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Toronto Toronto’s new city councillors get a chance to deck the Hall

City councillor Stephen Holyday decides what art he'd like to hang in his office from pieces displayed in the basement of City Hall.

photos by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Before he was elected to Toronto city council, Stephen Holyday was a bureaucrat at Queen's Park for 15 years and looks and acts the part – from his even-tempered demeanour down to his roomy, grey suits. But in the basement of City Hall one recent Friday, the normally soft-spoken 38-year-old was fired up, rubbing his hands together and pacing back and forth.

The Etobicoke councillor was one of just four newcomers at council that Pamela Wachna, the city's art curator, met with that day to pick art for their new City Hall offices. The city's collection – managed by Ms. Wachna with the mandate of documenting the city's history and culture – now includes more than 2,500 pieces, many of which are displayed at City Hall and other civic centres.

"This is overwhelming," Mr. Holyday said, looking around at the approximately 45 pieces lining the narrow hallway that Ms. Wachna had brought to City Hall for the occasion. He crouched down to get a closer look at one piece – a mixed-media image of the swing tower ride at the CNE. "It's like a sensory explosion."

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He paused next to a painting, depicting an alleyway in what looked like the Corktown neighbourhood on the east side. "Maybe it would be more appropriate to give this to someone on the east end," he said, before changing his mind. "Or maybe I'll just say 'to heck with them.'"

Mr. Holyday is not an art expert, but he did study architecture in university, meaning he has a better-trained eye than many of his colleagues. And unlike some of the other councillors who would visit with Ms. Wachna that day, he picked the pieces to adorn his grey office walls based on gut instinct, and an eye for details. "I'm really liking the linear stuff," he said, happily inspecting a large copper and grey painting of the office buildings on Carlton Street. "Maybe it's the right side of my brain."

For other councillors, their choices were more political.

Jon Burnside, the former cop-turned-councillor for Don Valley West, picked two paintings depicting young people to highlight the community work he's done. "I'm very involved with youth, so I think it sets the tone for the office," he said.

He also asked Ms. Wachna to keep an eye out for paintings by South Asian painters, to pay respect to the South Asian community in Flemingdon Park.

Meanwhile, Christin Carmichael Greb, the new councillor for Eglinton-Lawrence, chose two paintings of Highway 401 at Avenue Road – simply because the intersection is part of her ward.

After pointing to a few paintings, only to have Ms. Wachna respond each time with detailed information about each piece, Ms. Carmichael Greb raised an eyebrow at the curator and asked, "So you know the background of every single painting?"

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"Well, it's my passion," Ms. Wachna responded.

For 35 years, Ms. Wachna has served as custodian to the $2-million collection. But the economic value is beside the point, says Ms. Wachna's manager Wayne Reeve – the city's chief curator of museums and heritage. "They're not investments of the city, they reveal the city," he said.

And displaying the collection in City Hall requires special considerations. Ms. Wachna avoids placing small pieces in high-traffic areas to avoid theft or damage – even though most of the paintings are bolted to walls. And City Hall – nicknamed the "clamshell" for its circular architecture – poses special challenges for hanging large paintings because of its curved walls.

Her favourite painting in the city's collection is one by Mary Meyers – a view of Toronto in the 1850s. "When it was exhibited publicly before the city purchased it, the reviewer of the show said 'a great work for a lady,'" Ms. Wachna said. That painting used to hang in mayor John Sewell's office, before he retired. Adam Vaughan later had it in his office. And now, councillor (and former deputy mayor) Norm Kelly has it in his.

As for Mr. Holyday, he wound up settling on three paintings: the CNE painting, the one of Carlton Street, as well as another of the Redpath sugar factory.

After settling on his picks, he gave the room one last scan. "This is such a privilege," he said, sighing happily. "Such a privilege."

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