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Kenneth Thomson says his plan to give $70-million in cash and $300- million in art to an expanded and renovated Art Gallery of Ontario is just the start of a series of gifts and loans to that institution.

At a crowded news conference yesterday in Toronto, Mr. Thomson, 79, staggered the Canadian art world by announcing he would donate in trust an estimated 2,000 works to the AGO.

This includes the cream of his famous collection of Canadian paintings as well as his collection of European decorative art from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century.

To help house this donation, the chairman of The Globe and Mail also announced he's giving $50- million toward a $178-million reconstruction of the AGO, to be designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry, and another $20- million as an endowment for the gallery's operations.

It's a gift unprecedented in Canadian history, from a man Canadian Business magazine last year ranked as the wealthiest individual in Canada, with a net worth of $23.7-billion.

It's a gift that carries potential benefits for Mr. Thomson, too, in that an individual can donate art that has been evaluated by the federal Cultural Property Review Board to a registered cultural institution and claim its value as a tax deduction.

Having earlier received $48- million from the Ontario and federal governments, and with Mr. Thomson's donation, the AGO now has to raise $80-million by 2005, when it expects to start construction on its new facilities. When the changes are completed in 2007, the gallery will have 75,000 square feet of new space and increased its public viewing areas by 40 per cent.

In an interview, Mr. Thomson said he and his family -- wife Marilyn, sons David and Peter, daughter Lesley -- "are going to give the best things in the collection to the AGO . . . and then we're going to add to it substantially over the years. And when I leave the scene, David [an avid collector in his own right and now chair of the $6-billion-a-year Thomson Corp.]and the family will continue. It won't be a static collection."

Indeed, what Mr. Thomson is about to donate is just a part of his collection, while David -- whom Mr. Thomson described as "an extraordinary collector far beyond my level" -- has amassed a massive collection of masterworks by Mondrian, Constable, Munch, Picasso, J. M. W. Turner and Rothko, among many others. Mr. Thomson intimated that much of his son's collection could find its way to the AGO eventually, too. "He has a generous mind and heart. He's not selfish at all. David's a natural for the future. He may well have a space of his own."

Mr. Thomson began to think about making some sort of significant gift to the AGO about 10 years ago, and first broached the subject with his family, who were supportive. "If they'd said, 'Father, what are you doing that for?' If they had been worrying about their inheritance, well, it would have taken off the bloom."

As he grew older, Mr. Thomson became increasingly concerned that his collection "not be scattered to the four winds" but be placed "somewhere all together and up at the same time."

The AGO was "a natural choice," the Toronto-born billionaire said. "It was the first gallery I ever visited in my youth . . . I feel at home here [and]I know the dignity of my collection will be enhanced by being here."

The AGO, of course, was not a passive partner in the proceedings. Matthew Teitelbaum, the gallery's director and chief executive, said he first gently asked Mr. Thomson in 1997 to think about showing his collection at the AGO. This was around the time that Mr. Thomson had agreed to a long-term loan of his European collection to the gallery.

Mr. Teitelbaum said the offer was made "along the lines of, 'Ken, why not do this with a number of objects for a period of time so you can see your collection and understand it better?' "

Another nudge came a year or so later when Dennis Reid, the AGO's chief curator, asked Mr. Thomson if he would be willing to lend some of the Cornelius Krieghoff paintings (1815-1872) in his collection for a major Krieghoff show being prepared by the gallery.

"I used to think that the safest place for a painting is on the wall," Mr. Thomson said. But he agreed to Mr. Reid's request and "I got some satisfaction out of that," when the exhibition opened in November, 1999.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 200 works by Krieghoff are part of the Thomson donation announced yesterday, as well as 79 paintings by Tom Thomson, 200 works by the Group of Seven and 182 oils, watercolours and prints by David Milne. Equally unsurprising, perhaps, is the fact that Mr. Thomson will close the gallery of Canadian art that has borne his name at the Bay department store on Toronto's Queen Street West since 1989.

Its holdings will eventually go to the AGO.

Yesterday's announcement also marked the first time that Mr. Thomson confirmed that he was the purchaser of Scene in the Northwest, an 1845 Paul Kane oil sold at auction in February for $5.062-million -- the most money ever paid for a Canadian artwork. It will be displayed at the AGO. ... John Barber. A23

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