From behind the closed boardroom doors came the sound of clapping, and the odd whoop of good cheer - not the kind of thing one is hearing a lot of in museums these days. The occasion: the announcement, on Wednesday, that Toronto collector and former art dealer Ydessa Hendeles was gifting 32 works of Canadian and international contemporary art to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The largest donation of contemporary art in the gallery's 110-year history, the gift is valued at more than $5-million. Hendeles, who recently received her doctorate at the University of Amsterdam, has been on the AGO board since 2008. Still a bit giddy from breaking the news, she took a few moments after the meeting to talk about how the donation came to be.
"I would sit in these meetings and they would be talking about how they were looking for programming," she said, jokingly, "and I thought to myself, 'I have programming. I have a whole warehouse full of it'. These things take up a lot of space, and people will come to see them. I'm that can-do girl."
Of course, the process was not nearly so straightforward - nothing is with this intense, fiercely creative woman, known internationally for her riveting exhibitions and relentless drive. In fact, she has been engaging in discussions with numerous institutional suitors, among them New York's Museum of Modern Art, for many years, attempting to settle the fate of her museum-quality collection.
On this day, though, her resolve to keep the collection in Toronto is absolute. "This is the tip of the iceberg," she says. "Of course, I will give more. This is where I live. I wanted to make a document and a history here."
It's a most promising opening volley. Several of the pieces in the current gift are quintessential works by major international artists, such as Gary Hill's Inasmuch as it is Always Already Taking Place (a tangled nest of video tubes, each presenting a fragment of a male body) and Bill Viola's projection Arc of Descent , which features a man immersing himself in water and then re-emerging, a traumatic baptism/birth. Irish artist James Coleman is represented by his masterwork, Living and Presumed Dead , a slide dissolve piece with a cast of costumed actors and puppets that evokes a medieval pageant play.
Canadian artists, too, are represented, with canonical examples of their art, such as Liz Magor's I Have Always Weighed 98 Pounds , which she exhibited at the Venice Biennale; and Ken Lum's Jantzen Family , in which Lum merged the genres of commercial signage and family portraiture. Ian Wallace's series My Heroes in the Street (Part I - III) chronicles a moment in the birth of the Vancouver school of photo-conceptualism.
Ydessa's collection in its entirety, though, is far deeper, harbouring a dozen major works by acclaimed Vancouver artist Jeff Wall, as well as pieces by leading international luminaries Pipilotti Rist, Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Gober and Paul McCarthy, and historic photographers such as August Sander, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Brassai and Weegee. Buying with prescience, she assembled a collection that speaks of a singular journey through the art world.
As a dealer in the 1980s, running The Ydessa Gallery, she helped establish the international careers of Wall, Lum and Rodney Graham. With the opening of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in 1988, her curatorial talents came more prominently to the fore, with exhibitions that brought Canadian and international artists together, and placed artworks in play with other kinds of objects (vintage photography, photojournalism, objets trouvés - from Punch and Judy puppets to Joan Crawford's costume jewellery), achieving alchemical transformations through her juxtapositions.
One 2002 exhibition, which travelled to Munich's Haus der Kunst, combined an exhaustive collection of old teddy bears, and archival photographs of people holding them, with a vintage wind-up Minnie Mouse and two sculptures by Maurizio Cattelan, including a smaller-than-life-
sized sculpture of Hitler in short pants, kneeling in prayer. The show read as an interrogation of our need to believe and belong, and the madness that can ensue from it.
Hendeles was born 1948 in Marburg, Germany. Her parents had survived their incarceration in Auschwitz; the family moved to Canada in 1951. Her opening exhibition at the foundation featured a pile of cast-off clothing, a sculpture by French artist Christian Boltanski. Unwittingly, he had hit a nerve: At Auschwitz, Hendeles's mother was assigned the task of sorting and mending confiscated clothing.
It's the kind of coincidence that fuels her passion for art. "The collection is like a shoot of new growth; it comes out of finding a new history in a new culture," she says, alluding to her immigrant experience. "Most collections are like chopped-up wood," she laughs, "but this one is like a tree. It grew organically, and its still standing."