The McMichael art gallery, officially known as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, is a BIG museum located in a SMALL town.
|Photo Credit: McMichael Canadian Art Collection|
The village of Kleinburg Ontario lies about 28 km north of Toronto. The art gallery has been called “the spiritual home of the Group of Seven” and is also famous for its collections of Aboriginal paintings and Inuit sculpture and prints. If you are interested in Canadian art, a visit to this Ontario museum is a real treat. While it’s theoretically possible to get there using public transit (during certain restricted hours), in practice you’ll probably be stuck having to drive there. But trust me, it's worth the trip.
Why is this important collection so far off the beaten track anyway? Why isn’t it in a big city centre? The reason for that lies in history (see the History section on the next page). In any case, if you DO make it out here, you’ll find that the setting works very well with the art in the gallery, since the theme of so much of that work is Canadian landscape and nature in general.
The grounds of the McMichael art gallery are certainly spectacular. One hundred acres of woods surround this sprawling yet homey fieldstone-and-log museum. Plan a full day if you can, taking a few hours for a gallery visit then a couple more for a hike through the forest or a picnic under the trees. You could also walk or drive to the main street of tiny Kleinburg and visit the shops selling art, antiques, gifts, clothing, and books, and have lunch at one of the little cafes. But first things first! What’s there to see at the McMichael art gallery?
The highlights of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection include:
* more than 90 Tom Thomson sketches and paintings
* 1,700 works by the Group of Seven
* 1,200 works by Aboriginal and Inuit artists, including Norval Morrisseau and Kenojuak Ashevak
* works by other major Canadian artists such as Emily Carr, Clarence Gagnon, James Wilson Morrice
My favourite works are by the Group of Seven. As you wander through the building, you’ll find windows that open onto surrounding woods, constantly reminding you of nature close at hand. There’s something about this green (and in winter, evergreen) setting that makes these iconic takes on the Canadian landscape even more poignant.
The room with the soaring ceiling and totem poles is amazing. Here you’ll find many masks by Aboriginal west coast artists as well as paintings by Emily Carr that go so well with them.
Tom Thomson’s former studio
As you walk between the parking lot and the McMichael art gallery, you’ll see it: a tall shack surrounded by trees. This is Tom Thomson’s studio, which started out life as a construction shack parked behind a famous studio in downtown Toronto. Thomson used the shack as an artists’ studio and home while he was living and painting in Toronto, in between trips to Algonquin Park. It’s kind of cool to have the shell—or womb—that housed Thomson while he created so many of the fine paintings that are displayed in the gallery next door.
The McMichaels bought the shack in 1962 and installed it on their land. It now serves as a studio for artists-in-residence at the McMichael art gallery – quite an honour! Does the spirit of Tom Thomson inspire them? If you’re fortunate to visit on a day when the current resident is at work there, you’ll have a chance to see inside and chat with them. Otherwise, you can at least peek through the window.
Temporary Exhibitions and other Features at the McMichael art gallery
The gallery hosts several temporary exhibits each year, often several at one time. Recent shows have included an exhibit of photographs by celebrity photographer Yousef Karsh and paintings by beloved wildlife artist Robert Bateman. Kenojuak Ashevak came here from Cape Dorset in 2008 for a party to celebrate her 80th birthday.
The McMichael also hosts workshops, lectures, tours, music concerts, and kids’ camps. Many of their activities are geared to children.
The gift shop sells prints of Canadian art, calendars, jewellery, cards, books, etc. A small café offers snacks. If you’re here during warm weather, bring a lunch and enjoy the scenery from the picnic tables under the trees.
History of the Museum & The Group of Seven Connection
One of the interesting facts about the McMichael is that it started out as a private home. That’s hard to believe when you look at it, because it’s quite sprawling, but it has grown over the years from a 2,000 square foot house to an 84,000 square foot museum. However, the fieldstone and log walls and the huge fireplace still give it the feel of a rustic country home, despite its current massive size.
The name McMichael comes from its founders, Robert and Signe, who began building their country retreat in 1954. They called it Tapawingo, meaning “place of joy”. The original home is now Gallery 2 and Guides’ Lounge on the lower level, gallery 14 and Director’s office on the upper level.
Robert and Signe started collecting art work in the 1950s. They bought their first painting in 1955: “Montreal River, Algoma” by Lawren Harris. In 1956 they bought a Tom Thomson sketch (a 1914 Georgian Bay scene) and a painting of Algonquin Park by Lismer. Over the years they continued to acquire many works, and eventually opened their home on the weekends to art lovers who were eager to view their collection. As it grew in popularity, they realized that they had something very significant on their hands, and in 1965, the couple donated the collection, house and land to the Province of Ontario. The museum’s holdings have grown substantially since then, although the core of the collection still remains those first precious pieces obtained by the McMichaels.
The McMichaels were friends with six members of the Group of Seven. They bought many of the paintings directly from the artists. A.Y. Jackson lived at their home for the last six years of his life, as artist-in-residence. Several members of the Group and their wives are buried in a private graveyard on the property, along with Robert McMichael.
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection – Still a place of joy. Edited by Jean Blodgett et al. Toronto & Montreal: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1989.
For more information
The museum’s website: http://www.mcmichael.com
You may enjoy