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Murray Frum: A passionate, disciplined art collector who gave back to the cultural community

Murray Frum was briefly a dentist, and made his fortune through property deals and development, but his greatest passion was collecting art.

Back in the late 1950s, when Murray Frum, the son of Polish immigrants, was a young dentist, he went to New York with his wife, Barbara. After touring the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the couple dropped into the gift shop, where Murray spotted a remarkably good collection of reproduction Egyptian sculptures. "Oh, they aren't copies," the sales clerk confided, "they are extras from the museum collection." She then showed the Frums a basement storeroom crammed with stone and wood sculptures, some of which were 4,000 years old, as Mr. Frum relates in his privately published memoir, Collecting: A Work in Progress.

The piece that had captivated him was a wood figure, slightly less than a foot tall, dating from the Middle Kingdom. The sculpture, which had "a beautiful posture and an exquisite face," had been found during a Met expedition to Egypt and had even been illustrated in one of the museum's publications. That the piece was for sale in the very museum that had discovered it was a shocking indication of how lowly the Met valued African art, a point underlined by the bargain-basement price tag: $75.

It was irresistible, but Mr. Frum didn't have enough cash, so he left the museum, borrowed the money from the local branch of his university fraternity and made "the first purchase of what was to become a collection and a life-long focus."

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That wooden sculpture is now part of the Frum collection in the Art Gallery of Ontario in a purpose-built gallery designed by the architectural team of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe. Mr. Frum was an active AGO trustee and donor, but that's not the primary reason he gave the gallery his beloved African treasures, according to Ms. Shim. "He could easily have given the collection to the Royal Ontario Museum, but it is not about an anthropological condition or social patterns. He considered it beautiful art," she said.

A casual observer might dismiss Mr. Frum, who made a fortune developing suburban strip shopping malls, as a collector with a keen eye and enough money to buy whatever he wanted, but simply acquiring stuff didn't interest him.

"Before making an acquisition, Murray would come home to his library and he would pull out his books and catalogues and look at other examples of similar pieces and work at determining if a piece was good or bad and how it would fit into the collection," his widow, Nancy Lockhart, said in an interview. "He was a very passionate collector, but a very disciplined one as well."

"There are very, very few people I can think of who had a finer sense of taste," said Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. "All you had to do was walk into his house and see how he lived with his objects to know that he was very engaged by how they looked, their presence and how they felt."

Speaking of Mr. Frum's love of the tactile reminded Mr. Teitelbaum that he had first met Mr. Frum as a child of 8, sitting in the dentist's chair. "He had the most beautiful hands, very controlled," he recalled.

"I think there was something empathetic" between Mr. Frum's work as a dentist and his love of the handmade in art, Mr. Teitelbaum said.

As a result of Mr. Frum's sleuthing, he bought a Baroque bronze figure of a crucified Jesus, covered in black paint, several years ago. Dismissed as a 19th-century piece produced by an unnamed artist from the Italian School, the sculpture has since been authenticated as the work of the renowned 17th-century Italian artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It also hangs in the AGO.

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Besides his business acumen and passion for collecting, Mr. Frum gave back to the cultural community. He was a calming and strategic president of the board of Saturday Night Magazine during its bankruptcy in the 1970s and of the Stratford Festival in the turbulent late 1980s when artistic directors were rotating through the theatre company like ticketholders in a turnstile, and a knowledgable, generous, strategic and long-time trustee of the AGO.

All his life he kept acquiring new friends, while retaining old ones, in an ever-expanding social circle. He also had two extremely happy marriages, first to Barbara Frum, the host of CBC shows As It Happens and The Journal, and then to Ms. Lockhart, a business executive.

Asked what made Mr. Frum such a good husband, Ms. Lockhart replied: "He was curious about everything, easy to be with, had no traditional expectations about housewifely duties, and enormous respect for women – perhaps that was his biggest characteristic in dealing with wives and women," she said. "And he was unbelievably generous."

Collecting art became their mutual passion. "It informed most of what we did in our lives. There wasn't a day where we weren't talking about pieces or looking at pieces and when we travelled, we were always going to museums and meeting other collectors and purchasing art."

Mr. Frum, 81, died of cancer on May 27 at his home in Toronto. All the interwoven strands of his life came together at his packed memorial service yesterday at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Writer David Frum said his father hated funerals, but this one seemed lovingly planned to evoke his presence. The service included a piano and cello duo, hauntingly beautiful singing by cantor Eric Moses, readings by children and grandchildren and eulogies that brought mourners to tears and laughter. A tenor and baritone sang Georges Bizet's amazing Pearl Fishers' Duet, and finally the cellist and pianist returned to play the American spiritual Old Man River as a recessional to keep people "rolling along" in a final reference to Mr. Frum's buoyant confidence.

Murray Bernard Frum was born in Toronto on Sept. 3, 1931, the only child of Saul and Rivka Frum, who had met and married in Lomza in northeast Poland before immigrating to Toronto in 1930. Most of their relatives who remained in Poland were murdered in the Holocaust.

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Mr. Frum worked at a series of jobs in the tough years of the Depression before opening a small grocery store on College and Palmerston streets in 1938. The family lived in the back of the store with young Murray and his grandmother sleeping in the living room, she on a pullout bed and he on the couch, with cloth sacks of sugar under their heads for pillows.

He went to King Edward elementary school and then Harbord Collegiate, graduating in 1950. Already interested in the visual and performing arts – his father took him as a young man to hear the Canadian Opera Company sing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – he audited art-history courses given by the late Ted Carpenter at the University of Toronto while he was studying to become a dentist.

By all accounts, Mr. Frum wasn't obsessed by drilling cavities and pulling teeth. A cousin, who was a doctor, had advised him against studying medicine because it would take a long time to qualify and as a profession it was all-consuming. Far better to become a dentist, the cousin advised, because he could make a good living and have spare time in which to exercise his already robust entrepreneurial muscles.

"He was very interested in starting life," David Frum explained in an interview. His father had always worked part-time to pay his way through school, including selling door to door for Fuller Brush, working at the Banff Springs Hotel and at a local bakery. An avid Monopoly player, he was already buying and selling small real-estate parcels with a group of friends in university, and from the time in graduated in 1956 and opened his dentistry practice, he was spending one day a week as a property developer, and pursuing his curiosity and passion as an art collector.

Describing his father as an unusual businessman, David Frum said he could be tough, but he was more interested in making sure everybody walked away from a deal content, if not happy. "Never reach for the last nickel on the table" was his business rule of thumb.

In September, 1957, Mr. Frum married Barbara Rosberg, a history student and the daughter of a Polish émigré who owned a department store in Niagara Falls. The Frums had three children, David, Linda and Matthew. While she worked in broadcasting and he in property development – by 1972, he had given up dentistry – they both developed a passion for studying and collecting art, pre-Columbian Mexican, and then African. (With Ms. Lockhart, he expanded those interests to include Oceanic and Renaissance art.)

Wanting a house, and finding nothing they liked and could afford in the late 1950s, the Frums bought a large property in North Toronto and hired a young architect named Yusing Jung – they all lived in the same apartment building – to design a modern house that could be expanded, as needs demanded and budgets allowed. The house evolved over the decades under Ron Thom, who designed Massey College in Toronto and Trent University in Peterborough, and much more extensively in the last three decades in conjunction with the architectural duo, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, a former assistant to Mr. Thom.

"Murray loved every piece of art in his house and every time you would go, something would be in a different place," said Ms. Shim. Ms. Lockhart agreed: "There isn't a thing in this house that isn't touched and handled all the time," she said. "He loved sculpture and space and one of the amazing things about his house is that there was never a master vision," said Ms. Shim.

The house grew episodically, but unlike Topsy, every change and addition was the consequence of an evolving conversation between the architects and the Frums. The result is an eclectic living museum that is smaller and more personal than the old Barnes house in Philadelphia, more focused than Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, and probably closest to the purposeful ambience of the Sir John Soane's Museum in London.

Mr. Frum's life also evolved. After Barbara Frum died of leukemia in 1992, he met Ms. Lockhart at a dinner party given by mutual friends. They eloped two years later, marrying in Palm Beach on her grandmother's birthday, Feb. 15, 1994.

Mr. Frum and Ms. Lockhart were both entrepreneurs – she had owned a large discount drug store before joining Shoppers Drug Mart as a vice-president – but they decided to work together at Frum Development Group, so they could have the flexibility and freedom to travel as and when they pleased.

"He was always the deal-maker," Ms. Lockhart said, explaining that she liked the administrative side, so she took over that role after Mr. Frum's vice-chairman retired. About a decade ago, they sold a number of properties and closed down the construction department. Since then they have invested in other people's construction projects.

In April, the Frums were in Italy because they had acquired a wooden bas-relief of a mother and child that they wanted to compare to a couple of Donatellos in an exhibition in Florence. The trip had to be curtailed when Mr. Frum developed a severe pain in his left leg, which they thought might have been caused by a pinched nerve or even a small stroke.

They flew back and went to Toronto Western Hospital in the same neighbourhood where Mr. Frum had grown up. After a series of tests, he was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, although he had never smoked. Ever the optimist, he was undergoing radiation and preparing for chemotherapy last month when he suddenly became very ill and had to be hospitalized.

On Monday morning, May 27, he woke up in his own bed and said "music." Ms. Lockhart found some Cecilia Bartoli arias, which they listened to for most of the day, as she lay beside him in bed, the dog curled up against his legs and his daughter Linda sitting at his feet. He died at about 6:30 that evening.

"As far as bad things go," said Ms. Lockhart, "it was the best possible outcome – no pain, a view of the garden, surrounded by the things he loved and in the environment he loved."

Mr. Frum leaves his wife Nancy, three children, several grandchildren and his extended family.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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