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Student project, stained glass window, Art for Enlightenment, at Eastern High School of Commerce.
Student project, stained glass window, Art for Enlightenment, at Eastern High School of Commerce.

AGO in talks to rescue Toronto school board's art treasures Add to ...

The Toronto District School Board and the Art Gallery of Ontario are negotiating a unique partnership that would rescue millions of dollars worth of artwork and nearly two centuries worth of artifacts from a dusty vault in a downtown high school.

An arrangement of this scope and scale is nearly unprecedented in North America. Under the proposal, the school board would lend works by members of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and Norval Morrisseau to the AGO, which would display them in a controlled environment in a new education wing.

The artworks, many of which were discovered in disrepair in hallways and in principals' offices, have been caught in a financial Catch-22 for years: Without the money to restore or display the treasures, both the learning and earning potential of the collection was lost.

The details of the partnership have not been finalized, but the framework includes free access for the general public, expanded field trip programs for students and badly needed access for the board to the AGO's conservational services.

Trustees voted on Wednesday night to extend the contracts of the curators who will help the TDSB seal the deal with the AGO. A final major hurdle will come early next year, when the board is set to vote on the details of the partnership.

"It is the most astonishing convergence of the stars that I could imagine," said Kelly McKinley, director of education and public planning for the AGO. "... In my professional career, in my connections with my colleagues across North America, I haven't heard of anything like this before, not on this kind of scale where a collection owned by a school board goes on display in a museum and then becomes a cornerstone of teaching for both the board and the museum."

The TDSB began to collect and catalogue its artwork in earnest after Cranberry Lake, painted in 1936 by Franklin Carmichael, was damaged when a steam pipe burst at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute in 2004. Through a partnership with the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, the board raised $10,000 to restore the painting and three others by selling off limited-edition prints of the moody landscape.

The collection also includes a Tom Thomson painting worth an estimated $1.5-million that was removed several years ago from the principal's office at Riverdale Collegiate.

"The TDSB collection is unusual, the class and the depth of it is not like any other collection," said Shelley Falconer, one of the curators who has helped the TDSB catalogue and identify ways to harness the pedagogical potential of its artwork.

"This is not your conventional partnership, but it's fulfilling a need that both partners have."

If the deal is approved, the gallery will get to showcase previously hidden works by major Canadian artists, the board will get a venue for its collection and both will be forging an important new educational resource for students. They aim to have the TDSB's artworks on display next fall, when the AGO opens its new 35,000-square-foot education wing, the Weston Family Learning Centre.

This is a step that the board's heritage services staff hope will help spur partnerships with other galleries and museums, and eventually lead to the establishment of a charitable foundation to manage the collection. Some of the TDSB's photo archives - and possibly some of the children's own work - will likely also be part of the display at the gallery.

"It's not just for the students, it's for the public," said Gary Crawford, an outgoing trustee and councillor-elect who has championed the collection. "A lot of these paintings came from the schools, and so the alumni and the people who were attached to them now will have the opportunity to get into the AGO to be able to at least see them in a proper environment."

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