"It's important to keep going when you hit these 'down-market' blocks, otherwise you'll miss a lot of great places," says Betty Ann Jordon, our West Queen West Art Walk guide. Down-market is her nice way of saying dingy, rough -- even somewhat sleazy. Ten years ago, these words could have applied to much of this stretch of Queen Street that runs from Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue in Toronto's West End.
Today, the street is trendy with a capital T, the "in" place to see and be seen, and its rough-around-the-edges background makes it cooler still. Credit the neighborhood's transformation to the heavy influence of contemporary art here. When big-box stores and franchises took over the once-edgy Queen West, the artists, attracted by lower rents, moved down the road.
This area, now dubbed West Queen West, has the highest concentration of galleries in Canada, along with cafes, hot new restaurants and one-of-a-kind fashion and furniture shops.
You can certainly explore on your own, but it helps to have a guide familiar with the area. Jordon leads small groups of locals and tourists every Saturday afternoon and her considerable knowledge about the local art scene is well worth the $15 price tag.
Our tour starts at the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. West (416-531-4635, www.gladstonehotel.com), the oldest continually operating hotel in Toronto. Ten years ago, a typical guest-turned-resident would have been someone down on his luck, possibly recently released from a nearby mental institution or detox facility. Now, the Victorian hotel, built in 1889, has been restored to its former glory, and a typical guest at this gay-positive hotel is likely to be affluent and culturally inclined, with a desire to be part of the area's happening nightlife.
We ride up the original, hand-operated elevator and Jordan takes us into a couple of the artist-designed rooms, including the "Easy Rider" room.
"I know the artist," she says. "He combined his love of motorcycles and sequins." It's not for everyone, but since each room was designed by a different artist, each has a completely different look and feel.
Like most hotels built in this era, the rooms are small, meant only to be slept in after socializing in the spacious common areas. Those high-ceilinged, open places are put to good use displaying art exhibits and hosting performances and community events. The exhibit showing on our visit is an eclectic mix of styles and mediums by a group of local artists. Though located in the hotel, the exhibits, chosen by an in-house curator, are open to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
It's the first of many exhibits we see on our tour as we gallery hop down Queen Street. A personal favorite is the Stephen Bulger Gallery, which specializes in social documentation through Canadian and international photography. Others worth checking out include Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Arts Projects, Angell Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St. West (416-531-5042, www.thedrakehotel.ca), is another stop on the tour. Like the Gladstone, its trendy bars, restaurants, crash pads (other hotels call them rooms), filled with young film producers and other artsy types, give no indication of its derelict past. The hotel also has an in-house curator, and Jordan points out and explains some imaginative works in its strong art collection.
"The Drake and the Gladstone really anchor the community," she says.
It's a community to love if you're into contemporary art or a lively night scene. Even for those who aren't, it's worth a visit just to spark a sense of discovery -- whether it's a fantastic piece of art, a retro plastic chair, an incredible cup of tea, a set of vintage glasses or a photography exhibit that blows you away.
While West Queen West lives the artsy, happening lifestyle year-round, the city celebrates in grand style once a year during the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche festival (www.scotiabanknuitblanche.ca). The event bills itself as an "all-night contemporary art thing" and will be held from sunset (6:57 p.m.) on Oct. 2 to sunrise Oct. 3.
Now in its fifth year, Nuit Blanche attracts over a million art-lovers, partygoers and insomniacs to the three exhibition zones downtown and in the West End.
This year, there are 133 official projects, including a light show projected onto Royal Ontario Museum's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a human puppet show set to electronic music, and giant clown heads stuck in alleyways between buildings. Unofficial installations and performance art spring up everywhere, creating a festive outdoor atmosphere that is anything but boring.
>If you go:
West Queen West Art Walks are Saturdays, noon to 2:15 p.m. starting at the Gladstone Hotel; $15 per person or $25 per couple; www.artinsite.com.
Galleries: Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. West (www.bulgergallery.com); Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Arts Projects, 1082 and 1086 Queen St. West (www.katharinemulherin.com); Angell Gallery, 12 Ossington Ave. (www.angellgallery.com); Museum of Contemporary Art, 952 Queen St. West (www.mocca.ca).