Helen Gardiner, a philanthropist and co-founder of The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto, died of pancreatic cancer at the family farm in Caledon East, Ontario early this morning. She was 70. Predeceased by her husband George Gardiner, she is survived by her daughter Lindy Barrow, her mother Helen McMinn, her brother Bob McMinn and her extended family. The funeral will take place on Monday, July 28 at 11 a.m. at St. James Cathedral in Toronto.
As Ms. Gardiner herself pointed out, she had three lives: Before George, during George, and after George. The George was George Ryerson Gardiner, a business integrator, Harvard MBA and stockbroker. He founded Gardiner Group Capital, the country's first discount brokerage and was president of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Generally considered a business genius, he was a pioneer in the oil and gas business, opened the first airport hotel in Canada, brought Kentucky Fried Chicken north of the 49th parallel, established Gardiner Farms, the racing stable and breeding farm, and was one of the original members of syndicate that owned Northern Dancer. "He didn't start with nothing," said a former business associate, referring to Mr. Gardiner's father, the late financier Percy Gardiner, "but he multiplied it many times over."
Ms. Gardiner, by contrast, came from humble circumstances, and was a single parent working as a secretary in Mr. Gardiner's brokerage firm when they met. With Mr. Gardiner's support, she became a mature student at York University and took the decorative arts course at Christie's in London, England. Having acquired professional expertise - her impeccable eye for quality was innate - she and her husband amassed a huge and very valuable collection of porcelain and earthenware and together built a museum to house it.
Nevertheless, he was always the public face and voice of The Gardiner Museum. After Mr. Gardiner died in Dec., 1997, she emerged as a fundraiser, philanthropist, and connoisseur who has transformed the Gardiner from a mausoleum for a private collection into a dynamic, innovative and internationally prized museum. As well, she developed her own interests in the National Ballet School and other art forms such as opera, becoming so fond of Wagner's Ring Cycle that she was known as a "Ring" addict.
"The Gardiner Museum was her number one passion, but The National Ballet School was a close second," said Margaret McCain former chair of the board of the NBS and former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick. "Helen had moral integrity and she also had a lot of fortitude," said Ms. McCain, describing her friend as fun, with a wonderful laugh and a complete lack of pretension. "She was grounded and she was able to hold on to her own identity, even if she was in George's shadow for a long time. There was a strength there and I used to say, 'you are your own person, kind and gentle, but strong inside.'"
Tony Arrell, a former CEO of Gardiner Watson and a director of Gardiner Group Capital said: "When you have a tree growing under a big tree, the big tree shades the little tree, but when you take the big tree out, the little tree can grow up--and that is what has been happening with Helen.
She has proven to be a stronger character with a greater ability than many people thought," he said. "There has been a lot more to Helen Gardiner in the last ten years than we ever knew before."
Helen Elizabeth McMinn, was born in Kirkland Lake on July 18, 1938. Her father Charles was a carpenter at one of the gold mines, while her mother Helen McMinn was a homemaker. The McMinns moved south to Toronto where Mr. McMinn worked for General Electric at its Davenport Works until he retired. Their two children, Helen and Bob, went to high school in Toronto, and then Bob joined the military. Helen's daughter Lindy Barrow, who was born in 1958, lived with her grandparents until she was about 10. Meanwhile, Ms. McMinn, a single parent, worked at various jobs in advertising and as a legal secretary to support her daughter and save enough money to provide a home for them both.
In the mid to late 1960s, she met George Gardiner when she was hired as a secretary at Gardiner Watson, the stock brokerage that he and a partner had founded just after the Second World War. At the time Ms. McMinn was in her late 20s and Mr. Gardiner, who was in his early 50s (and known to enjoy, discreetly, the company of beautiful women) was a married man with three children. Not long before, his father, a formidable figure in his life, had died - in July 1965 - of a heart attack. This death may have liberated Mr. Gardiner, who had had a fractious relationship with his father and had always felt the need to show that he could be even more successful in business, according to a former business associate and family friend. "He once said that Helen was the first person that he laid eyes on as he was coming out from under this oppression that he had been under for so many years," according to Gretchen Ross, a long time friend. Mr. Gardiner's relationship with Ms. McMinn led to the break up of his own marriage.
In the middle 1970s, Mr. Gardiner and Ms. McMinn moved into a house on Old Forest Hill Road in Toronto. He had bought the property, razed the house and built a new one with lead lined walls - he had acute hearing and didn't want to be disturbed by the neighbours. Mr. Gardiner already had ceramics because he and his first wife had bought some pre-Colombian earthenware in South America. He was the one who decided that he and Ms. McMinn should "collect something unique to make our house looked lived in," she said later. "George didn't want to go out and buy a truckload of knick-knacks or ask our decorator to do so." And "he wanted it to have quality, individuality and his personal stamp." Naively, as she later admitted, they hit on ceramics.
Two years later, inflation was escalating. Mr. Gardiner, an astute and thrifty businessman, read an article in which it was claimed that Chinese and European porcelain were outperforming stocks, bonds and real estate and decided it was time to turn what had been a hobby into an investment. Ms. McMinn, who had been studying as a mature student at York University since 1974, switched tacks and went to London, England in 1978 to take Christie's Fine Arts Course. A year later, she was both an expert and a qualified dealer who could buy ceramics at wholesale prices.
Their first mature purchase was a hand painted, highly decorated, yellow background tea and chocolate service made in 1740 by Meissen, the earliest factory in Europe to produce hard-paste porcelain. On the advice of a Sotheby's porcelain expert, Ms. McMinn had gone to see the 50 piece set, complete with its original leather travelling case, at Winifred Williams Antiques on Bury St. in London. She was enchanted and persuaded Mr. Gardiner to take time out from a business trip to look at the Meissen service himself and to meet dealer Robert Williams. Without telling her, he bought the service. And so the Gardiners began their long association with Mr. Williams and transformed themselves into serious collectors. As Ms. McMinn said later, "Bob taught me how to really look at things. He was generous with his knowledge and showed me how to identify artists and factories by the distinctive characteristics of their work."
From Meissen, the couple began accumulating works made by Du Paquier, the second factory in Europe to produce hard-paste porcelain in the 18th century and to pieces called Hausmaler, a term used to describe ceramics decorated by studio artists who painted or redecorated porcelain produced by factories such as Meissen or Du Paquier. As always, they kept a judicious eye on their passions and their bottom line, collecting Du Paquier because it was undervalued, and Hausmaler for its variety, its eccentric charm and the stories about subterfuge, espionage and larceny swirling around the pieces--how artists "acquired" undecorated wares from the studios that employed them and then painted them with their own designs.
During her Christie's course, Ms. McMinn had been seduced by the lush sensual colours and painterly decoration of Italian Maiolica. She took Mr. Gardiner to see the Maiolica collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and he too was entranced. Encouraged by a lull in the market for Maiolica, Mr. Gardiner began buying at auction or through their retinue of international dealers.
By the early 1980s, the Gardiners--they had married on July 11, 1981, at least a dozen years after they first met--were running out of display and storage room in their spacious home. With the help of entertainment lawyer (and ceramics collector) Aaron Milrad, the determined and persuasive Mr. Gardiner set about acquiring the land and the political approvals to establish a museum. In 1981, the Ontario government led by Premier William Davis unanimously passed Bill 183 to create The George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art as an independent, public institution. Then the late Dr. Murray Ross, formerly of the University of Toronto and by then the president of York University, helped the Gardiners negotiate the lease of a tennis court on the east side of Queen's Park, directly opposite the Royal Ontario Museum, from Victoria University, a constituent part of the U of T. Mr. Gardiner gave the college $500,000 to lease the land for 99 years.
Three years later, architect Keith Wagland and designer Robert Meikeljohn's $6-million building was ready. The George R. Gardiner Museum, showcasing some 3,000 objects valued at between $16- million and $25-million from the Gardiners' personal collection, officially opened on Saturday, March 3, 1984, with an additional $2.5-million operating grant from its benefactors to celebrate the occasion.
Initially, the Gardiners were as naive about operating a museum as they had been about ceramics. They didn't have nearly enough staff, went through three directors in their first year, and underestimated their operating and exhibition costs. After unsuccessfully petitioning the Liberal government in Ontario for more money, the museum was advised by Premier David Peterson to merge with the ROM in 1987. "I have learned it is very, very difficult to compete with other museums," Mr. Gardiner, a man known for his love of independence and going it alone, said at an emotional press conference called to announce the merger.
"The government decided we needed the ROM's management expertise," Ms. Gardiner told The Globe in 2006, adding that "We learned so much from those years." But it wasn't always a comfortable relationship. For an independent museum to be put under the control of another much larger museum, was akin to an adult daughter having to move back into her parents house with her children after a messy divorce.
The ROM saw The Gardiner as an adjunct housing yet another of its many collections, but The Gardiner longed to flex its curatorial wings. Mr. Gardiner, who was succeeded as chair of the board by his wife in 1994, bought back the museum's independence with a $15 million endowment (raising his investment in his own museum to about $50 million). It was announced early in January, 1997, 11 months before Mr. Gardiner died, at 80, of complications from arthritis and heart disease. Income from the money, which is invested with Tony Arrell at Burgundy Asset Management, accounts for about 40 per cent of the museum's operating costs.
"George did her a huge favour, but she repaid him many times over," said one of Mr. Gardiner's closest associates. "She was fantastic with him. He was a near genius as a business guy, but he did present some personal relationship challenges and she made his life a lot of fun in the last years."
Gretchen Ross, who has been Ms. Gardiner's friend since the late 1960s, concurred with this assessment. "They were very happy," she said. However, the strain of caring for him in his last years when he was ill and "difficult" and dealing with his estate after his death made her so nervous that her throat muscles tightened up and she lost her voice, according to Ms. Ross. It was only recently, that doctors found a solution--periodic shots of Botox and a regime of throat exercises--enabling Ms. Gardiner to speak above a whisper.
In the decade of her widowhood, Ms. Gardiner threw herself into the museum and into the National Ballet School where she had sat on the board since 1990. She contributed financially to the NBS and became a personal mentor to young dance students. "She invested a lot more than money, she invested herself in the life of the school and the lives of the students," said Margaret McCain. "She took on a student and stayed with that student and became a mentor and a guide and a friend."
Under Ms. Gardiner's direction, the museum built up its membership lists again and began to expand beyond the personal vision of its founders. Instead of just showcasing the antiques and antiquities that the Gardiners had collected, the museum began accepting other collections such as Dr. Hans Syz's German porcelain and Murray and Ann Bell's trove of Chinese blue and white porcelain; and they expanded their mandate to include modern and contemporary pieces from collectors such as Aaron Milrad, and began organizing exhibitions of work by living artists.
Ms. Gardiner was chair until 1999, vice-chair for the next two years, during which the museum received a Lieutenant- Governor's Award for the Arts for building private sector and community support, showing fiscal responsibility and expanding its audience (from 20,000 to 60,000 visitors annually) with exhibitions such as Maya Universe, Miro: Playing with Fire and Harlequin Unmasked, and starting pottery classes for children. In 2002, she accepted the position of honorary chair and led the museum's fundraising and expansion campaign to raise $12.8- million from the private sector in addition to $5-million dollars from the provincial and federal governments.
The museum closed from 2004 to 2006 for a $20-million renovation undertaken by Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna and Blumberg Architects. The renovation added a glass encased third floor, restaurant and roof terraces, increased exhibition space by 50 per cent, added a research library and expanded the museum shop and the basement studio to accommodate artists-in-residence and an increased scheduler of pottery classes.
"In the last ten years she started to develop her own interests and her own ability to reach out for things that she would never have looked at before. And then she got sick," said Aaron Milrad, vice-Chair of the board. "She had an integrity that was recognized and it is going to be extremely difficult for us to raise the kind of money that she was able to raise through her contacts and her own strength of character."
Falling terminally ill was a tremendous shock to Ms. Gardiner who had always planned to live well into her 90s, as her mother has done. The first week of May, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland, Ms. Gardiner began a rigorous course of chemotherapy, but soon decided to suspend treatment, as it wasn't working and it was making her feel very ill. Instead, she let "nature take its course" as she told her friends and family.