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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Toronto as Museum: Nuit Blanche

This weekend I had the pleasure of going to Nuit Blanche in Toronto. It was surprisingly warm and very comfortable to walk around all night. The cooperation of Mother Nature seemed a bit serendipitous as it had been raining all day. At about 1pm there had been a thunderstorm.

Most of the exhibits were outside. The most spectacular was the one at City Hall, where a four letter word, accompanied by loud sounds, lit up Queen St.

In my Public History courses we have talked a great deal about what constitutes a museum. Museums in Motion by Edward Porter Alexander and Mary Alexander talk in their introduction about the different criteria for a museum. They discuss the recent inclusion of institutions like Science Centres and Botanical Gardens into the category of 'museum.' Elaine Heumann Gurian in her article 'What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums' points out that collections may not be the be-all-and-end-all of museums, that a museum is "a place that stores memories and presents and organizes meaning in some sensory form" (Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson, p. 270). I would not, though perhaps the case could be made, go so far as to say that the city of Toronto is a museum, even though it tells the cultural stories of its inhabitants in many ways. That would be widening the definition so far as to make it meaningless. I think, however, the case could be made that on the night of Nuit Blanche the city tries to remake itself into an Art Gallery, and in many ways takes on the responsibilities of a typical museum, as well as some of the worth of one.

The city had to accommodate traffic flow. The nice weather made this an important part of the event for organizers as the streets and exhibits were crowded, especially before 2am. Some of the exhibits were harder to find, so they had volunteers stationed at key places where one would get lost, like the exit from the streetcar that took you from Union Station to Liberty Village. They also had to think of parking, all-night transportation, and all night facilities as well as other logistical aspects which would affect the comfort of the patrons. In addition, they tried to put the art exhibits in culturally meaningful areas, without spreading out the viewing regions too much. Accessibility was key but the art was a part of the city, and so the exhibit designers had to keep in mind their space and surroundings when planning their art exhibit. The city thus became part of the exhibit, just as the museum's space shapes the museum's displays.

The city's typical art and history institutions represented themselves well in this testament to Toronto art, though I didn't get a chance to see all of them. I did, however, visit the exhibit in Campbell House (there they had an exhibit of art by Joanna Strong, who paints pictures of rubber bands, but they were also doing some limited historical interpretation. While they could they had some of the rooms open, which they lit with candles. After that they still had the exhibits in the hallways available for viewing, which detailed some of Toronto/York's early social and political history; and they were serving mulled cider) as well as an exhibit in the AGO (which was an exhibit of Edward Steichen photographs which the institution was hosting anyway, they simply left it open for viewing during the evening). While these institutions are usually focal points in Toronto's vaguely defined culture scene, their exhibits were made more tangible parts of a more defined cultural whole. This can be seen by their inclusion in the program along with individual installations in places like Liberty Village and Exhibition Place.

Like a museum, the one night event definitely held to a theme, that of modern art; that may attract many and put many off, but it was a clear commitment to a strategy. There were many things I liked when I visited, and many things that, had they not been part of the event would not have caught my interest. However, by presenting them together the organizers took the opportunity to educate me and other patrons on the particular topic of art, especially art in Toronto. The organizers of Nuit Blanche have to deal with many of the same issues of representation, relevancy, and patron visitor comfort as museum employees, only they are working on a larger scale, though they only have to do it for one night.

I found it helpful to make this comparison because it gave me a new appreciation for the event. We wouldn't really call the city a museum because the coherent whole represented by Nuit Blanche is not a static thing, and exists only one day a year; but for that one day it operates very similarly to a museum. I very much enjoyed myself, but in some respects I felt bad. My favourite exhibit was definitely the Edward Steichen photographs and that was by no means unique to the event. But I guess my tastes run more towards the traditional exhibits than they do to modern art.

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