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Ontario to amend legislation governing McMichael gallery

Robert McMichael at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ont., in 1981.


Ontario's McGuinty government is introducing legislation this week that will free the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg from some of the constraints it's been operating under for more than 10 years.

Text of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection Amendment Act is expected to be tabled in the Ontario legislature by the end of this week. If passed, the act will allow the gallery, famed for its collection of works by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, to "modify" its collection and exhibition mandates while scrapping the art committee that used to "advise on matters related to the composition and display of the collection."

The McMichael board and administration have been pressing for changes to its governing legislation for at least the last three years. The last major overhaul occurred in 2000, under the auspices of Mike Harris' Conservative government. Those amendments restored the gallery's founders, Robert and Signe McMichael, to a prominent place in its operations after they complained that the gallery had lost "the spirit of its original focus" by mounting exhibitions and purchasing art that had little in common with the Group of Seven and contemporaries such as David Milne and Emily Carr.

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The Harris legislation appointed the McMichaels as lifetime trustrees and permitted them to appoint substitute trustees for themselves and each other. These substitute trustees also could be trustees for life until they were replaced by the McMichaels or "unable or unwilling to continue" as trustees.

In addition, the legislation appointed the McMichaels to an art advisory committee created to "make recommendations" on both the acquisition of works into the permanent collection and "the disposal of art works" from the gallery's holdings. Further, the committee could make recommendations on what were valid temporary exhibits, what works the McMichael could loan and what artists the gallery could collect.

The legislation raised a storm of controversy, including concerns that the McMichaels might try to de-accession hundreds of works acquired by the gallery since 1965, when the McMichaels gave the gallery and the adjacent lands they'd purchased northwest of Toronto in 1951 to the province of Ontario. There also were fears that the collection would ossify and attendance dwindle.

Changes to the legislation became necessary when both McMichaels died - Robert in November 2003 and his wife, Signe, in July 2007. Also paving the way for the change was the death in February this year of Geoffrey Zimmerman, a close friend of the McMichaels who'd been on the board for 11 years, represented the couple in its fight with the Ontario government in the 1990s over the management of the collection and the direction of the gallery, and served as executor of their estate.

While the proposed legislation says the McMichael will continue to have "a focus" on the Group of Seven, their contemporaries and native artists, it won't necessarily be the sole focus. Moreover, it wants to make it "easier" for the gallery to collect works by artists who have made "or are making" a contribution to the development of Canadian art.

The McMichaels are currently buried on the grounds of the gallery that bears their name alongside several members of the Group of Seven, including Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley. The proposed legislation permits these graves to stay there and be maintained but forbids any further burials on the site.

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James More

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