News that our city’s beneficent elite was proposing yet another big cultural splash — transforming three downtown subway stations into dramatic gateways for the new museum, gallery and opera house — produced proper expressions of gratitude and hope all round.
Beautiful new stations notwithstanding, I couldn’t help ungratefully wondering: Whatever happened to the spectacular neon sculpture that lit the long glass vault of the Yorkdale Station with waves of multicoloured light every time a train entered or left? It was a wonder in its day, a groundbreaking amalgam of architecture and art, published around the world and much applauded at home, but hasn’t been seen in at least a decade. So I phoned the artist who made it, Michael Hayden, to ask.
“Thank God for wealthy people,” the old Toronto avant-gardist, now displaced in California, said at one point in the midst of a pleasantly rambling conversation touching on, among other nostalgias, the Nihilist Spasm Band — still big in Japan — Contempra telephones and Arc en ciel, the sculpture he built in Arthur Erickson’s Yorkdale station. “They do spend their money in support of the arts.”
But they had better take care if they want to spend it on the Toronto Transit Commission, the artist warned. As it turns out, the fate of Arc en ciel is a distressingly typical cautionary tale of cheese-paring and neglect in Toronto.
There was no wanting of vision on the part of the artist, the architect or the city that commissioned their collaboration 30 years ago. The sculpture was “a complete departure from the normal prettifying of public places,” according to Mr. Hayden. It was as public and as popular as art can be. It worked beautifully.
Until a terrible thing happened. A transformer blew out, disabling one of the 158 neon tubes that curved like ribs across the 174-metre-long vault. Then another blew out, and another. A minor design flaw allowed water to collect near them.
With about 20 tubes disabled and the sculpture beginning to look tawdry, Mr. Hayden suggested that the TTC repair it. There’s no money, he was told. Wait for next year’s budget. The artist suggested the remaining lights be switched off in the meantime.
Naturally, the money never appeared. “So they went for another year with the piece off, and I complained again,” Mr. Hayden recounted. “I said, ‘Look, transformers are about 28 bucks each, this is stupid. Fix the piece.’
But “the good people of the Toronto Transit Commission” declined the suggestion. After years of wrangling, which never produced the money to do the repairs, the commission solved the problem by dismantling Arc en ciel.
“As a cost-saving [measure] — and to get this damned artist out of their hair — they took it down,” Mr. Hayden said.
The sculpture cost $100,000 in 1978 and would probably cost $250,000 to build today, according to the artist. “For the cost saving of about $5,000, they took down a $250,000 piece. Very clever.”
Although he grieves the loss of a “seminal” sculpture the artist at least learned from the experience. Before engaging in his most famous light sculpture, The Sky’s the Limit, which animates the long tunnel connecting two United Airlines terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Mr. Hayden applied his hard-won experience.
In fact, he infuriated his airline client when he insisted it enter into “a completely composed, identified and signed service and maintenance contract” before he agreed to build the piece. But that contract, he added, is why The Sky’s the Limit is still dazzling more than 15 million travellers a year, universally recognized as a symbol of its city.
“That’s what the TTC piece could have remained,” he said, adding that “the people who took it down should be strung up.”
Another lesson of both experiences is that private interests make the best patrons of public art, which is precisely the proposition currently being tested by the Toronto Community Foundation with its Arts on Track program.
“When private money is spent, the money isn’t squandered,” Mr. Hayden said. “The acquisition is made with everybody’s full knowledge of the benefit that is being acquired — and then the damn thing is looked after.”
Even a Rolls-Royce, he contends, needs its oil changed.
Although the story of Yorkdale’s rainbow may not encourage potential contributors to Arts on Track, at least one of them has learned how to deal with recalcitrant officialdom. Judy Matthews, who spearheaded the reconstruction of St. George Street a decade ago, enforced firm conditions about the project before she donated $1-million to help finance it.
Despite anticipated difficulties, however, the lure of making a huge impact in “one of the largest public realms in the city” is attracting a lot of private interest in the latest subway-beautification project, according to Ms. Matthews.
“It’s a showcase for Toronto, but it also reinforces the message about the importance of these cultural institutions,” she said. “You’ve just got a minute to get people’s attention and draw them into that world.”
But minutes turn into years and years bring … what?
Not another Arc en ciel, hopefully, although Mr. Hayden reports that he would love to reinstall the piece. “But we would have to have heart-to-heart discussions,” he warned. “Would it be all right if I did it in light-emitting diodes?”
The dream never dies.