Ottawa Art Gallery - The Firestone Collection of Canadian Art

Situated in Canada’s capital city and flanked by the University of Ottawa, Arts Court, Ottawa’s historic jail is the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG). Operating out of Arts Court since 1988, the OAG recently underwent an expansion project. In 2018, the gallery opened to the public in its new 55,000 square-foot home. The gallery’s holdings are split into two distinct groups: its permanent collection, which includes 1,000 works by both contemporary and historical artists, and the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, which includes over 1,600 pieces. The story of the Firestone collection is a gem in Canada’s history.

Selection of Group of Seven artwork from the Firestone Collection, Ottawa Art Gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Evan Hachey

In 1938, Vienna-born O.J. “Jack” Firestone (b. 1913-d. 1993) fled Austria with his family to escape German Occupation during WWII. Eventually immigrating to Canada with his family, Jack attended McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and later settled in Ottawa, Ontario. Jack worked as an economist for the federal government, and in 1947, he married concert pianist Isobel Torontow (b. 1913-d. 2002). Jack and Isobel developed an interest and appreciation for the arts and began collecting Canadian art from the early-1950s until the mid-1980s. The Firestones would often visit artists at their studios and homes. It was clear that they not only wanted to collect art, but they also wanted to foster lasting friendships. In total, Jack and Isobel amassed nearly 1,600 works, a culturally significant collection that would later be known as the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

Jack and Isobel held great interest in understanding each artist’s methods and practice. As noted, Jack in particular was invested in the lives of artists and became close friends with Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. In 1974, Jack wrote a biography about him entitled The Other A.Y. Jackson: A Memoir. In the 1970s, he also worked on a manuscript about artist Jack Shadbolt, which was never completed, and is currently on display at the Ottawa Art Gallery alongside pieces from the Firestone collection. The Firestones spent time travelling around Canada collecting art directly from artists. This method of collecting, being on the “ground” so-to-speak, is the reason why Jack was so successful. In fact, he would have never acquired certain pieces had he not introduced himself and met with artists directly.

In 1960, the Firestones constructed a large, purpose-built home that could provide the space needed for their growing collection and family. 375 Minto Place was a three-story house inspired by Brutalist architecture with its cubed form and flat roof, designed in part to showcase the Firestone’s collection. The home was 8,000 square-feet and included humidity and temperature controls to ensure the preservation of the artworks. A grand staircase made of brass and marble was situated in the foyer of the house, an element that would later come in to play at the new Ottawa Art Gallery building. The main living area on the first floor opened up to the second story ceiling, creating a monumental open space. Paintings were often hung here in a salon-style. The Firestones were known to invite friends over, hosting guests in this room, also offering talks and tours of their collection.

Selection of Group of Seven artwork from the Firestone Collection, Ottawa Art Gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Evan Hachey

Jack acted as a curator and used a handful of rooms in his house like that of a rotating museum gallery. He would switch his paintings around to ensure they could all eventually be viewed and appreciated by friends and visitors. As the collection expanded, additional rooms were taken over by works of art. Three of the five bedrooms were turned into gallery spaces. Bedroom walls were covered with works by Group of Seven artists, including an entire room dedicated to A.Y. Jackson. The residence and private home slowly became more of a public gallery space.

In 1972, Jack and Isobel decided to donate their collection, house, and $100,000 (CDN) to the Ontario Heritage Foundation (OHF). They felt that this would make the collection most accessible to the public. Jack continued to live in the house as a curator until 1989. After Jack moved into another house with his second wife Barbara, the OHF decided it was time to look for alternatives for the collection, wanting to officially change it over a public museum space. They first considered relocating the collection to Toronto, Ontario as part of the McMichael Gallery, however, the Firestones did not like this idea. Instead, in 1991, the City of Ottawa and Gallery at Arts Court (now the Ottawa Art Gallery) became the guardians of the collection. Its first public exhibition, titled Treasures from the Firestone Art Collection, opened in 1992. Unfortunately, due to changing ownership and extensive repairs needed, 375 Minto Place was demolished in 2007. Luckily, before the demolition, the Ottawa Art Gallery was able to document and photograph the building for their archives, while also salvaging architectural elements from the home.

In moving the collection to a public museum, it was not only cared for by art professionals, but also became accessible to more people. This fell in-line with the Firestone’s wishes for their collection. The space at Arts Court Gallery was notably unsuccessful as they had limited space to work with, and as such much of the Firestone collection was in storage as they opted for contemporary exhibitions. However, those working at the gallery were aware of this at the time and looked for ways to make changes. There had always been a hope to move the collection from this small location to a much larger purpose-built museum space. On the 28th of April 2018, this became a reality.

This brings us to the present-day gallery.

As you walk through the Ottawa Art Gallery, you get a sense of the Firestone’s history reverberating through its walls. The gallery takes direct architectural notes from the original Firestone house at 375 Minto Place. When designing the new space for the OAG, one of the foremost concerns was to reunite the salvage elements of the Firestone house with the historic collection. As can be seen in the image of the outside of the gallery, the architecture is similar to the original house, including the Brutalist flat-roofed cube-like shape. As you travel throughout the museum, visitors get a sense of the private space the collection once resided in. The original Firestone staircase connects the main lobby of the museum, quite poetically, to the Firestone Gallery on the second floor. Just as though you are visiting the original Firestone house, you have to go up the staircase to see more of the collection.

Staircase from 375 Minto Place, now at the Ottawa Art Gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Evan Hachey

Throughout the large public spaces of the museum (for example, the front lobby and the back entrance/café area) wood panelling lines sections of the walls, mimicking the teak panelled walls of the Firestone house, and bringing warmth and familiarity to the museum space. The café section of the museum is in itself interesting to consider. Similar to the main living space in 375 Minto Place, the ceiling extends past the second floor, creating a monumental room. Just as the living space in the home was used as a place for gatherings, parties, and tours, this section is where museum visitors have the opportunity to meet friends, have lunch, and perhaps sit down and study. This supports a similar congenial, welcoming, and group-friendly space of learning and discussion after visiting the galleries.

There is a second-floor gallery space dedicated to the Firestone collection that is aptly titled Perspectives: Selections from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art. This area is split up into two sections. One side of the gallery is dedicated to learning about the Firestones while displaying works of art from the collection on a rotating basis. The other side of the gallery, which is split using a wall and brass geometric architectural elements from the Firestone’s home, is a dedicated space where contemporary Canadian artists can reflect on works from the historic collection. The first section, alongside works of art, has a table and drawers set up for visitors to better understand the collectors. The OAG shows the importance of the collectors in relation to the museum itself, pointing out elements of the original house that have been salvaged and repurposed within the museum. You can open drawers and look closer into the mind of Jack Firestone. There are newspaper clippings about the change of ownership of the collection, portions of Jack’s unfinished manuscript about artist Jack Shadbolt, as well as drawings from the historic collection by artists J.E.H. MacDonald and Jack Bush. It is an immersive and interactive display that allows the museum visitor to fully engage with the collector and collection. The current artworks on display in this room represent various interests of the collector, ranging from the work of the Group of Seven to more abstract pieces. The second section of this gallery has an area dedicated to Jack’s friend and artist A.Y. Jackson. Similar to the Firestone display, this area has drawers that visitors can open and inspect to learn more about the artist himself. (*Note: this is based on a visit I conducted prior to COVID-19, this gallery space may have changed since then).

It is evident in the museum space that bringing the Firestone’s history into the gallery was of utmost importance. I have always felt a fondness for the Ottawa Art Gallery since I first visited it when it was at its previous location at Arts Court. I had the opportunity of working with two pieces from the collection: Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael’s Nickle Belt, and contemporary artist Vera Greenwood’s Big Dead Bird. I remember the staff being incredibly kind and extremely knowledgeable. The gallery has always fostered a friendly, informative, and creative environment. The OAG is community-driven, hosting gallery tours, events, talks, and a variety of public programming. The gallery strives towards inclusivity and stays relevant to its community. Importantly, it is completely FREE to all audiences, making it highly accessible. If you ever find yourself in Canada’s capital, this is a must-visit! Don’t forget to look around at the gallery’s architecture, as you might hear the Firestone’s history ringing through its walls.

Current exhibits not mentioned in this article

Russell Yuristy: The Inside of Elephants and all Kinds of Things (Feb. 8, 2020 – Feb. 7, 2021)

(Re)Collecting the Group of Seven: Celebrating 100 Years (Jan. 18, 2020 – Nov. 7, 2021)

RhythmScape (March 12, 2020 – Jan. 3, 2021)

Jennifer Dickson: The Credo Project (Feb. 8, 2020 – Feb. 7, 2021)

Annexe: People + Place: (Oct. 2, 2020 – Nov. 8, 2020) *All works are for sell and rental

Location and hours of operation

OAG’s back entrance, 10 Daly Avenue, Ottawa, Canada
PHOTOGRAPH BY Evan Hachey

Ottawa Art Gallery, 50 Mackenzie King Bridge, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Back entrance: 10 Daly Avenue (this is the only entrance and exit currently used due to COVID-19)

The gallery is opened Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm (as of October 2020)

Due to COVID-19, they ask that you book your visit online - https://oaggao.ca/oag-reopening

Further information about the museum can be found here: https://oaggao.ca/

Author’s Note: Much of the historical research about the Firestones is drawn from the OAG’s book “Firestone Collection of Canadian Art / Ottawa Art Gallery” by Emily Falvey, Glen A. Bloom, and Catharine Sinclair. If you are interested in learning more about the OAG, the Firestone collection, and/or its contemporary collection please check it out, it is an excellent resource!

Sources and further reading:

“About OAG | Ottawa Art Gallery.” https://oaggao.ca/about-oag.

Darby, Richard. “McMichael Collection.” McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2018. http://mcmichael.com/collection/.

Dare, Patrick. “The House That Jack Built.” The Ottawa Citizen. December 9, 2006. https://www.pressreader.com/.

Falvey, Emily, Glen A. Bloom, and Catherine Sinclair. Contemporary Art Collection / Ottawa Art Gallery. Ottawa, Ontario: The Ottawa Art Gallery, 2008.

Falvey, Emily, Glen A. Bloom, and Catherine Sinclair. Firestone Collection of Canadian Art / Ottawa Art Gallery. Ottawa, Ontario: The Ottawa Art Gallery, 2008.

Firestone, Bruce M. “O.J. Firestone and Medicare in Canada,” October 28, 2018. https://brucemfirestone.com/the-true-story-of-oj-firestone-and-medicare-in-canada/.

Lerner, Loren R., and Mary F. Williamson, eds. Art and Architecture in Canada: A Bibliography and Guide. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Moser, John L. “Report to Demolish 375 Minto Place.” Ottawa City Council, October 4, 2006. http://ottawa.ca/calendar/ottawa/citycouncil/ec/2006/10-24/ACS2006-PGM-APR-0220.htm.

O’Brian, John, and Peter White, eds. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Pearson, Matthew. “Work Starts on $100-Million Arts Court Redevelopment.” The Ottawa Citizen, 2015. https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/work-starts-on-100-million-arts-court-redevelopment.

Robb, Peter. “A Gift to Last: The Ottawa Art Gallery Highlights the Firestone Collection.” Artsfile (blog), December 3, 2018. https://artsfile.ca/a-gift-to-last-the-ottawa-art-gallery-highlights-the-firestone-collection/.

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Steph Hachey

Steph holds an MSc in Museum Studies with Merit from the University of Glasgow, with a focus on collecting and display. She also holds an Honours B.A. in History and Theory of Art from the University of Ottawa. She has worked in museums, archives, and heritage houses, with experience ranging from public programing, collections management, preventive conservation, and research. You can follow her on twitter @stephhachey.