Ilana Altman is accustomed to working with some of the world's top design firms and art galleries to make great spaces. Now she's tasked with persuading Toronto residents to spend their spare time under a freeway.
As the director of programming for the Bentway, Ms. Altman curates the art, performances and events for this new public space under the Gardiner Expressway between Bathurst Street and Strachan Avenue. She has a unique résumé, graduating from the prestigious Princeton School of Architecture, with experience at firms including Studio Daniel Libeskind and Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York and KPMB Architects in Toronto. Her curatorial experiences are no less impressive, having worked with the Art Gallery of Ontario and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
This is the final weekend for skating at the park, but new events are coming soon under Ms. Altman's direction.
The Bentway launched in January with the opening of the ice-skating trail. How are things going?
The opening was a real testament to the desire for this project in the city. We're estimating about 15,000 people came out for the opening weekend. And it was -35! People didn't necessarily stay for huge amounts of time, because of the weather, but I thought it was really heartening that people came, enjoyed the trail and gave encouraging feedback. Since then, the response has been tremendous. One of my big ambitions for the Bentway is to marry the cultural and recreational aspects of the space. It's great to see people returning, skating and interacting with the art on site.
As the Bentway's director of programming, you have to be plugged in to diverse cultural spheres – everything from sculpture to break-dancing ice skaters to Northern Canadian sound artists – to curate the space. How do you do that?
Our cultural line up is very diverse. So at all times, I'm really focused on meeting and learning about all kinds of artists who are interested in engaging with the city and the site. The other thing is that the Bentway really relies on our many partners, who have deeper roots in each one of these disciplines – so they help us stay abreast of new developments and ensure that the programming is current. For example, we're working with the Contact Photography Festival on a project for May that will inaugurate the trail as something other than a skate trail – as an outdoor art gallery.
You have an unusual background. You're trained as an architect, but have cultural experience at major institutions such as SFMOMA and the AGO. How do your experiences shape your work at the Bentway?
I'm trained as an architect, but I've always had a somewhat unconventional practice, where I've always worked between design and curation. I am very lucky, in that when I was working in New York, I was working for an architecture firm called Diller Scofidio + Renfro that never questioned whether we should be taking on certain kind of projects as architects. At all times, we were working on exhibitions, installations and performance pieces. And it felt natural. So one of the things that I bring to the project is that I see everything as an opportunity.
How is it different to curate the underside of a highway versus, say, an art gallery?
The Bentway offers a new kind of model, and one of the things I'm most excited about is that it can be a new type of platform for public art. For example, instead of art that is relatively permanent, singular and static, we are very committed to temporary public art that changes on a seasonal basis, and is displayed in an exhibition format.
For the inaugural show this winter, we have five works from Canadian artists exploring the idea of adapting infrastructure and imparting new values on the familiar or the mundane. St. Catharines-based photographer Jimmy Limit, for example, spent a day scavenging the Bentway's construction site for remnants, then reconstituted and photographed his finds in a whimsical, playful way. For me, it's a great time capsule of this specific moment in the site's history.
Why does the idea of being temporary appeal to you?
I think that, too often, when we talk about public art we get hung up on issues of legacy. Obviously, sometimes we are dealing with huge budgets and complicated projects, so investing for the long term makes sense. But I believe that the temporary, because it's fleeting, can have a much more profound effect. When something is only experienced for a short time, it can create a stronger memory and a deeper bond between the people who shared that experience.
Have there been any surprising reactions to the site, or the art?
I think the surprise is that people don't feel like they are under a highway. The space is quite monumental, with beautiful views and a lot of light.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For information about what's on at the Bentway, see thebentway.ca.