Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

The Ontario government has been convinced that the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinburg has gone astray in its operations and collecting policy, thereby violating the terms of an agreement its founders, Robert and Signe McMichael, signed with the province 35 years ago.

To address this concern, the government has tabled Bill 112 to, in effect, restore control of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection to its founders, Robert and Signe McMichael. The bill, which passed second reading in the Ontario legislature last week, raises the spectre of thousands of works -- ones deemed "inappropriate" by the McMichaels themselves -- being offloaded or deaccessioned to other institutions or galleries or individuals. The government has been unclear on this.

But has the McMichael really been violating the terms of the 1965 agreement? And should the McMichaels now be regarded as the final arbiters as to what should today be purchased and displayed? In reply to the first question, I would argue that this is not the case. With respect to the second question, I say "definitely not."

Story continues below advertisement

Ask members of the public about the McMichael Gallery and they will tell you that the McMichael, about 30 kilometres northwest of Toronto, is devoted to the Group of Seven specifically and to Canadian art more generally. Tourists go to see the landscape images of the Group, the works of present-day Canadian artists who have been inspired by their work, as well as work by Canada's indigenous artists.

Under the direction of the McMichaels, the gallery acquired a range of works by approximately 270 artists, which represented not only the importance of the Group of Seven in Canadian art but also the diversity of contemporary Canadian practice. As director of the gallery, Robert McMichael observed in 1977 that the institution had responded to "increased enthusiasm" for Canadian works through exhibitions of contemporary art.

Clearly then, the issue is not a case of returning to an original narrow mandate. In fact, the language of the 1965 agreement, far from supporting the argument of the McMichaels and the Harris government of an institution gone astray, actually buttresses the actions and acquisitions that successive directors and boards of trustees have taken since it was signed. The wording of Section 13 states: "The said collection shall be known as the 'McMichael Conservation Collection of Art' and shall be comprised of paintings by Tom Thompson (sic), Emily Carr, David Milne, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, A. J. Casson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael and other artists as designated by the Advisory Committee who have made contributions to the development of Canadian art."

The point of contention in the current dispute is, simply, that Robert and Signe McMichael do not like some of the more recently acquired works, many of which raise contemporary issues about the relationship between nature and culture and challenge the wilderness ideology espoused by the Group. GROUP R2 {M>LINES:00297 DEPTH:00041.5 00250.00 ERRORS:0000Taking the Group's pulse on gallery NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA/THE ESTATE OF KATHLEEN G. McKAY Frederick Varley's Vera: the artist was primarily known as a portraitist.

The Group of Seven, circa 1920, from left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (non member), F. H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer and J. E. H. MacDonald.

GROUP R1 These works respond to the images of the Group, challenging us today as the work of the Group challenged viewers three quarters of a century ago. Likewise, some of the First Nations and Inuit art works in the collection deal with political and social issues, making reference to contemporary life and experience.

What Bill 112, in fact, will accomplish, if passed, is to legislate the overturning of a well-developed, coherent collections policy created within the framework of the original mandate and the work of duly appointed boards working within that mandate to fulfill the public trust.

Story continues below advertisement

From time to time in this dispute, which has been going on for years, the McMichaels have presumed to "speak for" what the Group and its colleagues would have wanted. Four years ago, when it was enmeshed in a court case, the McMichael board issued a statement addressing, through a review of history, why the Group would not have approved of the McMichaels' narrow selection of representative artists. However, Robert McMichael, responding to a letter of support for the McMichael board from Charles Hill, curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery, said these ideas were second-hand. He personally had known six of the Group members and he knew they would have agreed with him.

Now in this particular realm of retrospection, there are several choices. You could rely on the actions and words of Group members during the period in which they came to prominence and later to dominate the Canadian art world. You could speak to those individuals who knew them well and ask them to extrapolate, from their own knowledge of the artist, his or her (though Emily Carr is the only woman artist included in the McMichaels' shortlist) feelings on the subject. Or you could rely, as Robert McMichael has, on personal conversations with some of the artists, albeit at a moment in time long after any spirit of the Group as such had hardened, in some cases, into stereotype and occasionally self-interest.

What if the artists named in the legislation and central to the collection were asked to determine the future of the gallery? How would they have interpreted the original mandate and how would they respond to the subtle changes inherent in the current legislation?

As an art historian focusing on Canadian art, I would like to hypothesize what some of these artists might have said about the thrust of the new legislation. Though they were individuals (even the Group of Seven did not really speak in a single voice), it might be worth having the artists speak through evidence of their collective actions. (Tom Thomson isn't included here since he died before the Group was actually formed.)

In 1924, for instance, when the members of the Royal Canadian Academy protested the fact that the National Gallery had selected members of the Group to represent Canada at the British Empire Exhibition of Canadian art in Wembley, Group members argued that there should be no single way of looking at Canadian art and were adamant in soliciting support for their opinion. In the year 2000, they would have a hard time with a public gallery, ostensibly dedicated to their ideals, deaccessioning art which did not look like theirs.

Today we think of Group of Seven exhibitions as being dedicated to the Canadian landscape. In fact, their exhibitions always included portraiture, urban scenes, figure studies and even abstract art. They did not want to create a new academy, and in their exhibitions included experimental works by such contemporaries as Bertram Brooker, Lowrie Warrener and Kathleen Munn -- works that, in their day, were as controversial as those to which the McMichaels object today. Doubtless an explanatory note in the proposed new legislation -- calling for the McMichael to focus on "the beauty of Ontario" as depicted in the first half of the 20th century -- would certainly have troubled the Group. Its members painted throughout the country and saw their role as national rather than provincial. A. Y. Jackson was from Quebec and returned to paint there every year. The Group regularly invited Quebec artists, as well as Emily Carr (from British Columbia) and L. L. FitzGerald (from Manitoba), to exhibit with them.

Story continues below advertisement

Furthermore, when the Group perceived, in 1932, that, in spite of themselves, they had become locked into public perception as a narrowly defined landscape school, they disbanded formally and reformed as the Canadian Group of Painters which was broadly based and not at all directive in terms of style or subject.

Moving from the collective perspective, what would individual members of the Group have thought of the Mike Harris legislation? Franz Johnston, for one, would no doubt be somewhat conflicted. It is possible that he might have agreed with the legislation tabled last month. After all, in 1927, after seeing a Cubist exhibition, he wrote: "Braque's still life is sickening even to one with a good stomach." But Johnston, who left Toronto for Winnipeg shortly after the Group was formed, is named in neither the original nor the new legislation -- a fact which, had he been aware of it, might have soured him on the project.

Lawren Harris, arguably the Group's philosophical heart, was eloquent about the role of art in society and wrote and spoke frequently on the topic. In 1927 he lobbied for a Toronto showing of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which included the abstract works of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. True, it was Harris who, in the Group's catalogues and in his 1926 article "Revelation of Art in Canada," tried to articulate the relationship between landscape and national identity, but he would have protested the narrow nationalism implied in the new legislation. Representational and abstract art, he argued, were part of the same continuous creative practice. Discussing the same exhibition as Johnston in 1927, he wrote, ". . . complacency plays no part in the life of creative individuals: The urge of spirit is too active in them."

While Harris clearly would have rejected Bill 112, J. E. H. MacDonald might have agreed with the restrictive definition of the Group contained in the legislation. A mature artist when the Group came to prominence, he dedicated himself to the landscape in the 1920s and was fulfilled by his role in the Group.

Fred Varley, by contrast, would have aligned himself with Lawren Harris. Though he painted landscapes throughout his career, Varley wrote to his sister in England that the empty landscapes of the Group of Seven held little interest for him. He was one of the few members of the Group who included figures in his landscapes, often equating the figure with the landscape rather than dwarfing the human presence by the grandeur of the mountains or forest scenery. In the 1930s, living in British Columbia, Varley returned to the landscape for inspiration but he was influenced less by his Ontario colleagues than by Sung dynasty landscape painting and Buddhist philosophy. Varley also was primarily known as a portraitist -- perhaps Canada's greatest -- though this body of work is not central to the philosophy espoused in Bill 112.

Franklin Carmichael's last major work was an abstract composition titled Gambit #1, now housed in Kleinburg. It appears the artist was embarking on a new direction; however, the fact it was painted in the year he died (1945) makes it difficult to say what his take would be on the actions of the McMichaels.

Story continues below advertisement

Clearly A. Y. Jackson, were he alive today, would object to the restrictive tone of the legislation. In 1966, he wrote Robert McMichael, suggesting that "it would be a good investment if you acquired current examples of 'objective' work with the intention of exhibiting it later on. Such artists as Ogilvie, York Wilson, Alan Collier, Colville, Forestall, Comfort, Lemieux and others." Though he appears to have disliked the work of some of the "moderns" such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Jackson actively supported the development of younger Canadian artists from all parts of the country.

Arthur Lismer became a pre-eminent art educator in Canadian art. Though continuing to be engaged with the landscape, his later painting was often as much about the interior movement of the landscape and its rhythmic expression as the place portrayed. As an accomplished teacher, he remained open to all forms of artistic expression and would inspire several generations of modern artists. In short, he would have opposed Bill 112.

In fact, of the artists mentioned in the original 1965 legislation, only A. J. Casson, who came to the Group of Seven toward the end of its collective life, would likely unreservedly espouse the vision of Canadian art propounded by the McMichaels. Emily Carr was a champion of the right of artists to explore new ways of creation and wrote eloquently about the importance of recognizing contemporary expression. Another McMichael favourite, David Milne, never agreed with the nationalist approach to the landscape that the Group of Seven espoused and he had a hard time with the dominance of the Group during his lifetime. More influenced by French and English aesthetic theory and modernism than his Group contemporaries, he would have vigorously decried the McMichaels' current narrow definition and focus.

It is, of course, impossible, finally, to say today what the artists themselves might think about this current situation. It seems equally evident that they would not have agreed among themselves. Most, however, would agree that the issues of the public good, public trust and public responsibility have been cast into doubt by the legislation currently being debated. As a whole, the Group abhorred the notion of a static definition of art and, were it alive and well today, would reject a narrow definition of their art or their project. As artists who believed strongly in the importance of the public museum, they would find that the line between public and private institutions has been blurred.

In 1927, Lawren Harris wrote: "The truth is that works of art test the spectator much more than the spectator tests them. Great art is never kept alive by the masses of men, but by the perceiving. . . . It is in the vanguard of life not in the main body." He believed that Canada's public galleries had a responsibility to contemporary artists and might have once believed that Robert and Signe McMichael were among the perceiving. Today, he would protest the narrow definition of art which the McMichaels and the government wish to impose. Joyce Zemans is co-director of the MBA program in arts and media administration in the Schulich School for Business, York University, Toronto. She was the director of the Canada Council for the Arts, 1989-1992. To read a fuller version of this article click on globeandmail.com today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies