McMichael Canadian Art Collection marks 50 years with masterworks show

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, known for its beautiful setting and its Group of Seven artworks, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special exhibition, while also tackling questions about its future direction.

Exhibit celebrates gift that started the gallery, amid plans to 'awaken the sleeping giant'

McMichael at the crossroads

7 years ago
Duration 2:07
As the Canadian art gallery celebrates an important milestone, a new show looks back while the venue moves forward

A half-century after Robert and Signe McMichael made a landmark donation of their picturesque home and remarkable art collection to the province of Ontario, the gallery established in their name is revisiting those foundation masterpieces to mark the occasion.

It was 50 years ago Wednesday that the couple donated 194 paintings, along with their home and land in Kleinburg, Ont., to the province. The gift laid the foundation for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, which opened the following July.

Tom Thomson's 1914 oil on canvas painting In Algonquin Park is part of the original gift of paintings and property that Robert and Signe McMichael gave to the province of Ontario, which established the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in their name. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

To celebrate the momentous anniversary of the gift agreement, the gallery is showing off some of those original artworks in A Foundation for Fifty Years: McMichael Masterworks.

Along with the very painting that started the couple's personal collection – Montreal River by Lawren Harris, a canvas they purchased for $250 – the exhibition includes landscape paintings by Harris' fellow Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald, as well as pieces by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, David Milne and others.

The canvases on display are those donated by the McMichaels and some of their friends and peers to get the gallery started.

David Milne's 1914 oil on canvas painting Black was also a gift from gallery founders Robert and Signe McMichael. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Moving forward past earlier controversies

While there is a lot to celebrate, there are also concerns about the McMichael's future. The gallery has been dogged by controversy over the years, most prominently disputes between the founders, the board and curators over the mandate of the institution.

The McMichaels had stipulated that the collection should continue to reflect the character of the original gift. Robert McMichael once sued the province over what he saw as a violation of the original terms of their agreement.

Now, with the McMichaels gone – Robert died in 2003 and Signe in 2007 – and after legislative changes in 2011, the gallery has a more flexible mandate and can exhibit non-Canadian art, although its collection remains focused on Canadian, First Nations and Inuit art.

Emily Carr's 1936 oil on canvas piece Shoreline was a gift to the gallery from H.P. de Pencier. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

"There is no question if you go back to the post-gift era of the McMichael, there has been significant controversy," Upkar Arora, chair of the gallery's board of trustees, told CBC News.

He admitted that problems have at times overshadowed the art. 

"It's been very politicized, it's sometimes been personal." 

Now, facing the challenge of attracting a greater number of and more diverse visitors, he's confident that the future is bright because of the gallery's unique assets.

"What we need to do is continue to deliver great exhibitions, do the right things with great people, build strong relationships both in local communities and outside," Arora said.

We need to get people to experience it for themselves, so when you come here... you're thinking about "Why haven't I been here for so long?"- Upkar Arora, McMichael board of trustees chair

"We need to get people to experience it for themselves, so when you come here...you're thinking about 'Why haven't I been here for so long?'"

Unlike galleries located in city centres or other urban environments, the McMichael is situated on 100 acres of forest and trails, close to a quaint village. This setting is a huge part of the venue's attraction and fits in with the art on display inside since many are Canadian landscapes capturing our nation's picturesque wilderness.

Sarah Stanners, the McMichael's recently hired chief curator, calls the gallery a "sleeping giant" that she's hoping to wake up by finding new ways to showcase the permanent collection, as well as incorporate new and contemporary art – including work by foreign artists, if it connects somehow with Canada.

"Although we are saying we're going to be doing new and exciting things, we're not turning our back on our traditions," she said.

McMichael the 'sexy rec room' of Canadian art scene

7 years ago
Duration 1:24
Sarah Stanners, chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, on the gallery's youthful appeal and adaptability

Stanners also plans to find ways to attract gallery goers who may not have visited the McMichael since their school days, but have an appreciation for its natural setting along with its masterpieces. 

"We have a fantastic aesthetic here that targets – dare I say – the 'lumbersexual' in our young people today," she said, "the young explorers who want to wear beards and buns. I think, in fact, we're totally primed for that young audience now."

The gallery will also unveil details about further events and programs celebrating the 50th anniversary soon.

Robert and Signe McMichael are seen with former Ontario Premier John P. Robarts with their signed gift agreement on Nov.18, 1965. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)


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