It’s OK to be confused by Toronto’s art scene. The best galleries are usually plain storefronts well off the beaten path with no tourist lines or flashy, retail-style displays to call attention to them. But that’s the exciting part, because once you wander in, you know you’re about to see something new. Yet it helps to have a little guidance, and we’ve got you covered with an art gallery walking tour that will take you from the west end to the downtown core. Whether you’re a visitor looking to see a different side of the city or a longtime resident with an urge for something new, this path will do it. Bring a few friends along, because you’ll want to discuss your favourite works of art when you stop for drinks or a bite along the way.
Start with Narwhal Contemporary. It’s out in Toronto’s far west end, which is ground zero for the best in Toronto’s art scene. The range in styles there is huge, from traditional paintings to sculptures made of garbage — as in, literal garbage. The area is surrounded by industrial zones where artists love to salvage material for their work. Aside from Narwhal, you’ll find ESP, Olga Korper Gallery, Daniel Faria Gallery, and Clint Roenisch in buildings that used to be factory warehouses.
Keep heading east on Dundas Street for another batch of galleries that feature modern work. MKG127, LE Gallery, and Cooper Cole have found a home in Toronto’s trendy Little Portugal neighbourhood. The galleries are small, clean spaces with art often hanging from the ceiling, bolted to the floor, and sticking out of the walls, forcing you to interact with the pieces. They also fill up fast when a popular artist has a show-opening event, but don’t be afraid to go rub elbows with the artists who turned up to support their friends.
Queen Street West
Next, follow the trail of high-end boutiques down Ossington Avenue to Queen Street West’s iconic galleries. This is the established, old-guard art district, so the galleries that have withstood the skyrocketing rents here have become true Toronto institutions. Angell Gallery, for example, is an airy space that holds its own next to a Starbucks. There are separate rooms for larger exhibitions with thick, drippy paintings and low-fi video installations. If you’re into photography, make sure to stop in at Stephen Bulger Gallery. It’s known for historical documentary photography and amazing glimpses into Canada’s past. You also can’t miss Nicholas Metivier Gallery, which houses work by some of the country’s leading artists. Look out for famed photographer Edward Burtynsky’s industrial landscapes, which find beauty in such man-made monstrosities as a mountain of discarded tires, or a mixing bowl of freeway overpasses.
If you still have energy for exploration, continue to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Frank Gehry-designed building alone, with majestic starcaises and open spaces, is well worth seeing. The sleek environment will give you all the energy you need to explore the 80,000 works of art inside. Classic landscape and portrait paintings from all around the world are represented here, and you’re sure to see some familiar favourites. Ready for a breather? End your journey of discovery with a meal and drinks with friends at Frank, the AGO’s award-winning restaurant. If you made it this far, you deserve it.