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McMichael gallery co-founder dies

Signe McMichael, the devoted Canadian art patron who founded the McMichael Canadian Art Collection with her late husband, has died.

Signe McMichael, the devoted Canadian art patron who founded the McMichael Canadian Art Collection with her late husband, has died at the age of 86.

McMichael, who had been ill for some time, passed away Wednesday evening at Toronto East General Hospital, gallery spokesman Stephen Weir told CBCNews onThursday.

Signe McMichael, seen in this undated photo, was still a newlywed when she and her husband, Robert, decided to buy a rural plot of land and begin collecting Canadian art. ((Courtesy of McMichael Canadian Art Collection))

McMichael "will forever be remembered as one of this country's strongest advocates for Canadian art and artists," said gallery CEO and executive director Thomas Smart.

He added that McMichael's legacy would be "her gift to the people of Ontario of an outstanding collection of Canadian art and a gallery that is singular among Canadian art museums."

The Kleinburg, Ont., gallery — located northwest of Toronto — is renowned for holdingone of the world's largest collections of artwork by Canadian icons Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven andtheir contemporaries.

Born Signe Sorensen in February 1921 in Sandersig, Denmark, she was visiting relatives in Alberta as a child when her mother died and her father decided to remain in Canada.

After a stint in the communications branch of the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, she pursued a career in media and advertising, serving at radio stations in Edmonton and Vancouver before moving to Toronto.

Married to Robert McMichael in 1949, she and her young husband soon began dreaming of owning a home in the country. Just three years later, they bought four hectares of land in Kleinberg.

The budding art collectors built a log cabin on the site and decorated their new home with Canadian paintings depicting wilderness scenes, focusing specifically on the work of Thomson and the Group of Seven.

The couple also eventually acquired the Toronto shack that Thomson had lived in, moved it to their land and set about restoring the small wooden structure.

Over the next decade, the passionate collectors saw their art collection grow rapidly and, by the mid-1960s, realized that they were in possession of a national treasure and began working to turn their home into an artgallery.

"We loveourpaintingsso much, that we consider it selfish to keep them just for ourselves," McMichael once said.

"We have yet to turn away anyone with a desire toseeourcollection."

In 1965, the couple entrusted their Kleinberg property as well as their growing art collection to the Ontario government for the establishment of a public gallery. The next year, the McMichael Conservation Collection of Art opened.

In this archival photo, Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson looks over one of his paintings hanging in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. ((Blaise Edwards/Canadian Press))

The gallery holds Canada's largest collection of works by the Group of Seven, as well as works by other important Canadian artists— including Emily Carr, Jean-Paul Lemieux and David Milne — and a large number of First Nations and Inuit artworks.

The gallery was at the centre of some controversy in the early 1990s when the Ontario government passed an act expanding the McMichael's mandate to contemporary art and reducing the couple's influence on the collection.

The couple objected to the change from their original mandate — as well as some of the new, modern pieces added to the collection — and sued the province in 1995. After several bouts of legal tussling, the government passed legislation to restore the couple's original vision in 2000.

Collection expanded

Since it opened more than 40 years ago, the gallery's collection has grown from the couple's original gift of 194 works to more than 5,000. The initial log cabin has been expanded into a vast facility on a large swath of about 40hectares ofconservation land that receives more than 100,000 visitors a year.

The couple retired in 1981.

After Robert McMichael's death in 2003, he was buried on the McMichael grounds in an intimate cemetery inspired by Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson.

McMichael, Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, A.J. Casson and four of the artists' wives are buried onsite in the small patch of consecrated land bordered by trees and marked not by traditional gravestones but large chunks of the Canadian Shield.

Signe McMichael will also be laid to rest there in a ceremony on Monday. The gallery will be closed from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday morning.