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Avrom Isaacs, Isaacs Gallery owner, August 24, 1978.

Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

Origin stories, be they humble or the stuff of myth, often are fuzzy in the details.

Take the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, defunct essentially since 2001, but during its 1960s heyday, perhaps the leading showcase for contemporary Canadian art in the country, certainly in Toronto, and a prime sower of the modernist ethos. Its founder, Avrom Isaacs, died at the age of 89 of congestive heart failure in Toronto on Jan. 15.

The historical record shows that what would become The Isaacs was spawned circa mid-1949 when two University of Toronto pals, Isaacs (né Isaacovitch) and Al Latner, rented a small shop in the downtown Toronto district known as The Ward, the city's first immigrant neighbourhood and, in parts, its wannabe Greenwich Village.

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There the duo set up a picture-framing/art-supply business, the Greenwich Art Shop, operating it mostly part-time initially. The plan – or perhaps more accurately, the hope – was to build a clientele from among the artists with studios in the neighbourhood and the students attending the nearby Ontario College of Art (OCA). By mid-1950, the art shop was a solo operation, helmed by the bushy-browed, burly-framed Mr. Isaacs. He was 24 and had just earned a BA in political science and economics.

You could say he was looking for some direction. Born March 19, 1926, in Winnipeg, young Avrom once thought he might work for his father, Isaac, who had a wholesale dry goods business. Then he thought he might be a mechanical engineer, then a veterinarian. He liked animals; he'd worked in an animal clinic. But it was the art thing that took hold, even as he acknowledged he knew little-to-nothing about it; he hadn't taken a single visual arts course. Still, he was avid, open-hearted and curious. Word soon spread that the Greenwich Art Shop was the place for good framing done at reasonable cost. Artists, proto-Beats and students began to hang out. If you didn't have a permanent address, you could use the shop as a mail-drop. If you were looking for a job as, say, a set painter for CBC-TV, and didn't have a home phone, you could leave Mr. Isaacs's number with the prospective employer. It was a community hub of sorts, a scene.

Somewhere in there, too, someone got the idea that Mr. Isaacs should show original art on his premises and in the windows. "At that time, the galleries in Toronto were … well, the only expression I can use is 'mouldy fig,'" explained the artist and scenographer Murray Laufer recently. "Yes, there were contemporary artists, but there wasn't really any place they could call home." Maybe it was Mr. Isaacs himself who had the idea. No one knows for sure. Michael Snow, who would graduate from the OCA in 1952, believes it was their mutual pal, painter Graham Coughtry, who "first suggested that or did that. Av didn't have the intention of becoming a gallery," Mr. Snow said recently. "It's just that certain artists suggested – and I think Graham started it actually – that he hang things and, when he sold some, that sort of decided him to go a little farther."

Avrom Isaacs, of course, eventually took it a lot farther. Today, merely listing the names of some of the artists who came to be collared and corralled in his stable – Snow and Coughtry, William Kurelek, Joyce Wieland, Dennis Burton, Gordon Rayner, Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Gathie Falk – is sufficient to conjure a swirling collage of images, styles and movements, a charged atmosphere in which everything seemed doable and anything seemed possible (including international fame). Even today the mind boggles, for instance, at Mr. Isaacs's decision in spring 1968 to pay for two of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, to play five hours of … chess at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University)! This was part of the Isaacs Gallery Mixed Media Concerts series, started in 1965 to promote such then-nascent developments as performance and intermedia art.

Mr. Isaacs at first mounted no formal exhibitions in his Ward shop, keeping the framing-and-supply business front and centre. When a 21-year-old Mr. Coughtry graduated in 1953 from the OCA (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University), he invited Mr. Isaacs to share an apartment – an arrangement that lasted until mid-1955. Later, Mr. Isaacs would characterize the experience as his "post-graduate degree in the arts." In July of that year, Isaacs decided to shutter the shop temporarily to take a six-week solo tour of art museums in the U.K. and Europe. Returning, he announced his intention to close the shop and establish an actual gallery in larger premises nearby. In a 1988 interview, Mr. Issacs claimed it was Mr. Snow and Mr. Coughtry who "talked him" into opening a gallery because, they said, "there was no place in the city to show [their] pictures."

Whatever the raison d'être, Mr. Isaacs did find a new space by the end of 1955, naming it the Greenwich Gallery. It opened in February, 1956, with a group show of works by five painters, among them Mr. Coughtry, Mr. Snow and William Ronald, the last one of the founders of the famous group of abstractionists Painters Eleven. The custom-framing part of the business, where the real money was made, moved to the rear of the gallery.

Mr. Isaacs kept moving forward from there. In 1957, he married the actress Norma Renault, with whom he had one child, a daughter, Renann, in 1964. The gallery continued at its Ward location for almost six years, renamed The Isaacs in fall 1959 before relocating in spring 1961 to a custom-designed space on Yonge Street, just north of Bloor on the eastern edge of Yorkville. It's this incarnation, spacious, with white walls and a cedar ceiling, that most people think of when they think of the Isaacs Gallery. Mr. Isaacs, in fact, would stay there for 25 years, turning a show pretty much every three weeks. It also became a venue for concerts and readings, rallies and lectures. Said Isaacs in 1986: "I had terrific artists and I was a kingpin." Said a former colleague: "Just as everybody goes to Rick's in Casablanca, everybody went to Av's on Yonge."

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Friends and associates today are quick to applaud the Isaacs "eye." Observed Mr. Laufer: "I think he also had something like intuition, something that wasn't just a matter of seeing, but of getting a feeling of something." Mr. Isaacs never subscribed to a particular aesthetic, except perhaps "the desire to be engaged," said Martha Black, now curator of ethnology at the Royal B.C. Museum but formerly assistant director/curator at the Isaacs. "He liked dramatic work, emotional work." In one interview in the 1980s, Mr. Isaacs confessed to being "totally insecure" for pretty much his first decade as a dealer. "I went with what I felt was good, but I didn't know if I was on the right track." Indeed, when Mr. Kurelek, whom Mr. Isaacs first hired as a picture-framer, came to paint Mr. Isaacs's portrait in 1964, he called it The Seeker.

Michael Snow: "Av would ask questions, but he was never very obvious about it. He'd find out opinions, but he wouldn't just blatantly say what he thought. … He wasn't pushy. When you were having a show, at least in my case, I showed what I wanted and we worked on the installation together. He didn't say in any way, 'We don't like that.' We did talk about what was in the shows because he, of course, wanted to know as much as he could. But he didn't have a pro or con opinion; it was simply learning, being able to pass that on to other onlookers."

Over time, Mr. Isaacs did become more confident, developing, according to Joan Murray in her 1996 memoir Confessions of a Curator, a particular admiration for Ambroise Vollard, the French dealer, an early champion of Cézanne and Picasso. "Like [Vollard]," Ms. Murray writes, "he wanted to be a tastemaker."

Ms. Black said someone she knew once described Mr. Isaacs as "deceptively benign." He was, she observed, "a pretty steely guy, very determined, very competitive," who could be gruff. He was unafraid to dismiss a bad idea with a blunt "What crap," and a supposed hurt with a "Get over it." At the same time, "he came across as very accessible to people. They all felt they knew him. They didn't call him Mr. Isaacs very often, even Avrom; it was Av. But for all the approachability, he was sort of a deep guy."

Sculptor/installation artist Mark Prent, who joined the Isaacs shortly after graduation in 1970 from what is now Montreal's Concordia University, recalled Mr. Isaacs's kindness and generosity – and his willingness to fight for his artists. Mr. Prent's hyper-realistic polyester resin renderings of the naked human form in extremis are not to everyone's taste, to put it mildly. Even Mr. Isaacs reportedly "turned away" on his first encounter, only to warm to the work when it continued to haunt him after the intitial shock.

"Other artists could set up at Av's in a day or in a few hours," Mr. Prent said in a phone interview. "I needed several days, three, four, because of the lights and sounds and sets I used. So the gallery had to be basically closed for us. Av would pay for the transportation from Montreal to the gallery. He put us up at a hotel. He gave us the key to the gallery. We'd work until 2 in the morning, go to the hotel to sleep, then come back a few hours later. Av would bring us coffee. He'd take us to some 24-hour sandwich place. … He looked after us almost like we were his children."

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Mr. Isaacs was there, too, in 1972 and 1974, when Toronto police, citing a little-known statute banning the public display of "disgusting objects," threatened to shut down a Prent show in each of those years. It was Mr. Isaacs who kept the gallery open, hired the necessary legal help, and ensured that Mr. Prent's legal costs were covered after the case went to the Supreme Court.

The omnivorous Issacs eye eventually fastened on Inuit art. After hosting two Inuit-themed shows at the gallery in the late 1960s and making the first of what would be almost a dozen trips to the high Arctic, the dealer established in June, 1970, a standalone space dedicated to its sale. Called the Innuit Gallery, it was among the first private commercial outlets in the country devoted to serious Inuit art. From that point, the fate of his main gallery was inextricably linked to that of the Inuit showcase, the success of the latter in effect subsidizing the operations of the former.

Faced with a mammoth rent increase in 1986, Mr. Isaacs shuttered his much-loved Yonge Street perch on Halloween and, early the next year, opened a new space just south of the Art Gallery of Ontario. That gallery functioned until 1991, when Isaacs declared he was officially getting out of contemporary art to concentrate on Inuit art. In the meantime, Mr. Isaacs had divorced and now was deeply involved with TV producer Donnalu Wigmore, who would remain his "partner in everything" until his death. The 1980s also saw Mr. Isaacs develop a passion for cycling.

In 1992, he received an honorary doctorate from York University and was named a member of the Order of Canada.

By spring 2001, however, quadruple bypass surgery and two knee replacements helped him decide to quit the art business. "I'm 75, for Christ's sake," he told The Globe and Mail at the time. "I've done the same thing for 50 years. I'm starting to bore myself. I want to see if I can find out who the hell Av Isaacs is."

Daughter Renann, 51, in the meantime, continues the tradition, running an eponymous commercial contemporary art gallery she opened in 2010 in Guelph, west of Toronto. She credits 12 years spent "doing everything" at her father's Inuit gallery for "giving me a real sense of what it takes to run a gallery."

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Mr. Isaacs is survived by his wife, Ms. Wigmore; his daughter, Renann; and his brother, Nathan. He was predeceased by his sisters, Evelyn and Sadie, and his first wife, the former Norma Renault.

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