“I have gone past this building so many times but never tried the door until now,” exclaim college students walking into Gallery Arcturus, in a state of mild shock at the abundance of colour and unexpected artworks visible in the first room they see. For them it’s as if a four-storey art museum suddenly and mysteriously appeared across from campus — except it has just passed its quarter century mark welcoming visitors on Gerrard Street East between Mutual and Church Streets.
Whatever prompts a student of Ryerson, now Toronto Metropolitan University, to finally look up from a computer monitor and become curious about their downtown surroundings, they often act as if gently woken up.
It’s not uncommon to see a young person snapping a selfie against the cloth artwork which hangs on the museum’s otherwise imposing black doorway, and then not dare to try the door handle. Is it perhaps that exploring the unknown requires some bit of bravery not taught in class?
Now imagine the delight expressed by Cabbagetowners who after years, or perhaps more than a decade, of admiring this vintage building from the sidewalk finally realize it is open to the public — and yet they too have never been inside.
As condo towers press in on any remaining downtown heritage structures which are not safely ensconced in neighbourhoods, this row of former houses along Gerrard Street just two blocks from Allan Gardens increasingly stands out. Architecture fans ought to be particularly on alert for this four-floor art museum that book-ends a set of matching bay-windowed, yellow and red brick walk-ups running to the edge of Church Street, several of which offer double storefronts on the first and second levels.
The businesses inhabiting these old rowhomes seem as if just coming back to life after a difficult few years. Restaurants and a cafe hope to attract patrons back, including those who may cling to apprehensions learned during the pandemic about going inside shared public spaces.
Passing through the glassed vestibule of Gallery Arcturus, a moment is required to recognize the possible extent of exhibit spaces beyond the first one. Another repeated exclamation from guests is how much larger the building seems inside than out.
What does become clear is that the exhibit galleries inhabit rooms — and staircases — of an old house which was eventually joined to its neighbouring home. The address now known as 80 Gerrard Street East was born as a pair of fine residences – built for two brothers and their families in 1858. Anson Green, Reverend, and Columbus H. Green, Barrister, moved in when woods and farmed fields were probably a few (muddy) steps away. Their homes were poised at the top of then-Dalhousie Street and the town lay down a gentle slope from their front steps.
Upstairs from the bay window of Gallery Arcturus visitors to the art library can squint and make out the blue-green steeple of St James Cathedral as it is slowly encircled by looming towers and construction cranes.
While still gazing south, lovers of art history can imagine the spot across the road where Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris placed himself as he chose #80 as the subject for his 1912 work, “Houses, Gerrard Street”.
Back inside the plant-filled library, guests can sit in red chairs both soft or firm and explore art books from all genres. In doing so they will need to take care of sculptures placed on tables all around, and when ready take in the paintings hanging on the walls. All work is chosen by artistic director deborah harris, who by serendipity but not relation has the same name as the painter of a century before.
Next, move to the adjoining Collage Gallery that features work made in the museum itself, often intertwined with unusual objects and unorthodox display material.
The ongoing mystery of exploration continues in the upper reaches of an art-filled stairwell as well as the third floor “Drawing Room” and “Dark Room”.
Lastly, visitors can tread carefully down to the basement studio; a working space where much of the art exhibited onsite originates. If the timing is right one can be among artists fashioning new collages or printing cards and booklets about the works just seen on the floors above.
An anomaly of this museum – there are quite a few of these – is how the exhibits are often put up during opening hours. Visitors may pass through a room deliberately left empty as curator harris waits for the space itself to indicate what art will work – and what won’t at that moment in time.
Pieces are chosen from the permanent collection or may be created especially. Visitors may come upon artists painting, hanging new works or even be asked for their impressions of a new installation. All while the galleries remain open for viewing.
Currently on display is a retrospective of work by Floyd Kuptana, a multi-discipline artist who began his work in the Inuit stone carving tradition before moving to Toronto almost three decades ago and later bringing his unique figures and shapes into paint and pastel.
Kuptana’s death a year ago prompted the artistic director and her assistant Sae Kimura to publish a three-part series of books on his wide range of work. When approached by a long-time collaborator of Kuptana’s to exhibit sculpture from his personal collection, the gallery arranged to show these never-exhibited pieces along with work by the artist from the gallery’s permanent collection.
There are more mysteries to discover within the walls of this unexpected art sanctuary just blocks from Parliament Street — but it’s going to require coming up those first ten steps and walking through the big black doorway.