McMichael Canadian Art Collection bets big on past for 50th anniversary

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A 50th anniversary is a big deal for a cultural institution. There’s enough history to celebrate, consider and, in some instances, reconsider. There’s the opportunity to refresh the institution’s profile and evaluate its position within contemporary art discourse. It’s an occasion, too, to strategize, to wonder, “Now what? Sure, we’ve made it this far – but what needs to be done to ensure another half-century?”

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is in the midst of just such a rumination – an exercise brought into even sharper focus last week when the famous woodsy gallery here, 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto, named British museum professional Ian Dejardin as its new director and chief executive officer. Lest we forget, it was 50 years ago this summer that the McMichael first opened its doors to the public as a Crown corporation of the province of Ontario. The deal that, on paper at least, transformed the McMichael from the fiefdom of founders Robert and Signe McMichael into a public trust had been reached in November, 1965. However, extensive and expensive renovations to the site meant that its roughly 200 artworks weren’t ready for their close-up until July.

Alexander Young Jackson, October Morning, Algoma, 1920. (Toni Hafkenscheid/ University of Toronto Purchased by the Hart House Art Committee 1931/32)

Called, initially, the McMichael Conservation Collection of Art, the “collection” referenced in the moniker was unashamedly Canadian. Or at least unashamedly Canuck in its devotion to art of a particular ilk, namely oil sketches, drawings and paintings by the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and their contemporaries and followers, plus work by First Nations artists.

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