Toronto gets a film and arts museum rolled into one as Bell Lightbox opens


— The Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan steps off the elevator in Toronto’s new Bell Lightbox building and, worrying aloud that his video installation honoring Fellini’s “81/2 “ has been “drooping,” ducks into the exhibition space. A moment later he emerges. “Now artist-approved,” he proclaims. “No drooping.”

The scene might as well be a metaphor for Bell Lightbox as a whole.

The grandiose, $129-million screening and exhibition venue opened last week to a mostly favorable reception — after years of delays and bureaucratic tussles had created public unease about the project. It will be home to the Toronto International Film Festival, an event that until now has been spread out at various hotels, theaters and multiplexes throughout the city. But it’s also intended to become an arts fixture throughout the year.

“We wanted to let the ethos of the film festival be our guide, in concept if not in frenzy,” says Noah Cowan, artistic director of Bell Lightbox and former co-director of the festival. “But we also knew that if we just used it for festival programming we’d never be able to survive.”

An imposing, modern structure on a corner of the city’s bustling King Street, Bell Lightbox sports a glass-heavy facade and a rectangular shape. Its sharply angled geometry serves as an unofficial complement to the rounded, swooping spaces of the older and slightly less sleek performance space Roy Thomson Hall several blocks to the southeast.

“Pretty unbelievable, eh?” one local could be heard telling a friend as she walked through the center’s galleries, bars and screening rooms at its public unveiling last Sunday.

The plan is to use the building as an artist magnet, museum space, cinematheque and all-around hangout spot for this arts-friendly city. On the ground floor, there’s a giant atrium that serves as a kind of public commons (Cowan calls it an “agora”) where a giant white wall receives video projections. During the festival, visitors could send personalized text messages that instantly would appear on the screen in conjunction with a scene from a famous film.

Gallery halls, bars, cafes and classrooms occupy the floors above, with hallways cutting through and around the gathering spaces.

And then there are the center’s linchpins — the five screening rooms, which will be used to show films during the 10-day festival and as art-house and revival theaters the rest of the year. Above the six floors of arts space — the sixth floor is a patio event deck — sits a high-rise condo development that is not affiliated with the film festival. (Part of the cost of the arts space, incidentally, was offset by Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who donated the land on which the building sits.)

Cowan cites the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern Gallery in London as models for Bell Lightbox — with this one offering a decidedly cinematic spin. Film-related exhibitions are the priority here, which is why the center is preparing for the arrival of a Tim Burton show that had been housed at MOMA, followed by an exhibition devoted to the early 20th-century icon Mary Pickford, who was born and raised in Canada.

Cowan says the goal ultimately is for Lightbox to reach 1 million visitors annually, in the manner of many first-rate national art museums.

Part of the challenge he and his team will face in pursuit of that goal is to make the center welcoming to everyone without sacrificing more high-end ambitions. The latter, he said, is why the festival would show a visual artist such as Burton but likely turn down a Harry Potter exhibit that has been making the rounds to various museums around the world.

But he says it also would be wrong to assume that broadly populist entertainment had no place at Bell Lightbox. “People say to me ‘You wouldn’t show ‘Avatar,’ ” he says. “Well, we would show ‘Avatar,’ but under certain circumstances, if maybe James Cameron wanted to screen it to a school group, or if someone was doing a frame-by-frame analysis.”

The inaugural exhibitions feature Egoyan’s “81/2” installation, another video piece from Canadian experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin and an exhibition called “Essential Cinema,” a grouping of filmic art pieces and mementos (eg., the taxi license Robert DeNiro received when he was researching the character of Travis Bickle). As part of “Essential Cinema,” there are also two lists printed on the wall of the 100 most important movies of all time as decided by the public and a group of experts.

New arts spaces tend to get loads of attention upon opening but can struggle after the initial hoopla subsides, like an Olympic venue after the Games have left town. For now, at least, the Bell Lightbox halls are crowded with workaday Torontonians and the city’s artistic elite.

“After 35 years, there’s finally a home,” Egoyan says.