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Toronto's Ryerson University announced yesterday that an anonymous Canadian donor has given it 291,000 historic black-and-white photographs from the famous Black Star agency as well as $7-million in cash for their preservation and exhibition in a new photography centre Ryerson hopes to have built by 2007.

Announcement of the gift, "unprecedented in Ryerson's [57-year]history," was made at a media conference on its downtown campus. While Ryerson officials yesterday were tight-lipped about the individual or organization behind the donation and its circumstances, reliable sources indicate the prints and money are coming from the Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Group, which owns and operates grocery stores, car dealerships, radio and TV stations, an illuminated sign company and a magazine distributorship, among other businesses.

It reportedly purchased the collection from New York-based Black Star about three years ago as the photo agency, founded in 1935, was converting to an all-digital imaging service.

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Robert Burley, a photographer and professor with Ryerson's School of Image Arts, which will be the custodian of the collection, said the Black Star prints do have a dollar value, "but I'm not at liberty at this time to reveal [that]"

Burley was one of four Ryerson officials who examined the collection, believed to be worth several million dollars, on the university's behalf last July at a warehouse in an unidentified Canadian centre where they were being stored in 2,000 boxes housed in 15 large crates.

It's known Ryerson was not the first Canadian institution offered the gift, which includes iconic images of 20th-century events and individuals taken by some of the world's most famous photographers including W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Brassai. Indeed, in 2003, Vicki Goldberg, the noted New York photography critic, scholar and author, was asked to analyze the collection at New York's Black Star storage facility for the other institution, which she declined to identify while attending yesterday's press event.

Whatever the circumstances, Burley was lauding the donation as "an ideal fit for us." Ryerson has had a film and photography department since the late 1940s and now offers a master's degree program in association with George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., home of Eastman Kodak. Meanwhile, Ira Levine, dean of Ryerson's faculty of communication and design, indicated the university's school of journalism is looking into either resuscitating the photojournalism program it ended more than a decade ago, or expanding the photojournalism instruction.

Canadian law permits a non-profit institution such as Ryerson to issue a receipt to the donor in an amount equal to the fair market value of the gift, provided it has been certified as having "outstanding significance and national importance" by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. (There are numerous Canadian-themed photographs in the collection, including at least one of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King meeting with British leader Winston Churchill in Quebec in 1943.) The full amount of that value can then be applied as a deduction in computing the taxable income of the donor. Last December, Canadian Business magazine ranked James (Jimmy) Pattison, 76, as Canada's fifth-wealthiest individual, with a personal worth in 2003 estimated at close to $4.2-billion.

Levine said no precise location has been determined for the new exhibition centre, which will also house the Kodak Canada archives plus 2,000 photographs and 140,000 slides from the Mira Godard Study Centre, not to mention future acquisitions and donations of photographs and photo-related materials. However, it will be built at the university's downtown Toronto campus, and besides being available to local and international photography scholars and students of photography, it will mount exhibitions open to the general public.

Getting the Black Star photos as an anonymous gift "really works for us," Levine noted, "because there's now a naming opportunity for the gallery" that can be bought by an individual or organization. "It's going to be an expensive building to maintain," he added, referring, in part, to the degree of temperature and humidity control required to keep prints from deteriorating. Ryerson is currently in the midst of a $210-million capital expansion, and it's estimated that naming rights for the new photography space could go for $5-million to $10-million.

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The Black Star agency actually was started by three German Jews in the early 20th-century, but with Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the trio, led by Ernest Mayer, fled to the United States, bringing an estimated 5,000 black-and-white photographs with them. They incorporated the agency under the name Black Star in 1935 in New York. The agency was a major supplier of images to Life magazine and later went on to supply other publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Newsweek, Ladies' Home Journal and The New York Times.

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