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Atlantic Visions – Generations: The Sobey Family & Canadian Art

Installation view of Generations: The Sobey Family & Canadian Art.

The Sobey family have been collecting Canadian art for four generations, both on an individual basis and through their various corporate entities and foundations. What’s more, they have been extremely generous with sharing it. Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art, an exhibition organized and toured by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, has been making stops across Canada since 2022. Now on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, it is the third major exhibition at the AGNS drawn from the Sobey collections. As AGNS CEO Sarah Moore Fillmore says, the exhibition’s diverse content should “create dynamic conversations rooted here in Nova Scotia.” Featuring over 160 works dating from the 19th century to the present day, Generations presents a survey of Canadian art history based in a particular vision, one that has grown and evolved with the family that shares it. And while it is certainly a Canadian vision, it is one with a pronounced Atlantic Canadian accent.

Frank Sobey, who began the grocery chain that is at the root of the Sobey family’s enormous business success, started collecting Canadian art in the 1950s, and focussed primarily on established names: the Group of Seven, J.W. Morrice, Emily Carr, and, eventually, prominent artists from Atlantic Canada such as Alex Colville and Christopher Pratt. It was a collection that shared elements with many other Canadian collections, “blue-chip” or “investment quality” works that were mirrored on the walls of well-to-do Canadians across the country. With the advice of their son Donald, Frank and Irene Sobey built a collection that, when it is not on loan to other galleries, is on view at Crombie House, the former family home in Abercrombie, and open to the public throughout much of the year. With each succeeding generation the collecting mandate expanded, with some members of the family, such as Donald and Beth Sobey and their son Rob (with his wife Monique), becoming the most adventurous in terms of collecting contemporary art.

That shift stems in large part from another Sobey family project, the creation of the Sobey Art Award in 2001, then and now Canada’s premiere art prize for Canadian art. As Sobey family members began to collect the work of artists featured in the annual Sobey Art Award exhibitions, the scope of their collection shifted, as is evident from some of the work included in Generations (interestingly, much of the contemporary art acquired by family members from award winners and shortlisted artists has not been included in this exhibition, which is predominantly made up of more historical works). The Sobey Art Award was instrumental in changing the conversation about Canadian art, presenting a truly national story of Canada’s contemporary scene for the first time. As has so often been the case, it took a vantage point from the edge of the country to see the country as a whole.

But the award has had another impact, one that is a central feature of Generations. Moore Fillmore, who for several years chaired the annual Sobey juries, says, “the Sobey Art Award changed the opinions of  collectors and curators about the value of Indigenous art.” Indigenous art has always been well-represented in the Sobey Art Award, and three Sobey winners of Indigenous ancestry are featured in Generations: Brian Jungen (who won the first award in 2002), Annie Pootoogook, and Nova Scotian artist Ursula Johnson (the first Atlantic Canadian winner). Moore Fillmore is quick to point out the role that the Sobey family’s generous award played in changing things. “The conversations in the juries became reflected in practice, in the shows that were being made and how art was being collected,” she says.

Generations makes that explicit. Of the eight artist that would be considered contemporary in this show, only two, Mario Doucette and Peter Doig, are not Indigenous. In Generations, contemporary Indigenous art is having a conversation with Canadian history, a conversation that is both compelling and necessary. This dynamic ensures that the exhibition lives up to curator Sarah Milroy’s claim that Generations is “ a survey of Canadian art like no other.” The works are not exhibited chronologically, but thematically, following the threads of what Milroy describes as the “conversation” the works are having with each other, and displaying for audiences the results of her “eavesdropping.”

Generations is accompanied by a handsome book that looks at the Sobey collections primarily through the lens of central Canadian art history – the Group of Seven, Quebec painting, and the national aspirations of both. However, walking through the show one cannot help but see things through a different lens. As Milroy notes, “At the heart of this exhibition is the North Atlantic.”  Indeed it is, and there is as an Atlantic vision for Canada, an expansive and generous one, running like the gulf stream through Generations.

The other, recurring thread in this story is generosity. “The Sobey family has a long and cherished history with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia,” Rob Sobey says. The Sobey family has shared their collections, sponsored exhibitions, and founded an award that has ensured a national platform for Atlantic Canadian artists, alongside their peers form across the country. In one additional gift, they have ensured, though a significant financial commitment to the gallery to support its programming, that admission to the AGNS to see this remarkable show will be free to all Nova Scotians. The Sobeys, and the AGNS, have long been champions for the right of all Nova Scotians to enjoy the amazing works made by Canadian artists. With Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art, in partnership with the Sobey family and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the AGNS is living up to Moore Fillmore’s promise to find “new ways to provide Nova Scotians with access to art.”

Generations: The Sobey Family & Canadian Art is on view until January 14, 2024.

Ray Cronin is a Nova Scotia-based writer, curator, and editor, and the author of fourteen books on Canadian art. His most recent, Halifax Art & Artists: An Illustrated History, was published in October 2023 by the Art Canada Institute. He is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award and former Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

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