When Robert McMichael, 59, resigned as director of the McMichael Canadian Collection of art at Kleinburg, Ont., last November, he and his wife, Signe, appeared to be at the zenith of a long, gorgeous and particularly Canadian dream. The McMichael collection had grown from their instalment-plan purchase of two sketches by Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris in 1953 to a public trust of 2,500 works worth an estimated $40 million by 1980, a premier national shrine to the ongoing mythification of such Canadian artists as Thomson, the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and David Milne, presided over by Robert and Signe McMichael, not as curators so much as archangels. But in the months since McMichael’s resignation the shrine has been declared so unsafe for both art and the public that renovations could close the museum for as long as two years and, by the end of last week, the McMichaels stood at the centre of a nightmarish controversy.
As long ago as 1978, reality impinge'd upon the McMichael dream with a Toronto Star report headlined GROUP OF SEVEN ART FORTUNE IN JEOPARDY, in which writer Sol Littman charged that the McMichael Collection “is in danger of being destroyed by the very institution created to preserve it,” citing lack of proper indoor climate control and light levels harmful to paintings and prints. McMichael replied (in the next day’s Globe and Mail), “These paintings aren’t deteriorating before your very eyes... certainly it would be desirable if our grant was increased.” But the thought that lingered was that this hoard of beloved Canadian art was en-
dangered by “the very institution created to preserve it,” and that the creation was the McMichaels’ own, built under their supervision. Seven months later the McMichael board of trustees hired the award-winning architectural firm of Klein and Sears to conduct a “feasibility study for expansion” of the museum.
The Ontario government has been responsible for the maintenance and expansion of the collection, buildings and grounds since 1965, when the McMichaels gifted it all to “the people of Canada.” It was quite a gift—nearly 300 works of art by that time, largely by the Group of Seven, housed in galleries of huge hewn logs and fieldstone that had evolved from the McMichaels’ country home near Kleinburg, 30 km northwest of Toronto. The McMichaels remained at their home as unpaid curators, supervising the growth of the collection to its present size.
The two-part Klein and Sears report reached the Ontario ministry of culture and recreation in May and July, 1980, and in November, Robert McMichael quietly resigned, though he and Signe remained at Kleinburg as trustees. Then, last February, Littman and the Star struck again and the quiet boiled off. Quoting a leaked copy of the Klein and Sears report (all involved deny the leak came from them), Littman charged that the McMichael Collection was “haphazardly maintained and in danger of being burned, eroded or lost.” The report recommended extensive remodelling to bring the museum up to contemporary fire safety standards, installation of temperature and humidity controls, changes in lighting, appointment of “a competent person” to register new acquisitions and maintain an accurate inventory—and the replacement of Robert McMichael by a new
executive director. Littman quoted Reuben Baetz, minister of culture and recreation: “This whole gallery has become an extension of Robert McMichael’s whole being. Quite frankly, that has been the major difficulty in bringing about some changes that inevitably must come.” Public support for McMichael—“dedicated,” “imaginative,” “upright and generous”—filled the Star’s letters page, but six weeks later Michael Bell, a professional museum administrator whose credits include the National Gallery of Canada, was appointed director of the McMichael Collection.
Bell took over July 1 and nine days later announced that the gallery would have to close for up to two years to make the necessary changes, a decision made by the board of trustees in consultation with Culture and Recreation. The cheers for Robert McMichael in February were as nothing compared to the
howls of protest from the Kleinburg and Area Business and Tourism Association, which stands to lose $6 million a year if the museum closes, and there was inflamed talk of “blocking” the workmen when they showed up at the gallery. Ward Cornell, deputy minister of culture and recreation, spent much of last week seeking solutions and stressing that the $4.5-million renovation program, particularly fire safety measures for the 265,000 visitors claimed by the gallery each year, must be implemented, but also trying to find alternate sites in the area for some of the collection during renovations. By week’s end, Director Bell was able to say, “There will be plenty of activity for the public here, and we are working with Klein and Sears to try to reduce the time of absolute closing, but we want to give the McMichael Collection the credibility within the museum community it really deserves.”
As the McMichael Collection has grown over the years, its eccentricity has grown with it. At times the col-
lecting approached the excesses of the obsessive—with the acquisition of Tom Thomson’s old painting shack, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and the mortal remains of Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, his wife, Bess, Franz Johnston, his wife, Florence, Arthur Lismer and his wife, Esther, and eventually A.Y. Jackson, who spent his last years with the McMichaels as a kind of pathetic living exhibit. But the McMichaels’ dream of legendary Canadian art in a mythic Canadian setting could not shield them forever from the realities of safety, conservation and scholarship as defined by the modern museum world. Robert McMichael said last week: “It seems that after 25 years of devotion to this collection, that the architecture, the environment, everything is being taken out of our hands.” It also seems, in the world beyond dreams, that the change was long overdue.
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