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David Silcox, sitting in his home in Toronto, on Sept. 4, 2013, wanted to make Canada more receptive to art and help ensure that artists could earn a decent living in the country.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

David Silcox knew everybody: the art dealers, artists, critics, collectors, heads of art-friendly foundations, art historians, curators, members of awards committees and of art museum acquisition committees, ministers of Canadian Heritage, restorers, staff of auction houses, a dense network of people across Canada who were thrilled by the visual arts as he was. Mr. Silcox’s engagement with art, he once said, enlarged his life.

His dream was to make Canada more receptive to art and ensure that artists could make a decent living here without leaving for greener pastures.

He was an effective organizer and a hard worker – writing or collaborating on books on Canadian artists such as Tom Thomson, Jack Bush, Christopher Pratt, David Milne – and he was unfailingly kind, respectful and sincerely interested in everyone he met. When he was asked to give a speech to the graduating class at Victoria College of the University of Toronto, his alma mater, he urged the graduates to cultivate personal relationships and connections. “Every position I held started with a lunch or dinner, from a small consulting job to being deputy minister,” he told them.

In a phone interview, his friend, retired Supreme Court of Canada judge Rosalie Abella said: “He was an exuberant cultural polymath. He could talk about artists but also about cultural policy and regulatory issues – he was invested in every facet of culture.”

In the early 1980s, Justice Abella officiated at his wedding to Linda Intaschi, a California girl he met through friends at the Beverly Wilshire hotel bar in Beverly Hills. Ms. Intaschi was then working at the Mark Taper Forum, noted for avant garde theatre productions and she is now a theatre producer in Toronto. Over more than 40 years the couple shared a devotion to the arts.

Mr. Silcox, who had been suffering with dementia, died on Feb. 27, aged 87, at Belmont House, a Toronto care home after a charmed life that included stints as Ontario’s deputy minister of culture and communications (1986 to 91), Toronto’s director of cultural affairs (1974 to 82) and assistant deputy minister in the federal Department of Culture in Ottawa from 1983 to 85.

“He was our André Malraux,” said the conceptual artist Iain Baxter in an interview, referring to the influential postwar French culture minister in the government of Charles de Gaulle. “He was good at handling both the older Canadian art and the contemporary work.”

The two became fast friends in the 1960s when Mr. Silcox came to Vancouver to check out Bagged Place, the droll installation Mr. Baxter had created in the art gallery at UBC. It consisted of a typical living room in which every piece of furniture including the TV was encased in a plastic bag at a time when such bags were just beginning to proliferate. Mr. Silcox loved it.

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Silcox's career as a cultural administer included stints as Ontario’s deputy minister of culture and communications, Toronto’s director of cultural affairs and assistant deputy minister of culture in the federal Department of Culture.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

He also spent 12 years as president of Sotheby’s Canada, a branch of the international auction house. That job ended when he was 75, with the bankruptcy of Ritchie’s, a Toronto auction house that Sotheby’s had relied on to run its auctions and pay out the consignors.

David Phillips Silcox was born in Moose Jaw, Sask., Jan. 28, 1937, the first of four sons of United Church minister Albert Phillips Silcox and his wife, Marjorie Silcox (née Walter), neither particularly interested in the arts. Rev. Silcox went overseas during the war years and by the time he returned, he had lost his taste for sermonizing.

He moved his family to a wilderness area outside Sudbury, Ont., where he was hired to look after the spiritual needs of inmates at the Burwash Prison Farm, a medium-security institution.

The convicts there were rather benign; Mr. Silcox later remembered that one of them came regularly to help his mother around the house. Young David found a lot of freedom in Burwash and learned to love nature.

At the University of Toronto, he was an indifferent student. He minored, he later said, in English literature and majored in extracurricular activities including the drama club, the music club, football, basketball and all-night bridge games.

Around the time he obtained his BA in 1959, he was appointed the undergraduate secretary of Hart House at U of T, with its substantial art collection, clubhouse atmosphere and large swimming pool, where he swam regularly all his life. Hart House also provided him with a place to live for the next two years. It was here that he began to look closely at pictures and to organize art exhibitions.

His new interest in art took him to London where he decided to attend the famous Courtauld Institute of the University of London, though he lacked the requisite art credits, having studied only literature.

After a long interview in the office of the head of the Courtauld, Anthony Blunt, a brilliant scholar of French art who had not yet been unmasked as one of the Cambridge Five – the group of British upper class spies working for the Soviet Union – Mr. Silcox was permitted to enroll in 1962, but left after one year.

He returned to U of T and completed an MA, which led to a job in Ottawa as the visual arts officer of the Canada Council from 1965 to 70. He travelled the country visiting artists’ studios and scouting for qualified people to sit on juries to select from grant applicants.

He began in a modest way to buy art directly from artists to decorate the offices of the Canada Council and help the artists, who had told him that there were not enough collectors in the country to keep them afloat. His colleagues appreciated the improved environment and the artists appreciated that he was priming the pump.

It was the beginning of the Art Bank, a collecting and rental program that came to full flowering in 1972 under the direction of Suzanne Rivard LeMoyne, after Mr. Silcox had left the Canada Council. Today, 52 years later, the Art Bank bills itself as the world’s largest collection of contemporary Canadian art.

Mr. Silcox moved on to York University as associate professor and chairman of the visual arts department where John O’Brian – later the noted UBC art historian – was one of his students. “I was with him during the last year of his teaching,” Prof. O’Brian recalled. “In his seminar on David Milne he would bring great bundles of information to class with him, then lead us off to see paintings. Later I wrote on Milne, too. He made his research available to me. He was extraordinarily generous. In 1977, virtually no historical Canadian artist was getting the attention they deserved.”

David Silcox’s fascination with the painter David Milne shaped his whole life, beginning with his time at Hart House. Hanging around the university, he came to know the eccentric and disorganized Douglas Duncan, the legendary art dealer who for decades ran the Picture Loan Society and was Mr. Milne’s lifelong agent.

He was “a string bean of a man, over six feet tall, with wire rimmed glasses” Mr. Silcox wrote of Mr. Duncan, who later provided the inspiration for the secretive patron and collector Francis Cornish in The Cornish Trilogy, by novelist Robertson Davies.

Mr. Silcox also came to know Alan Jarvis, the retired director of the National Gallery of Canada and Douglas Duncan’s lover as well as a strong advocate for Mr. Milne. The two older men urged Mr. Silcox to write about Mr. Milne, and when Mr. Duncan died in 1968, a treasure trove of Mr. Milne’s letters and Mr. Duncan’s half-finished Milne catalogue fell into Mr. Silcox’s lap.

Mr. Silcox’s David Milne Project (for which he first had to do a lot of fundraising) yielded a masterly biography of the artist, Painting Place, begun in 1969 and published in 1996. There was also the two-volume catalogue raisonné, documenting all of Mr. Milne’s 3,000 paintings, produced with the collaboration of David Milne Jr. and several researchers.

“I think David admired Milne’s life as well as his art,” Prof. O’Brian recalled. “Milne sometimes lived in a tent or a shack, very frugally just to have money for paints. He didn’t have that overt nationalism of the Group of Seven. He was cooler.”

Leah Carey, who was managing director of Sotheby’s Canada when Mr. Silcox was its president had first met him at Joyner’s auction house when she worked there. He regularly came to look at the Milnes offered at auction. “He would bound through the door at Joyner and say ‘Hey, I hear you got a Milne.’ He had such joy and enthusiasm. The catalogue is a gift to our industry.”

Mr. Silcox’s final book was to have been about the pictures David Milne created in colour dry point, but he was too ill to see it through.

“Most impactful was the absolute confidence he had in Canadian art. He was a fiercely proud Canadian and had a love of artists that was contagious,” said Sarah Milroy, director of the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ont.

Mr. Silcox received two honorary degrees and in 2006 was named to the Order of Canada. He also received a Governor-General’s Award for lifetime contribution to the arts. He leaves his wife, Ms. Intaschi, and two of his three brothers, Ken Silcox and Louis Silcox. He was predeceased by another brother, Graham.

Editor’s note: Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this obituary. David Silcox’s catalogue raisonné for David Milne was not the first such work for a Canadian artist and Louise Bourgeois was not a Canadian artist.

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