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Robert and Signe McMichael: the benefactors

Around 1912 a loosely knit group of artists began to paint Canada as they saw it. Sketch boxes in tow, they journeyed all over the country to paint the wilderness with bold colours and a broad, decorative style. Despite the death of mentor Tom Thomson in 1917, these painters banded together as the Group of Seven in 1920 to forge a new Canadian expression. Their vision shaped how Canadians saw their own country and left a legacy that continues to provoke debate and discussion. Thanks to the estates of Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and A.J. Casson for their assistance in this archival project.

It started with one painting: Montreal River, a small Lawren Harris depicting pine trees in the Algoma district. Now, 13 years later, Robert and Signe McMichael have amassed Canada's largest collection of paintings by the Group of Seven -- 300 so far. Three years ago, they donated their rural property and the collection to the province of Ontario. Paul Soles of CBC's Take 30 interviews the McMichaels as they ready a new wing for their gallery. 
• The McMichaels purchased their property at Kleinburg, Ont. just north of Toronto in 1951 and moved into the cabin they built there three years later. The house, which they dubbed Tapawingo, was made from huge logs salvaged from old barns and farmhouses.
• In 1962 the McMichaels acquired the shack behind the Studio Building that Tom Thomson had once occupied, moved it to their property and set about restoring it.

• With their collection increasing and the number of visitors to Tapawingo growing, the McMichaels entrusted their paintings to the province of Ontario in 1965. This would ensure that the collection would never be broken up and that future generations of Canadians would be able to appreciate the Group's work.
• The McMichael Canadian Art Collection now holds Canada's largest collection of works by the Group of Seven.

• The McMichaels and the province struck an agreement for the collection and the grounds at Tapawingo in 1965. Under the agreement, the mandate of the gallery was to concentrate on works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, such as Emily Carr and David Milne. Aboriginal art was added to the mandate a short time later.
• In 1989 Ontario passed an act allowing the gallery to expand its focus to contemporary art and giving the McMichaels less influence on the collection.

• After the new legislation was passed, the gallery began to acquire and exhibit newer art. Robert McMichael particularly objected to Babylon and the Tower of Babel, a modern steel sculpture by artist John McEwen which adorned the entrance to the gallery. Upset that the gallery's chief executive officer and board of directors were contravening the spirit of their collection, the McMichaels sued the province in 1995.

• In 1996, a judge agreed that the gallery's original mandate should not change. That decision was overturned on appeal in 1997. In 2000 the Ontario government passed legislation to restore the gallery to the McMichaels' vision.

• As of July 2003 the McMichael Canadian Art Collection has 72 paintings by Carmichael, 75 by Harris, 101 by Jackson, 30 by Johnston, 59 by Lismer, 80 by MacDonald, 26 by Varley, 59 by Casson, and 84 by Thomson – 586 in total.
• Artworks by the Group are considered "paintings" when they use oil, watercolour, tempera and gouache, on canvas, board or panel, paper, and other supports. The collection has many other works by the Group, including prints and drawings.
Medium: Television
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: April 19, 1968
Guest(s): Robert McMichael, Signe McMichael
Host: Paul Soles, Moses Znaimer
Duration: 11:48
Photo: Varley artworks, copyright 2003, Estate of Kathleen G. McKay.

Last updated: March 7, 2012

Page consulted on February 13, 2014

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