Art collection going home
Main display areas of original Firestone house to be re- created
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.”
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.