About the collection
In the 1973-74 academic year, the English Studies Department introduced an artist-in-residence program illustrative of the fact that, from Seneca’s inception, its commitment to the liberal and applied arts outstripped any of its provincial rivals. Three artists were to spend a semester each working on a project of their choice as well as making themselves periodically available to queries from students. Two of the artists, Maryon Kantaroff and Ron Baird, completed sculptures, which were later absorbed into the Seneca College Permanent Art Collection.
In the early days of the college, one initiated a project by putting a suggestion in the ear of its first president, Dr. W. T. Newnham. If he liked the proposal, it had muscle, if he didn’t, there was no court of appeal. Someone, perhaps inspired by the artist-in-residence program, whispered “art collection” and the president bit. A committee was struck. Gordon Parker, a professor in the English Studies Department, was appointed chair. The other members were Sol Dworkin, who taught film production and who cut his professional teeth making documentary films for the National Film Board of Canada, librarian Mildred Young, Wayne Norrison, chair of the Applied Arts Division, and, because I was teaching a course in Canadian art history at the time, me. In our first year, we were allotted $3,000, money which accrued from the interest generated by the operating budget.
On a warm autumn Saturday, we assembled at Jack Pollock’s gallery on Dundas Street across from the Art Gallery of Ontario. Jack was closing his gallery and selling his inventory at reduced prices. Realizing that we were buying for a public institution, he pulled out, from some private room in the back of the gallery, what he referred to as “a very important painting” by Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau. Otherwise unaffordable given our small budget, the painting was sold to us for the knock-down price of $500. Without Jack’s generosity, Sunset Ceremony would not have been the first piece of art in our collection. In the early years, purchasing any painting was an anomaly. Having to live within our means, we decided that we would focus on prints and drawings. We would emphasize quantity without sacrificing quality and limit ourselves to Canadian art. It was also decided that the growing collection should be placed in the central hubs — hallways, foyers and the library — rather than hiding it away in offices, even if this meant that over the years, even with security frames, a few pieces would “disappear” from the walls.
After about eighteen months, the original committee disbanded. Its replacement was significantly smaller. Wayne Norrison took over as chair, with Eldon Hagglund, a professor in the Fashion Design Program, and me filling out the group. Eldon and I were given a free hand to expand the collection as we saw fit. Although most purchases came from any number of prominent Toronto galleries, we were also interested in acquiring works by regional artists. The western gallery representing Maxwell Bates sent us slides from which we chose Farm Family. Nova Scotian Roger Savage’s Isolde and Cow was bought from a portfolio of prints mailed to us by the artist. We were also interested in the coloured linocuts of Sybil Andrews, a member of the Vorticist school. Unfortunately, by the time we received the portfolio from her British Colombia gallery, we had depleted our budget. I remember that each reluctantly returned print was priced at five hundred dollars. Such has her importance grown that today those same prints sell at auction in the region of twenty-thousand-plus dollars.
In the late seventies, I was given a reduction in teaching to inaugurate and direct a college art gallery. From exhibitions by W. J. Phillips, Norval Morrisseau (again with Jack Pollock’s cooperation) and Leonard Hutchinson, we purchased pieces for the college collection. As the college expanded, the gallery gave way to the need for more office and classroom space and was regrettably closed in its second year of operation.
While the mandate of any institutional art collection is to contribute to an engaging educational environment, anyone who has had a connection to a gallery, or public collection, knows that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Assembling a permanent art collection requires the fortitude of a triathlete and the diplomacy of a mediator. To illustrate: Eldon and I decided that we would hang a small selection of works from the collection in the College Board Room. This included Alex Colville’s Sleeper. Shortly after that, I received a call from Wayne Norrison instructing me that the Colville was to be removed. A member of the board of governors had taken exception to the nude figure of Colville’s wife, Rhoda. Ironically, later that month the Toronto Star’s national weekend colour supplement carried an article on Colville with a reproduction of Sleeper featured front and centre. Shortly after this, I was instructed to remove David Barnett’s Smoker from the main foyer. A continuing education student had complained that the painting promoted smoking. Arguing that if this were true, then it surely followed that Monet’s paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare promoted air pollution and should thus be removed from the walls of various French galleries fell on deaf ears. These two interventions aside, by far and away the college administration supported our efforts with one memorable exception. A college official, referring to a hallway where we had placed a selection of works by established Canadian artists, many of whom had works in the National Gallery of Canada, took me aside and confided that “It looks like the ****** Las Vegas strip.”
In the winter of 1977, Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson gave a concert in the Minkler Auditorium. Peterson, known for his generosity and support of the arts, donated money back to the college for the purchase of a work of art. Ted Godwin’s Zeus & Danae, from his Tartan Series, was added to the collection, our second large painting.
Following Eldon’s death in 1979, Wayne and I visited the London studio of Gino Lorcini where we purchased a sculpture in honour of Eldon from monies donated by his friends and colleagues. I continued to buy art on my own until 1983. By then, the fiscally responsible eighties had replaced the affluent seventies. In light of educational cutbacks, we proved to be an expense the college believed it could no longer afford.
In the late 90s, a third committee was established. Wayne Norrison, now a college vice-president, chaired, with me, John McBride and Elaine Brodie as members. John took it upon himself to see to the repair of works that had been damaged over the previous decade and a half, and Elaine experimented with an online site that featured the collection. We also moved the bulk of the collection into the Minkler Auditorium foyer where it could be better protected yet still be available to the college community as well as outsiders attending various cultural events held on site. Although we purchased no art, we inaugurated an annual art competition. Interested faculty and staff submitted works of art to the committee who acted as a jury. We allotted a cash prize and the selected work(s) was added to the college collection. Johanne Daoust, School of Creative Arts and Animation, was the first recipient and Jack Burman, School of English and Liberal Studies, the second.
Without a purchasing budget, the committee disbanded in 2001. That year, the Minkler was demolished to make way for campus expansion. The collection, apart from a few pieces assigned to offices, was put in storage at the King Campus where it hibernated for four years.
In 2004, Ron Currie, Vice-President Financial, appointed Marsha Wineman from the Fashion Arts department to complete an inventory of the collection. Within seven weeks, Marsha had located pieces from the collection, catalogued and labelled them and repaired damaged frames, including replacing the old glass with UV blocking.
Over the spring and summer, she rehung the collection in strategic areas within Seneca’s four main campuses: Newnham, York, King and eventually the new Markham campus.
By 2006, the college established the fourth art committee chaired by Henry Decock, Associate Vice-President Academic. While a few members came and went, the active members were (and remain) Marsha Wineman, me, Elaine Brodie (until she took a teaching position at Sheridan College) and Phillip Woolf, a drawing-and-painting professor at the York campus. In its renewed form, one of the first orders of business was to constitute terms of reference to guide the committee’s continuing activities. With the encouragement of Ron Currie, the college re-established a generous purchase fund and we once again began to expand the collection. In addition to paintings, prints, and sculpture, we now included video and photography, with a special eye on emerging artists. Under Elaine’s guidance, we resurrected the artist-in-residence program. Toronto artist Patrick De Costa was commissioned to create a piece of art in the main foyer of the Newnham campus. Sheri Hatt, over a semester, photographed horses and sheep at the King campus farm, a facility associated with the Veterinary Technicians Program.
With the financial support of the Aboriginal Student Services of Seneca College, we were able to purchase works from a number of prominent Native Canadian artists: Terrance Houle, Christian Morrisseau and Robert Houle.
By reinstituting the faculty/staff annual art competition, we added pieces to the collection by Elaine Brodie, Aleksandar Janicijevic and Phillip Woolf.
In the winter of 2012, Waddington’s auction house announced its first Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects. As part of the auction, Stephen Ranger announced that Waddington would fund one public institution fifty percent of an auctioned work that sold for no more than twenty-thousand dollars. Public collections across Canada were encouraged to submit applications. From those, Seneca’s proposal was chosen. On the night of March 8, 2012 we successfully bid on Stephen Andrews’ Crowd.
From its inception some forty years ago, the Seneca College Permanent Art Collection has grown to include well over 200 works of art. This, in no small part, is due to the dedication of a number of faculty and staff over those years. A special note of thanks, however, must go to Wayne Norrison and Henry Decock, whose vision and perseverance have guided the various committees through times good and bad, and to Marsha Wineman who breathed life back into a collection lying dormant in storage.
David Phillips, Ph.D.
Seneca College, 2014