The Canadian Art Database


Ihor Holubizky

Collecting: The Private Becomes Public
[from Signs of the Spirit: The Donovan Collection at St. Michael's College,
University of Toronto 2001.]

American art historian Linda Nochlin described the creation of the first art museum — the Louvre — as a radical upheaval, 'conceived in the optimistic days of the Enlightenment and borne to the shore by the waves of the French Revolution. In a sense (it was also) a token of art's impotence, its final severance from the social structure, setting it apart, like religion, for weekend worship.' (1)  Two centuries later we accept this social-cultural condition as the norm: that the collecting and maintenance of cultural property (physical and intellectual) functions primarily within the public realm. As with many spheres of Western cultural life, it is a belief and assumption that it is done for us, and not by us. There is, however, neither consensus nor 'contract of common purpose'. Many masters can be served in the public domain, not the least of which is the unruly yet unassailable canon of art history. Public collections can also operate in the margins, to celebrate and memorialize (historicize) regional activity or national schools, and as a form of community service, peddling soft-spoken 'appreciation' and a generalist pedagogical function. Thirty years ago, the eminent British curator Bryan Robertson wrote, 'it is not easy for museums, eager to please a large public, to avoid betrayal of the works of art and the values entrusted to them.' (2)  The meaning of a work of art may become diluted in an institutional agenda of being all things to all people, and the compound social service offered by the museum and gallery can generate as many problems as answers. Commenting further, American Professor John Spencer wrote that many museums treat collecting as a means to position themselves in the cultural pecking order. (3)  The result is homogeneity rather than diversity, a duplication and the restatement of an inflexible cultural model, the rules of a game that few will ever fully appreciate or question.

At the intersection of this heavy traffic of shifting social and cultural agendas is the curator. The task of being an objective broker between the boisterous factions that make up the art world is not an enviable one as there is no clean slate from which to begin, not even the 'horror vacui of infinite possibilities.' (4)  The daunting curatorial responsibilities were laid out by Edward Fry: to be 'the caretaker of the secular relics ...the assembler of an otherwise nonexistent cultural heritage, and the ideologue operating within the history of modern art.' (5)  In spite of the hegemony of public institutions, the private eye should not be discounted as a spent force or as a residue of the past — traces of connoisseurship — as there are many examples of individuals who, in the past century, have taken on custodial responsibilities, to collect and present the art of the times. (6)  Nochlin's reference to a social rupture is all the more fitting when considering the Daniel Donovan collection. He began to acquire works that spoke to and of the spirit (and the spiritual) — yet were uncompromisingly contemporary — and placed no restrictions with respect to 'type or style'. The collection is, as well, wholly Canadian. Taken at face value it could be a curator's preferred list: John Brown, Sorel Cohen, Robin Collyer, Lynn Donoghue, Gathie Falk, Gerry Ferguson, Will Gorlitz, Shelagh Keeley, Regan Morris, Roland Poulin, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Barbara Steinman, Shirley Wiitasalo, Ed Zelenak, to name a few. But the instructional aspect was far more important to Father Donovan than the accumulation of named tokens, thereby operating within fundamental museum principles, not only to collect but to exhibit and educate. As a private collector drawing from the public arena of the commercial gallery and general discourse, his doors were open to visitors and a healthy exchange of ideas. When the collection outgrew his living quarters, the logical step (by no means inevitable) was to extend this engagement of ideas into a more public realm.

Rather than fabricating a contemporary art of the church (even though the history of Western art is scumbled with that of the church), Donovan addresses a critical cultural issue — where and what is the spiritual in contemporary art? (7)  These questions are not lost in the menu offered by public gallery and museum programming. Indeed, the spiritual in art has become something of an exhibition trope — ironic because the museum also promotes a cultural secularism. Ross Mellick, co-curator of the exhibition Spirit and Place, observed that while the spiritual has informed visual expressions from earliest recorded time, the commodification that permeates contemporary life separates humankind from other living things and drains away 'the numinous dimensions of the world.' He argues that 'the art experience, almost alone, stands against the process by opening us up to the experience of the interconnectedness of all things through the possibilities of thought and the twin wings of imagination and understanding.' (8)  Donovan is committed to such an interconnectedness with an intellectually sound interpretation drawn from a body of knowledge that is rooted in history and philosophy, consistent with the needs of contemporary life. In seeking out the visual signs, subjects and subtexts, Donovan asks us to reconsider the domains of art, life and beliefs, without entering into the business of proclaiming preference, legitimacy, or converting disbelievers.

There is another critical and important distinction. The works are not treated as relics or artifacts, but are situated in a working and learning environment. Odette Hall at St. Michael's College is no less accessible than the public gallery, perhaps in some ways, even more so. There is a sensitivity to the installation that is far more varied than the museum often provides — responding to the everyday traffic, establishing vistas and presenting the collective voice of artworks in meeting rooms and offices. There are, in addition, wry and sly moments. Works in the 'Xerox room', as one example, relate to language and the reproduction of words and texts. Rather than the quick jaunt that often takes place in a public museum and gallery, the integration of art in the environment alters the tempo of viewing, to slow us down and provide the opportunity to look deeper. This longer rhythm is as meaningful an experience as the something-for-all spectacle in the museum-as-temple.

In 1994, Donovan wrote that 'artists tend to work on the edge of culture and for that reason are often able to throw a special light on it.' (9)  This, too, has become something of a cause célèbre in current curatorial practice, yet often the question of what is at the centre of culture — or at the root of spirit — is shrugged off, as if we should know. (10)  There are those who are skeptical of his point of view — that one can always find the fish-in-the-picture if one chooses to look for it. The greater misfortune is avoiding the fish when it swims into view. The reintegration of spirit and religion with contemporary art is no mean feat, and more than the temporary attachment of theme or thesis. Rather than defining the 'immortal' state, Donovan asks what is eternal. (11)  By asking fundamental questions Donovan has assembled the objects and voices of the times in order to shed yet another light on the mysteries of art and life. As a collector, curator and educator, he has assembled a collective sign that speaks of the human spirit and the creative forces that drive the engines of culture.

From The Donovan Collection catalogue.

Text: © The authors. All rights reserved.

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