Robert and Signe McMichael, the namesake of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, were savvy art collectors who made some painful philanthropic and estate planning mistakes.
Starting in 1955, when they were in their early 30s, they started buying landscape paintings by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. Their first painting was “Montreal River”, painted in 1920 by Lawren Harris. They paid $200. It would sell for up to $1 million today. Over the next 10 years the McMichaels assembled a noted collection by the Group of Seven and their mentor, Tom Thomson, as well as Inuit and Indigenous artists.
The 1950s and early 1960s was the perfect time to collect in Canadian modernist art, especially the Group of Seven. Their works in the collections of major public galleries, but supported by only a small community of private collectors. At bargain prices. the couple bought a well-known, but not especially fashionable group of artists. The surviving members of Group saw the McMichaels as their greatest supporters at a time when they were yesterday’s news. By the early 1960s, Canadian nationalism was on the rise – and the economy was booming – and the value and importance of this art rose. The McMichael then created the spiritual home of nationalist Canadian art.
In 1965, at age 43, the McMichaels gave their house in Kleinberg, Ontario, the surrounding land and 194 paintings to the Government of Ontario to establish the McMichael Conservation Collection of Art. The timing was perfect. Unlike philanthropists of today, the McMichaels received a publicly-funded private museum — they controlled the Collection and lived on site — for a relatively modest gift. It was a “have your cake and eat it too” scenario, but inevitably, after much provincial investment, the public ambitions for the Collection overwhelmed the private origins.
This unprecedented deal was a source of considerable future frustration for the donors. They were forced to move out in 1980, and their influence slipped as a new generation of curators took over. The Collection drifted from their original vision. In 1995, they sued the Province to wrest control back, but lost on appeal. Although legislation was passed in 2000 to restore the McMichael’s direction, the childless couple died soon after. The gallery reverted to a public art institution. It is an extraordinary legacy created at a young age, but the optimistic gift of their art and home caused later life heartache.
An unfortunate coda to the story of Robert and Signe McMichael is their estate. They left the residue of their $5 million estate to the McMichael Collection, but chose the wrong executor. Their estate trustee was a criminal lawyer and neighbour who fought with them to regain the Collection. After Signe died in 2007, the executor spent over a million dollars of the estate to support his lifestyle and affection for gambling. The money was never recovered after the executor died prematurely in 2011. It was a post-mortem slap in the face to the donors and cautionary tale about excessive trust.