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William Withrow, 91, oversaw ambitious expansion of Art Gallery of Ontario

Tate Gallery Director Sir John Rothenstein, left, at the Art Gallery of Toronto [now the Art Gallery of Ontario] with its then-director, William J. Withrow in 1963.

For William Withrow, who became director of Toronto's main art museum at the age of 35 and transformed it over the next three decades, there were two kinds of artists: picture makers and problem solvers.

"An art museum should be interested only in the experimental work, the problem solvers," he told The Globe and Mail's art critic, John Bentley Mays in 1985.

He was hired in 1960 by the Art Gallery of Toronto, as the modest municipal gallery was known, to be associate director under Martin Baldwin, who had been director since 1932; he replaced Mr. Baldwin the following year. In the postwar years Mr. Baldwin had run the gallery and its slim collection with a full-time staff of 10 who stopped work every day at 4 p.m. for tea.

Those who called themselves artists in Toronto then, Mr. Withrow later recalled, were mainly picture makers, concerned with creating a pleasing image.

"When I came in, I was personally dissatisfied with the Art Gallery. … It was in the grip of the societies – the Ontario Society of Artists, the Canadian Group of Painters, the Royal Canadian Academy. The reason I run them off as a litany is because they were the same people. A small group that believed the gallery belonged to them.

"The AGT was the board, 40 people here for life. The majority of the board would have been happy for me to come in and be the maître d'."

Sophisticated, savvy, self-effacing, "a man of elegance, grace and good judgment" in the words of Matthew Teitelbaum, a subsequent director, Mr. Withrow was not cut out for the maître d' role.

Committed to advanced art, he gradually won over board members to his vision for the gallery and began to hire brilliant young curators who shared his ambitions: Jean Sutherland Boggs, a Degas specialist who went on to be the first female director of the National Gallery of Canada, became his first chief curator; Brydon Smith, at first her assistant curator, then the fearless curator of modern art who acquired such signature additions to the collection as the giant soft sculpture Floor Burger by Claes Oldenburg; photography curator Miai Sutnik; contemporary art curator Roald Nasgaard, later chief curator; Katharine Lochnan who led the development of the foremost collection in Canada of European drawings and prints.

"When he took over, the gallery was a service organization for the [art] societies; Bill transformed it into a curatorially run professional museum," Mr. Nasgaard said in a phone interview.

Mr. Withrow died in Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto on Jan. 7, at the age of 91. The family has declined to disclose the cause.

In 1966, the brash young director persuaded the Ontario government to change the name and status of the art museum. As the Art Gallery of Ontario it suddenly had access to generous funding, particularly to the dollars flowing from the Wintario lottery.

His staff adored him because, while he had high expectations, he rarely interfered in their work. "Bill Withrow believed in hiring the best staff and giving them free rein," Mr. Nasgaard recalled.

From the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he brought in the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamen in 1979, the show's only Canadian stop, and in 1985 snagged the exhibition Dutch Painting of the Golden Age, which included Vermeer's celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring never before seen in Toronto.

The AGO itself initiated a string of successful exhibitions that were then invited to travel to other art museums in Europe and across North America. Among them: Turner and the Sublime, Mondrian, The Mystic North, Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, Gauguin to Moore and the first retrospective in North America of the paintings of Gerhardt Richter.

"He facilitated research and he understood that a scholarly exhibition needs a catalogue," recalled Bogomila Welsh, the noted U of T art historian who curated the much-lauded Van Gogh show. Full-colour catalogues became standard for all major shows at the AGO, advancing the conversation about art in the city.

"He had a way about him – he was very charming with people," Ms. Welsh said.

William Withrow.

It was perhaps this natural charm that led to his warm friendship with the financier Samuel Zacks and his wife Ayala, noted collectors of 19th- and 20th-century art, who bequeathed their splendid collection of work by Degas, Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, Matisse and other modernists such as Canadian artists Sorel Etrog and Paul-Émile Borduas – 400 pieces in all – to the AGO after Mr. Zacks's death in 1970.

Mr. Withrow also charmed Henry Moore into donating 300 of his avant-garde works, inspired by stones and bones, to the AGO instead of the Tate Gallery in London, as the eminent English sculptor had first intended.

Working closely with the Volunteer Women's Committee, he approved the acquisition of American abstract expressionist works by artists such as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, as well as the more accessible work of Andy Warhol when these artists were still controversial.

The women's committee included art lovers and socialites well-educated in the arts. They were superb fundraisers who ran the gift shop and created an art rental program, then used the profits to support the purchase of pieces tracked down by the curators to fill gaps in the collection. "We also made our own selections; we made acquisitions that are now unique," recalled Jeanne Parkin, now in her 90s, a former member of the women's committee. "It was decided by the volunteers that what was needed was the American School artists so we made a proposal as a group: We were buying only the American School."

A later director, Maxwell Anderson, who had been imported from the United States, disbanded the women's committee in the mid-nineties. "We contributed but we were resented. Everything was taken over that we had initiated," Ms. Parkin added.

The permanent collection grew from 3,400 works when Mr. Withrow arrived to 10,700 pieces 25 years later (it's currently about 90,000). To accommodate the collection, he initiated an ambitious three-stage expansion. The first stage, which opened in 1974, and Stage 2 completed in 1977 included the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion, and the Canadian Wing.

William Withrow was born Sept. 30, 1926, in Toronto, the only child of second cousins Wilfred Withrow and Evelyn Withrow. His father, having served overseas during the First World War, worked for CN Rail and was a talented Sunday painter who took his son with him on sketching trips in the Ontario woods every autumn.

The family had a history of public service. His great-grandfather John Jacob Withrow was an alderman and a builder who founded the Canadian National Exhibition. (Toronto's Withrow Park is named for him.)

When he was 7, Bill was enrolled in Arthur Lismer's Saturday children's classes at the Art Gallery of Toronto. He was 10 when his chalk drawing of a fire with fire engines was selected to be shown at the Paris International Art Exhibition of 1937, where it won a prize.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, he enlisted, but was never sent overseas. He married his high-school sweetheart June Van Ostrom and, after his discharge from the army, he used his veteran's allowance to study in the art and archeology program at the University of Toronto. The painter Charles Comfort was one of his teachers.

Recognizing that he lacked a true artist's originality, he gave up painting to become an art educator, heading up the art department at Earl Haig Secondary School, where he had been a student.

According to his daughter-in-law Laurel Murdoch, 50 years after his teaching career ended, his former students held a tribute event where many thanked him for setting them on a path to an art career.

On the road to excellence at the AGO, Mr. Withrow inevitably encountered some icy patches. In 1972, he faced dozens of angry local artists – including Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow and Charles Pachter – who had chained themselves to the railings in front of the gallery to protest his appointing Richard Wattenmaker as chief curator. Mr. Wattenmaker, an American scholar of U.S. and French art, and of wrought iron, lasted six years.

Donors could be skittish and demanding. The McLean family (of Canada Packers fame) were upset when they discovered that the gallery named for them was to display It's Still Privileged Art, an exhibition consisting of highly political cartoon drawings and banners by Carol Condé and Karl Beveridge. The show was moved into another gallery.

As Mr. Withrow's original staff of 34 had increased to more than 200 in 25 years, tensions became apparent. In 1978, the gallery fought a bitter battle against certification after the Ontario Public Service Employees Union organized AGO staff in the union's first move into the cultural sector.

Mr. Withrow and his vivacious wife, June, were together for 69 years and raised four children. "He was besotted with her all his life," said his daughter-in-law. June spent almost as much time at the gallery as he did and remembered everyone's names. She once attended a costume ball at the AGO dressed as the Marchesa Casati, whose portrait by Augustus John is one of the gallery's best-loved pictures.

Mr. Withrow was not personally interested in collecting, perhaps because he was surrounded by so much great art at work. The couple's home was decorated with paintings by Mr. Withrow's father and a few prints that had been gifts from their friends Kosso Eloul and Rita Letendre.

After he retired in 1991, his advice was sought by other institutions. He and June spent many weeks in Budapest at the invitation of the Palace of Exhibitions, helping Hungarian art museums reinvent themselves in the postcommunist era. He was named a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario and was made a fellow of the Canadian Museums Association.

He leaves his wife, June; his sons, John, Stephen and David Withrow; daughter, Anne Withrow; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson. A celebration of his life will take place at the AGO's Walker Court on April 8.