr. Gagliano and the late David Pecaut first started talking about Luminato as a cultural Olympics that would revive Toronto after the 2003 SARS crisis. "He comes from this huge Catholic family of 10 children, and even though he wasn't the eldest son, he was expected to become chairman of the company."

At the age of five, Mr. Gagliano was helping his father Gaetano turn out flyers and wedding invitations in the print shop below the family's cramped living space on Dufferin Street. Some 45 years later, he still serves his father, whom he describes as "one of the most determined men on the face of the Earth," by helping to run Salt + Light Television, the religious cable channel the elder Gagliano created in 2003 to bring Catholics closer to their faith. At 92, he still appears on his own talk show, which features a fervent, sometimes fire-and-brimstone approach to spreading the Word by exhorting Catholics to serve their God and renew their faith. It's his name, alongside his wife's, that is pointedly commemorated on the Gagliano plaque marking the family members' contribution to the building of the airy Galleria Italia sculpture promenade.

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"You can't underestimate what the city's embrace of Tony and his family means to him," says AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum. "The city embraced his father and his mother when they came from Italy. It allowed them to have a good life and now he wants to give back."

Giving back through the arts can be challenging for a pious, traditionalist Catholic. Mr. Gagliano's faith is grounded in family values, and he's bound to share his Church's awkwardness with homosexuality, for example - Luminato's Queer Diva Night at Dundas Square may not have been his idea of high art. Yet Ms. Price says that he's flexible in his understanding of Luminato's wide-ranging mandate.

"He's always asking us, 'Is it excellent? Is it recognized as an important or credible work?'"

"I learned early on in my career to separate church and state," says Mr. Gagliano. "If you take a look at the articles printed in Toronto Life magazine, clearly they're not informed by religion, nor should they be. When I look at the work I do with Luminato and the AGO, to me that's work about city-building and creativity."

Yet for Mr. Martella, Mr. Gagliano is markedly different from many cultural philanthropists "because he can see the transcendent possibility of art. It's not just a spectacle, but something that can transform your life."

His personal taste is hardly radical - Tony Bennett was the star performer at St. Joseph's 50th anniversary celebrations, though friends say that was as much a tribute to his family and their heritage. But the Luminato programmers were surprised to see how moved he was by the precise choreography of the Netherlands Dance Theatre, and how enthusiastic he was about recommending Robert Lepage's challenging nine-hour epic Lipsynch.

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To Mr. Martella, the excitement is palpable and refreshing in a CEO-fundraiser. "It's not just the usual platitudes about how art is good for business or how many people are employed in the arts industries. Instead, it's about, 'How can the arts contribute to the creation of a new identity for Toronto when most of the people who live in the city weren't born here?'"

And that, in a sense, is his own story, the point where faith meets family and community in the new and different way we now call diversity. That's where the evangelical streak in soft-spoken Tony Gagliano finally shows through, the personal expression of passionate belief that won doubters over to daunting projects such as Luminato and the Galleria Italia.

"I've got to tell you something," he says, revealing for a moment the uncertainties that can pursue even the most confident believers. "When David Pecaut and I embarked on this path to Luminato, and said we want to invite the greatest artists in the world to come to this city every year, that we wanted to light up this city to the world, not everybody was in favour of it. And not everybody made it easy for us."

Mr. Gagliano has ensured that the leaders of Toronto's major cultural institutions are represented on Luminato's advisory committee. And even so, Mr. Teitelbaum, who's one of his biggest supporters, can say that "we're still working out what the appropriate role of the visual arts should be in the festival. We all know we have to get to the next level, we're thinking about it, and we're going cautiously."

The intriguing consequence of that statement is how it makes the restrained Tony Gagliano sound so much more like the impassioned artistic messiah, the man who might lead you places where it's risky to go.

"What's extraordinary about Tony," says Janice Price, "is how his personal story ended up expressing itself in this eclectic festival where these esoteric and edgy art forms are side by side with the public mainstream performances. Tony talks about other people having taken a big leap of faith to accept Luminato. But I see Tony as having taken just as big a leap when we come to the table and tell him, 'You know, Rufus Wainwright has a new opera....'"

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