Illana Altman sitting on a yellow bench in the Bentway

The Bentway: What’s new under the Gardiner

From concerts to art exhibits, Ilana Altman is making the Bentway the city’s new community hotspot

Given the kind of stuff that happens at the Bentway (a skating trail/skateboarding park, ice-breakdancing performances, temporary art exhibitions) you could be forgiven for thinking that Ilana Altman’s job as the director of programming for this newly inaugurated public space is really just a matter of coming up with cool ideas. (But is it?) “It is!” she says, laughing. “And that’s why it’s such a cool job, to be honest. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to work in such a multidisciplinary way, and to have such a great space to respond to.”

The Bentway sign painted on two black shipping containers under the Gardiner

The space that she’s responding to is the underside of the Gardiner Expressway, that 18 km-roadway that runs east-west along Toronto’s lakeshore—a thoroughfare that has been much maligned for being a kind of psychological barrier to the shoreline. But, thanks in part to a 25-million-dollar private donation, a section of space below the bents (from Strachan Avenue to Bathurst Street for now, stretching further as Phases 2 and 3 are completed) has been turned into a public gathering space unlike any other in the city.

Come Canada Day, the skate trail that appeared in winter will transform into a skateboarding park. And there’ll be workshops, too, where you can learn to skate, screen print or take videography classes. Weekends in July through August will see musical performances and a block party is in the works to celebrate the completion of Phase 2 of the build, when two amphitheatres will be erected. Just to reiterate: that’s all under the expressway, folks.

Shot of the underside of the Gardiner showing bright coloured graffiti

To be fair, Ilana’s job is so much more than just coming up with the ideas. As the director of programming, she oversees everything the Bentway produces, and she develops partnerships with other organizations and institutions (in May, the Bentway collaborated with the CONTACT Photography Festival to put up a show with Indigenous artist Dana Claxton, which runs through August).

Altman is uniquely suited to do all of the cool things that come with her Bentway gig. With a postgraduate degree from the Princeton University School of Architecture, she’s held positions at prestigious design firms in Toronto and New York, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, where she curated exhibitions at the SFMOMA and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

But she hadn’t always planned to go into the arts or architecture. Altman was pursuing a course in the sciences when she saw an exhibit at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture that changed the course of her career path. “The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life”, a show about the significance of urban and suburban grass, piqued her interest not just in architecture, but more broadly in cities and in building projects and public art.

By the time Altman returned to Toronto, her hometown, five years ago, she was inspired by how the city had invested in public art in the years she’d been away. In response, she started an online project called The Artful City to support—and enhance—that investment. The project positioned her as an expert in all things public art-related in the GTA, and public art is key to what’s happening at the Bentway.

close up of painting on a support pillar. blue and pink image of a Canadian forest landscape.

Altman says she’s always been interested in storytelling, whether it’s through writing or exhibition-making or public projects. So, what is the story that’s being told with the Bentway? “First and foremost, the story of the Bentway is about the new vision for our city,” Altman says. “It’s about celebrating these values of connectivity and hybrid use and creating a new type of public space that brings communities together in different ways. Rather than seeing a piece of infrastructure as a barrier to the waterfront or as a divider between neighbourhoods, all of a sudden it gets inhabited by the public and their experience of being there is enhanced through programming.” (The Bentway had nearly 10,000 people come out during their Winter Season opening weekend—in -35-degree weather at that.)

That programming includes year-round events, performances, marketplaces and public art commissions, which, as Altman points out, historically offer limited opportunities for younger or more diverse contributors. One of her goals is to open the commissioning process up significantly. “We’re interested in working with artists who have developed projects where they’re trying to reach new audiences outside of traditional institutional contexts,” says Altman.

As for what it’s like to be there, at the Bentway, under those gigantic columns, Altman says their monumental character creates a natural rhythm in the space. “The most surprising thing for people when they come is that you feel protected when you’re underneath—and you quickly forget that you’re under a highway.” 

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