by John Walenta
TORONTO – The Japanese have a rather amusing proverb: “Todai moto kurashi” which if translated directly into English means “to live under the shadow of a lighthouse.” The Japanese tend to use this expression when referring to something that is very close by or easily accessible but for which there isn’t a recognition or appreciation of its true value. We are very fortunate to live in a city like Toronto where there is an abundance of things to see or do. We can enjoy visiting a beautiful museum of art (AGO), a museum of natural history (ROM), and many smaller curiosities like a museum for shoes or a gallery of ceramics.
Sometimes however is it useful, even advisable, to take a broader perspective on what is nearby.
This became especially clear to me again after having completed a stimulating course at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education entitled “Great Art Galleries of the Great Lakes.” The course was focused on four art museums in the cities of Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and Buffalo. At this moment one might ask, “wait a second, do you have a map handy to find this city of Toledo of which you speak?” You could also ask with some justification, “don’t the other three have an alarming number of arsons?” Well it is true that many cities in America’s northeast, those belonging to the so-called rust belt, suffered a near cataclysmic economic meltdown in the early 1970’s. This is a story I know well given that I was raised in Buffalo, a city from which, for that absence of jobs, one tended to flee.
Having said this, all four of these cities are today experiencing a kind of rebirth, maybe limited and a bit late, but in any event a renaissance nonetheless. If one then ties this rebirth to the rich histories of these places you can begin to understand things in a different light. A good point of departure for us can be the art museums of each city.
Established in 1885, The Detroit Museum of Art is one of the largest museums of art in the United States boasting a stupendous permanent collection. The museum has among its acquisitions an enormous fresco made by Mexican artist Diego Rivera which adorns the main entrance of the building. The Ford family – of auto company fame – were great patrons of the museum and Edsel Ford, son of Henry, had to strenuously defend the work of Rivera – brought to completion at the peak of the Great Depression – from critics who were not in accord with the extreme left wing views of Rivera. What a charming picture it must have been: Ford, the capitalist par excellence, defending to the bitter end the dyed-in-the-wool socialist!
One other work of notable mention in Detroit is a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, the first Van Gogh painting ever to make it into a permanent collection of a North American museum. It’s value is truly beyond estimate.
Next, after a brief trip down Interstate 75, we reach Toledo, Ohio.
Here it is the architecture of the museum that attracts us the most at first. Wherever one turns his gaze the museum offers architectural wonders galore, from the Ionic columns of the main building to the pavilion of glass. This latter building makes sense if one considers that the museum was founded by master glassmaker Edward Drummond Libbey in 1901.
The museum also hosts the Faculty of Art for the University of Toledo in a impressive building of glass and lead designed by Frank Gehry. After enjoying the works of Bronzino, Canaletto, Tissot, Monet and Van Gogh, among others, it is also worth the effort to see the museum’s auditorium inspired by Palladio’s Olympic Theatre in Vicenza.
Famous mainly for its collection of Asian and Egyptian art, in reality the Cleveland Museum of Art boasts a collection of over 43,000 pieces from every corner of the world. The museum also has an endowment of over $600 million making it one of the wealthiest in the country. Aside from the actual museum one must also pay a visit to Severance Hall, considered by many lovers of music as one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. Constructed in an Art Deco style, Severance Hall was opened in 1931 as the seat of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. The architectural significance of the building was recognized by both local and national conservation societies including The National Registry of Historical Places.
Finally we arrive in Buffalo and the museum better known as The Albright Knox Art Gallery. Founded in 1862, it is one of the oldest public galleries of art in the country. Fundamentally the museum is best known for its collection of modern works. All of the benefactors of the museum worked toward creating a contemporary collection “of its age.” Many of the pieces on display are far sighted acquisitions of paintings and sculptures by Dali, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Kahlo, and naturally Warhol, among many others.
The first significant works of the museum were donated by industrialist A. Conger Goodyear, also the founder of the MOMA in New York City. Among subsequent donations those of Seymour Knox stand out in particular and it was Knox that also made possibile a major expansion of the main gallery in 1962.
This ends our quick tour of four cities in the shadow of the lighthouse. I hope that the brief descriptions of these four hidden gems has piqued your curiosity. For certain, experimenting with places a little off the beaten path can often be an experience well beyond that of the accidental tourist.