If you go to only one major attraction while you're in Toronto, let it be the AGO. Fresh from a top-to-bottom renovation -- and reinvention -- by Toronto-born Frank Gehry, it is a wonder. Gehry's vision is throughout; the fabulous, circular floating staircase is especially impressive. There are skylights in some rooms, adjusted every day to best display the works (to spectacular effect with Lawren Harris's paintings of the arctic). Gorgeous Galleria Italia lets you view the scene on Dundas Street down below while you take a rest from the art. Most of all, there's a dramatic increase in the amount of viewing space. Gehry's work is inspired yet practical, a rarity in today's starchitect-driven renovations of public spaces.
There's a lot to see: The collection numbers 79,450 pieces and growing.
Local media magnate the late Ken Thomson donated his beautiful and extensive collection of paintings, carved miniatures, medieval triptychs, and model ships to the AGO. The Thomson Collection is central to the gallery: Alone, it spans 20 rooms and includes an unparalleled collection of great Canadian art -- think the Group of Seven, David Milne -- and international drawings, such as Peter Paul Rubens' masterpiece The Massacre of the Innocents. (One note: Thomson believed that art should be allowed to speak for itself, in other words, unencumbered by the usual explanatory and identifying tags; instead, a palette identifies the artists.)
And there's far more to see. The AGO's European collection ranges from the 14th century to the French Impressionists. The Canadian compilation is strong and includes Inuit art, ranging from a breathtaking collection of carved miniatures dating back to 9000 B.C. to the contemporary vivid paintings of Norval Morrisseau. The AGO is also famous for its collection of Henry Moore sculptures, which number more than 800. (The artist gave them to Toronto as a tribute to local citizens' enthusiasm for his work: In the 1960s, public donations helped to bring his sculpture The Archer to decorate Nathan Phillips Square; an inspired move that cost then-mayor Philips his job.) In one room, 14 or so of his large works are displayed; there is also one on display outside the gallery, where everyone can appreciate it. There are also shows that apply mixed media to explore lesser known artists, combining private artifacts, documentary portraits and notes on the broader context of the artist featured. All in all, a top-notch experience.