Art col­lec­tion go­ing home

Main dis­play ar­eas of orig­i­nal Fire­stone house to be re- cre­ated

Ottawa Citizen - - Arts - BY CHARLES ENMAN

The Ottawa Art Gallery is ec­static about the de­ci­sion of a lo­cal de­vel­oper to do­nate el­e­ments of the Fire­stone house in Rock­cliffe so that the Fire­stone col­lec­tion of Cana­dian art, cur­rently un­der the man­age­ment of the OAG, can even­tu­ally be re­in­stalled in a re- cre­ation of the en­vi­ron­ment in which it breathed for more than three decades.

“ This is a won­der­ful act of gen­eros­ity on the part of the Mal­ho­tra fam­ily,” said gallery di­rec­tor Mela Con­stan­tinidi. “ And putting back some of the house with the col­lec­tion is ac­knowl­edg­ing again the re­ally great con­tri­bu­tion of the Fire­stone fam­ily, which pleases us a lot.”

The Mal­ho­tra fam­ily, own­ers of Clar­idge Homes, is equally pleased, said Neil Mal­ho­tra, who grew up in Rock­cliffe and will soon be build­ing a new home on the lot at 375 Minto Place.

“ We were happy to ac­com­mo­date the re­quest of the Ottawa Art Gallery,” he said. “ That home was a piece of Ottawa’s his­tory, and re­con­struct­ing parts of it some­where else to show the Fire­stone col­lec­tion the way it was shown for so long makes a lot of sense.”

Nan Grif­fiths, chair of the OAG’s build­ing com­mit­tee, says that only parts of the Fire­stone house will be used in the re­con­structed ver­sion.

“ Mainly, we’re in­ter­ested in the el­e­ments in the main dis­play spa­ces — the ar­rival space just inside the en­try, the liv­ing room, the stair­case.

“ How­ever, the de­ci­sions on ex­actly what we will wish to use have not yet been made.”

O. J. Fire­stone and his wife, Iso­bel, built the house in 1960 to prop­erly dis­play their 1,600piece col­lec­tion of Cana­dian art, in­clud­ing many works by the Group of Seven, as­sem­bled, piece by piece, over sev­eral decades.

Paint­ings were dis­played ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing some in the bed­rooms and in the bath­room. Peo­ple were al­lowed to take tours of the house to see one of the largest private col­lec­tions of Cana­dian art.

In the early 1970s, the Fire­stones do­nated the house and the col­lec­tion to the On­tario Her- itage Foun­da­tion, al­though Mr. Fire­stone would re­main in the house and cu­rate the col­lec­tion as long as he chose.

In 1992, the col­lec­tion, now val­ued con­ser­va­tively at $ 11 mil­lion, was moved to the Ottawa Art Gallery, at Arts Court on Daly Av­enue, where it has re­mained ever since, with only small por­tions of the col­lec­tion on dis­play at any one time.

Over the years, the Fire­stone house it­self has de­vel­oped struc­tural prob­lems, and cur­rent owner Neil Mal­ho­tra, af­ter close study, de­cided a new struc­ture would have to be erected on the Minto Place prop­erty.

En­ter here the op­por­tu­nity of tak­ing cer­tain el­e­ments of the house to cre­ate a sim­u­lacrum in some other lo­ca­tion, yet to be de­ter­mined.

There is a long his­tory of such re­con­struc­tions, Mr. Gianni said. In the Shel­burne Mu­seum in Shel­burne, Ver­mont, for ex­am­ple, which holds the Have­meyer col­lec­tion built up by a prom­i­nent New York fam­ily, parts of the Park Av­enue apart­ments where the work was orig­i­nally viewed have been metic­u­lously re­con­structed. “ This is a re­mark­able op­por­tu­nity to re­unite the art with key el­e­ments of the house in a more ap­pro­pri­ate and ac­ces­si­ble place,” Mr. Gianni said. This is all the more sat­is­fac­tory be­cause the orig­i­nal home was built to dis­play art.

Mr. Gianni said the board is al- so re­spect­ful of the wishes of the Fire­stone fam­ily to see the col­lec­tion dis­played in a way that does credit to it.

This project jibes nicely with a long- term in­ten­tion of the gallery’s board to find a more spa­cious and es­thet­i­cally pleas­ing set­ting for its en­tire col­lec­tion. For a time, the city was con­sid­er­ing an ex­pan­sion of the Arts Court fa­cil­i­ties, an in­ten­tion that may yet be put in force. But the gallery has also been look­ing at var­i­ous sites around the city where the gallery could be re­lo­cated.

Their at­ten­tion has re­cently come to fo­cus on the Canada and the World Pavil­ion on Sus­sex Drive, ad­ja­cent to the French Em­bassy. This is al­ready a mu­seum space, is ideally lo­cated, and would re- es­tab­lish the city’s pres­ence on Sus­sex Drive, some­thing lack­ing since the sale of the old City Hall. Best of all, the pavil­ion, owned by the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion, is cur­rently un­oc­cu­pied and serv­ing no pub­lic pur­pose.

“ This is the jewel on the crown, sit­ting on Sus­sex Drive,” said Ms. Grif­fiths.

A new gallery at that lo­ca­tion would have to ac­com­mo­date not only the dis­play space re- cre­ated from el­e­ments of the Fire­stone House, but also the rest of the gallery’s col­lec­tions. Clearly, this would re­quire ren­o­vat­ing and ex­tend­ing the pavil­ion.

“ But look what you’d get,” Ms. Grif­fiths adds: “ A lo­ca­tion that would be quite mag­i­cal.”

Mr. Gianni said there is al­ready ex­cite­ment in the ar­chi­tec­tural com­mu­nity about this pos­si­ble project, which could only pro­ceed af­ter agree­ments were reached be­tween the city and the NCC.

“ Ev­ery­one is talk­ing about which ar­chi­tect is the right one to come in and do this work.”

The com­mit­tee hopes the pal­pa­ble ex­cite­ment al­ready be­ing felt about the project, cou­pled with the gen­eros­ity of the Mal­ho­tra fam­ily, will en­cour­age many mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to get in­volved as mat­ters pro­ceed.

In the best world, the gallery would be­come a true fo­cus of the com­mu­nity, a dis­tinc­tion it has so far lacked, said gallery di­rec­tor Mela Con­stan­tinidi.

“ We want a place where peo­ple can come and meet, a place ev­ery­one is ex­cited about. Some gal­leries have that, but we don’t.

“ And to me, the good thing about the Canada and the World Pavil­ion and the grounds is that we’d have a beau­ti­ful site — per­haps set up so that peo­ple could come for sand­wiches and cof­fee, come to con­gre­gate, and yes, come to view art. “ It could be spec­tac­u­lar.” The won­der­ful thing about the Mal­ho­tra do­na­tion is that “ it’s got ev­ery­one think­ing, ev­ery­one ex­cited,” said Mr. Gianni. “ It’s been a serendip­i­tous thing.”

BRUNO SCH­LUM­BERGER, THE OTTAWA CIT­I­ZEN

From left, Ben Gianni, Christina Loeb, Neil Mal­ho­tra and Nan Grif­fiths have worked hard to find a new home for the Fire­stone art col­lec­tion, which now is in­ad­e­quately housed at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

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