TORONTO - As a boy, George Gardiner collected toy soldiers and stamps. When he grew up, it was horses and art.
But it was only later in his life that the prominent Toronto financier and businessman turned his attention to ceramics. With his wife, Helen, he amassed a prodigious collection of ancient American pottery, yellow ground porcelain, 17th- and 18th-century English delftware, and Italian Renaissance majolica, among other treasures. In less than a decade the collection got so big they were stashing ceramics under the beds, and they knew they needed a plan. So in 1984, more than than 2,000 of their pieces became the foundation for the Gardiner Museum in downtown Toronto, said to be the only museum in North America devoted solely to ceramics.
The museum reopened last year after a $20 million expansion, and the revamped building has been hailed as one of the city's most compelling examples of new architecture. The Canadian firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, with Kuwabara the design principal, created an elegant edifice in glass and stone, constructed as a series of cubes and platforms and infused with natural light. The building also houses a new restaurant presided over by renowned local chef Jamie Kennedy, and a gift shop that Vogue magazine named one of the three best in the city.
This is high praise, for Toronto is a city undergoing what its boosters like to call a cultural renaissance. Right across the street is Daniel Libeskind's dramatic expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum, and nearby is the ongoing transformation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, designed by Frank Gehry, who was born here.
The Gardiner has raised the profile of the art of ceramics within the visual arts. The collection spans many periods and styles including the ancient Americas, Chinese blue and white porcelain, Japanese porcelain, and modern contemporary ceramics, including vessels by Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso, and works by noted Canadian and New England artists. The museum mounts three special exhibitions a year. Past shows have featured Picasso's ceramics, teapots, and Chinese exported porcelain; a current show features the work of the German artist Gertraud Möhwald (1929-2002).
Gardiner, who died at 80 in 1997, started collecting ceramics in the late 1970s. He had had a legendary career, earning a master's in business administration at Harvard Business School, serving as chairman of the Toronto Stock Exchange, and founding Canada's first discount brokerage firm. He was a member of the committee that gained control of Maple Leaf Gardens, home of the National Hockey League Toronto Maple Leafs. He had an interest in Harlequin Books (which accounts for a collection in the museum of harlequin figures from the commedia dell'arte) and was part of the business group that brought Kentucky Fried Chicken to Canada.
"He had an eye for art, and I think [ceramics] was a different kind of chase," says Gardiner's daughter Cindy Blakely, a social worker in the city. "When he set his mind to something, he would accomplish it."
To that end, he gave his wife a mandate: She was "to learn everything and meet everyone in the ceramics field," says Alexandra Montgomery, the museum's executive director. Helen Gardiner "studied at Christie's in London. She met scholars and dealers, and used good counsel for the collection, amassing it in less than 10 years by purchasing it at auction, in London and New York." At first, the Gardiners considered donating their collection to a cultural institution, "but it was clear it would be marginalized, and they loved it," Montgomery says. "Mrs. Gardiner remains very, very passionate about it. They wanted it to be publicly accessible."
In this regard, the museum was somewhat ahead of its time, anticipating the recent popularity of museums established by private collectors, such as the San Francisco museum projected to house the art collection of Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher.
The Gardiner collection is eclectic, robust, and spans many centuries. It includes a Mayan earthenware plate from Guatemala dating to 500 AD, and a 1998 trompe l'oeil composition of three cabbages by Canadian artist Karen Dahl. It includes porcelain made in China in the early 1630s and commissioned by the Dutch East India Company for the European market and an early-18th-century Russian museum-piece tureen.
But it is by no means a comprehensive history of world ceramics. "They collected specific moments in ceramic history," Montgomery says. "They collected specific areas in depth."
Some of these areas reflect the Gardiners' taste for the offbeat and the whimsical. It includes the period of the 1720s in Meissen, Germany - a heyday for hard-paste porcelain - when the Meissen factory introduced matching tea, chocolate, and coffee services. The Gardiner collection includes an extraordinary tea, chocolate, and coffee service with 50-plus ornate pieces in a sumptuous padded leather case, obviously intended for an aristocrat's table. Other curiosities include a cabinet filled with dozens of porcelain scent bottles from Chelsea, England, depicting all manner of amour, including a cupid astride a conquered lion; and English delftware shoes circa 1720, commissioned as tokens of affection.
Perhaps it's a function of the Gardiner's genesis as a private collection, but the museum has a few pecularities, especially in the realm of signage and text, which are sometimes terse and unsatisfying. Case in point: The text accompanying a Chinese tureen that, we are informed, was part of the cargo of a ship that sank 200 years ago off the coast of Malaysia. A little more information would have been welcome.
The restaurant, Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, is a pricey, go-to lunch destination for the well-heeled set. Executive chef Kennedy is a pioneer of the city's green restaurant movement, supporting local farmers and using naturally raised, grass-fed animals. When Al Gore came to town, Kennedy catered his private luncheon. "He is very respectful of the earth," says restaurant spokesperson Jodi McBurney.
Kennedy is somewhat less respectful of the hapless diner, who is presented with a "bill of fare" said to be "a careful selection of wine and food harmonies . . . to enhance your gastronomic experience," but it does not indicate which items from a long list of offerings highlighting contemporary Canadian cuisine are appetizers and which are entrees.
The sleek restaurant is mega-minimalist with glass walls and vaulted ceilings, a design that makes for chic ambience but horrid acoustics. The noise from other diners was so loud we missed four cellphone calls. (The good news is that you can make cellphone calls without bothering anyone.)
Still, the food and its presentation were spectacular. (Don't miss the Yukon Gold fries with lemon and mayonnaise; there's even a wine recommendation to go with them.) And the gift shop has a wonderful assortment of hand-crafted items, not all of them ceramic; it also includes glass, wood, jewelry, wearable textiles, and home accessories, by Canadian and international artists.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.