The Bentway: A Conversation With Programming Director Ilana Altman
In the west end of Toronto, between Spadina and Strachan next to historic Fort York the city is building one of its most innovative public spaces. The Bentway is arguably one of the most exciting and forward-thinking projects the city of Toronto has undertaken in recent years. With a burgeoning population and a distinct lack of green space and public areas in the downtown core, the Bentway, a stretch of park space being built underneath the Gardiner Expressway, has been in dire need. The initial phase – from Strachan Avenue to Bathurst Street – knits together seven local neighbourhoods with over 70,000 residents, becoming a gateway to the waterfront, while providing access to important attractions and destinations – from Fort York National Historic Site, Ontario Place and Exhibition Place to Harbourfront Centre and the CN Tower. The Bentway will serve to offer year-round activities and events, including gardens, a skate trail, recreational amenities, public markets, public art, special exhibitions, festivals, theatre and musical performances, and more.The Bentway is poised to present an abundance of programming this summer starting with a partnership with the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in May.
Ilana Altman a cultural planner and designer who has a background in art and architecture has been appointed as Director of Programming for the initiative, having worked for the last decade with communities and institutions to implement innovative and engaging programming; Ilana’s Bentway will surely reveal new and exciting possibilities for public space. Prior to joining The Bentway team, Ilana worked for a number of notable design firms including Studio Daniel Libeskind and Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York and KPMB Architects in Toronto. She has also led the curation and design of exhibitions and installations at the SFMOMA, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ilana maintains, however, that her experience with design and architecture has always been intertwined with the use of public space. “I’m very fortunate that throughout my practice I’ve always been able to work in an ‘extra-architectural way.'”
Upon returning to Toronto after having worked in the United States for a number of years, Ilana noticed a distinct shift in the tone of the city since she had been gone. “There was an increased investment in public art as relating to economic development.” The Bentway, she proposes, is a continuation of this shift, which can be felt on a global scale. “Toronto is participating in a conversation with other cities in regards to the use of public spaces.” The Bentway is a part of a group of projects which arguably started with the construction of the Highline in New York City, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan. These projects look at the reuse of industrial spaces and dismiss the notion of single-purpose infrastructure. In the context of Toronto, Ilana believes the project is groundbreaking. “It is the first of its kind in Canada, it forces us to embrace the industrial features of our city in new ways.”
Programming cultural events for a stretch of land beneath a highway doesn’t come without its challenges, however. “Why would you want to spend time under a highway?” The question is one that Ilana says her team must grapple with. “These areas are part of people’s daily lives, you have to think about the way people are engaging with the projects.” In a more traditional museum context patrons are in what Ilana refers to as a “state of engagement”, in public space, rather, they are in a “state of distraction,” a key variable that needs to be accounted for. She maintains, however, that in the case of the Bentway, the space is in itself the appeal of the project. “The Gardiner is 5 stories in height, it has this natural roof… the rhythm of the columns, the episodic nature of the space, the natural light that spills in… it’s embedded within the city.” These fundamental features of the Bentway will prove to be the allure of the project.
So what types of events can one expect at the Bentway in its first year of opening? Ilana maintains the mandate of the project is broad. “We are uniquely poised to present the intersection of urbanism and culture.” Ranging from public art presentations, performances, food based events and recreational activities, the emphasis at the Bentway is on “participatory experiences.” “It’s a remarkable opportunity to speak to different audiences in different ways.”
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.