Canada: War of independence

Robert McMichael's collection of landscape paintings came to define how Canada saw itself. But things turned ugly when he gave them away

S pring belongs to England, autumn belongs to Canada; luminous gold leaves against a white birch trunk, maple leaves sparkling sharp red, soft crimson sumac leaves. It's a visual season best caught by the painters from the Twenties and Thirties known as the Group of Seven, so familiar to Canadians that their paintings are cliches, reproduced on placemats, cards and calendars. The Group's work sells because of the entrepreneur turned art collector Robert McMichael who, using the marketing skills he honed as a businessman, sold an artistic vision of Canada to a public suspicious of most art.

"Go see the fall leaves out the window, then go see the fall leaves in the paintings," is how Charles Hill, curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, describes the Robert McMichael gallery in Kleinberg, north of Toronto.

What no one would have predicted is that 30 years after McMichael first opened his famous gallery, and as this courtly gentleman headed into his twilight years, he'd be vilified by the Canadian art community and at the heart of fierce debate over what should happen to art collections donated to the state.

Like many elderly Canadians, Robert and his wife Signe winter in Florida but live the rest of the year in a lovely house outside Toronto. On a warm October morning we sit in their living room, which has a beautiful countryside panorama, reminiscent of the images they've championed. Signe quietly provides napkins, fruit, biscuits and coffee and Robert speaks without apparent rancour about how their dream of sharing their art collection has become a nightmare.

During the Twenties and Thirties, the Group of Seven (really five men - Lawren Harris, J E H MacDonald, A Y Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Fred Varley with, confusingly, up to three more associates) - painted Canadian landscapes, among other subjects. Their thick brushstrokes, garish colours and local subjects flouted the widely accepted European values in art. They believed that unless artists developed their own forms and themes, they were destined to make insipid imitations of something done better elsewhere. During their lives, Canadian art institutions championed the Group, although many contemporaries remained unconvinced of their significance. However, by the Sixties, their dramatic renderings of an overwhelming country had become a comforting and poignant reminder of what it meant to be Canadian.

In 1967 patriotism was washing over the country as Canadians geared up for their centennial and their first world's fair, Expo 67 in Montreal. Goofy songs about being Canadian were playing on the radio, flags were everywhere. Coinciding with the growing ecological and conservation movement, with the business timing that made him rich, "here comes Bob McMichael and gives people what they really want", as Hill puts it: not challenging, contemporary works but accessible paintings of the neighbourhood.

The McMichaels had acquired pieces by the Group throughout the Fifties and Sixties and housed them in a large log house they had built in the wilderness village of Kleinberg. They decided to donate it all, land, building and paintings, to the province and the McMichael Canadian Collection was born.

Though the notion of giving away something and retaining control sounds flawed, the McMichaels had taken over a year to sign a deal with the province that they believed would allow them to do exactly this. They'd live there in perpetuity, the collection would be open and free to the public at certain times and, with a very small board of handpicked trustees, the McMichaels would control acquisitions.

"It went beautifully for 20 years," says McMichael. Others claim he treated the collection as if it was still his own. He allowed top government officials to buy works without a public auction. He let new donors borrow their works back without a formal agreement. His powerful friends, such as the premier of the province, were only a phone call away.

In 1972 premier Bill Davis suggested to his old pal that the relationship between the government and the gallery should be more professional. McMichael welcomed the idea. It became a Crown Agency, separate but still answerable to the government. McMichael was made director and paid a salary. "For 10 years," says McMichael, "we kept on collecting beautiful things. Some of the best Thomsons we ever got ... everything was just going great." In 1976, when the gallery fell under the newly created Ministry of Culture, civil servants were added to the mix, "people who didn't bring anything with them, not money, art, nothing" says McMichael.

When, in 1980, the gallery needed a new wing, one of the civil servants commissioned a feasibility study. Problems with the log building emerged, including the security, fire protection, lighting and environmental conditions. They also suggested that McMichael, almost 65, retire. He did, hoping to leave administrative work behind and concentrate on acquiring art.

The Minister of Culture cheerily announced McMichael's new role as founder- director emeritus and director, consultant and adviser, citing the couples' gift as "the most important cultural contributions by two living Canadians". Far too late, McMichael says bitterly, he realised the civil servants had "sharp-eyed staff looking at the agreement". The new director "had these swinging young ideas" and "the agreement didn't mean a thing to him".

The agreement outlined the collection's artistic parameters. It would include the Group of Seven, a few named contemporaries, native and Metis art along with, "others who have made a contribution to Canadian art". Even though it requires works to be "consistent with the general character of the collection", this was a loophole that allowed the new curators to start adding works that horrified McMichael, such as a circle of 10 handmade shoes.

Megan Bice, a curator at the gallery, taps her finger on the agreement. "It's right here," she says, "the agreement allows for a broadening of the collection."

McMichael decided his only chance was to take the provincial government, with whom he had signed his original agreement, to court. The gallery, rightly fearing no one would win, watched helplessly as he squared off with their "boss".

In November 1996 Judge Peter Grossi deemed the original 1965 agreement, the contract that had promised McMichael control, valid. He said the board had lost the plot buying works which had, at best, a tangential connection with the Group and, at worst, were flagrantly out of step. Joan Goldfarb, then head of the board, said they were "astounded he went to court and absolutely astounded when we didn't win".

However, the judge's decision had a sting in its tail. In his judgment he defined what should be included in the collection as art that had a "relationship to nature, to energy and to uncontrollable forces". Even more recklessly, he defined the subject matter as "Canada's natural splendour, not a subjective form of art which must be interpreted on an abstract level". This was bad news for McMichael because half of his original gift could be described as borderline abstracts.

And the bad news didn't stop there. Christopher Varley, grandson of one of the Group, wrote to the government citing the McMichaels' wish to "entomb and memorialise" the Group as "a disservice". He vehemently objected to the "tendency to turn them into symbols of the smug, backward-looking establishment". Toronto Star art critic Christopher Hume suggested giving the Kleinberg house back to the McMichaels. Donations of art were put on hold. Funding dried up: no one wanted to be associated with a gallery that was fighting an elderly couple in court.

The government appealed and, in November 1997, won. Two of the three Appeal Court judges said McMichael couldn't treat the collection as "his private fiefdom" and in resigning he'd ceded control. McMichael appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, but lost his bid to have the case heard.

Meanwhile some people, such as the painter John Hartman, 46, who reinterprets the landscape that the Group of Seven made famous (and who had a one-man show that McMichael hated at the gallery), saw a great opportunity. He was asked to address the McMichael board on how court cases had debilitated the art community and he told them this was a chance to "take advantage of the publicity, do something very public and reinstate your vision". One or two board members started applauding until everyone, except McMichael, was on their feet, clapping. Finally the 83-year-old McMichael rose and, as Hartman puts it, passionately "ripped a strip off me and said he would dedicate his life to making the collection the one he wanted".

Last month, the board turned down McMichael's latest proposal: use a professional mediator. He is now threatening to go back to court, this time with a jury. And as one close associate of the gallery said: "If he ever goes on television, looking frail and being charming, he would sink us."

It's very un-Canadian to make a fuss. Robert McMichael irritates people because, despite his age and his soft speaking, he won't go quietly. He thought he had a watertight agreement with his provincial government. They moved the goalposts. If, like many collectors before him, he'd had money, the McMichaels could have bound anyone looking after their collection to their beliefs. Instead, Robert and Signe are living out their retirement in anger and disappointment, surrounded by enemies

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