$2.5-million gift boosts Victoria art gallery's expansion plans

When artist Anthony Thorn read a story about the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s planned expansion, something started to brew.

“I saved the article. I kept reading it,” he said. “I thought to myself, what a great idea.”

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He approached his sister, with whom he co-owns an apartment complex in Regina, with another idea.

“I said, what if somebody came up with a big donation? Sizable. That would get the ball rolling.”

The AGGV announced Monday that Thorn, born Arthur Goldman, had made that donation. His gift of $2.5 million, paid for through dividends and Thorn’s portion of the apartment’s sale, is the largest cash donation the gallery has ever received, director Jon Tupper said.

The donation gives momentum to a $20-million expansion, which includes an addition to the gallery at its current location on Moss Street. The ribbon-cutting is planned for 2017.

“Our plans are not huge, so a donation of this size is very significant for us,” Tupper said.

Thorn, 86, couldn’t be present for the announcement because of his poor health. But at his Oak Bay home Friday he described how the gallery made him and his wife, Jacqueline, feel welcome when they moved to Victoria in 1980.

“Our first residence was an apartment very near the gallery, so the first thing I did was go there,” he said. “I didn’t have to fight my way into being accepted in a place like this.”

Thorn had grown up in Regina in the well-known Goldman family. While he never gave up his legal name, he took the pseudonym Anthony Thorn as a university student, while studying and writing poetry.

“I didn’t want to embarrass my family. It’s not that I was a bad poet, but I just thought I should choose a different name, so that whatever fame or misfortune came to me, it wouldn’t be because of my family’s well-known position in business in Regina,” he said.

Thorn began painting one year after graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, in 1948. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and Banff Centre, before travelling internationally to learn new techniques — from stained-glass design in Paris to sumi painting in Kyoto, Japan, to metalsmithing in Corfu, Greece.

The results cover the walls of his home. Unlike artists who seem to enter different “phases” of technique, Thorn said he has always worked in a variety of media. On one wall, a carving of pewter, amber and gold tin is mounted next to a geometric work in acrylic and ink. Next to that is a demonstration of sumi technique, painted with a Japanese brush. And further on is a piece gilded with gold leaf and gold foil with an inlay of hammered gold with a Hebrew letter.

“[Other artists] seem to work sequentially through different phases and styles. And they seem, to the public at least, to give up their previous work and ultimately evolve into, ‘Oh this is the great new me. Those were only antecedents,’ ” he said. “For me, they weren’t antecedent, they were other aspects of my own nature.”

Thorn said he approaches art the same way he does books and music — he doesn’t limit himself to one genre or style.

Thorn’s work has been exhibited in Canada, France, Mexico, the Canary Islands and the United States. They belong to the AGGV and the Greater Victoria Public Library, as well as the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

Thorn, who has bladder cancer, made the donation in memory of Jacqueline, who died last March. He said he hopes it inspires others to donate.

“[I hope] other people in this neighbourhood and art lovers and people who’d never really though about [donating] would say, ‘Oh, that painter did it. Why not me? Why not us?’ ” he said.

“Those of us who have the means to do something should do it. This is a moral ought. We should do it because it enriches the lives of other people as it has enriched our life.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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