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U.S. sculptor Richard Serra poses in front of "The Matter of Time," his work featured at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

RAFA RIVAS/Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images

The Art Gallery of Ontario has agreed to talks with a Toronto-based developer that, if successful, could make the gallery the owner of a large outdoor installation completed almost 40 years ago by internationally renowned New York sculptor Richard Serra.

Called Shift, the installation - six large concrete forms zig-zagging across rolling countryside in the Township of King, 50 kilometres north of Toronto - is on 68 hectares owned by Hickory Hills Investments, a subsidiary of Great Gulf Group of Companies. The fate of the work, completed in 1972 when Mr. Serra was 31 as a commission by Toronto art collector Roger Davidson on property then owned by his family, has been the focus of often heated debate for more than five years.

Hickory Hills/Great Gulf has plans to develop parts of the land for housing and other projects. While the company has indicated it has no intention of destroying Shift, it has for the most part resisted efforts to have the site designated a cultural or heritage property or to allow regular, unobstructed public access to it.

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Details on the ownership talks are sketchy largely because Hickory Hills/Great Gulf approached the AGO's curator of contemporary art, David Moos, only "a few days ago," according to AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum. "I have not myself been involved in any conversation and we have no point of view on the matter other than we want what's best for the sculpture and so we're all ears. We're waiting to hear what the proposal is and we're waiting to see where it might lead. But we have no presumption about what the outcome might be," he said on Wednesday.

If the AGO becomes the owner, Shift will be the first work in its permanent collection to be located outside Toronto. And while the gallery has 10 works by Mr. Serra, Shift would far and away be the largest. (Mr. Moos has been a long-time Shift supporter. In late 2005, he wrote to King's heritage committee, calling it a "cultural asset that should be preserved and celebrated . . . a pilgrimage art work [that should be]made available to diverse audiences.")

Members of the King township council heard of the talks with the AGO on Tuesday evening from Kathleen Schofield, executive vice-president of land development for Great Gulf. She appeared at a special council session called to decide the fate of Shift. Last November, councillors voted to designate the installation a protected cultural landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act. However, in January, Great Gulf/Hickory Hills said it would appeal the designation to the province's conservation review board. Since then, the CRB has orchestrated three telephone conferences between the township and the developer with the hope of securing a "covenant agreement" to forestall a full CRB hearing.

According to sources familiar with negotiations, lawyers for both parties last week approved a covenant, the terms of which have not been made public, with the expectation it would be presented to council on Tuesday. Instead, Ms. Schofield announced that Great Gulf/Hickory Hills had contacted the AGO about the gallery assuming ownership of Shift and its immediate environs.

Calls to Great Gulf/Hickory Hills and its lawyer were not returned on Wednesday. But according to King Mayor Margaret Black, the plan is for Great Gulf/Hickory Hills to donate the Shift property to the AGO in exchange for a break on the developer's income tax. Canadian law permits the donor of a cultural artifact to a federally approved institution to claim the full agreed-upon value of the artifact as a deduction.

Negotiations on significant donations can sometimes take years, and, in the case of the Serra work, its value, including the land it's on, could add up to millions of dollars. "But it'd be worth it," Ms. Black said. "Certainly there's work to do, but the benefits of doing it are so profound." Putting Shift in AGO hands "would be a win-win for the municipality, for King's heritage committee, for Great Gulf and for the arts community as well."

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