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Sobey family art collection makes rare tour stop at Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

The show features iconic pieces from one of Canada’s most legendary private collections, with paintings by Emily Carr and Tom Thomson, among others.


Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1040 Moss St.
When: June 29-Oct. 27
Note: A free open house will be held July 6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

A two-year touring exhibit featuring iconic pieces from one of Canada’s most legendary private collections begins its final stop Saturday at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where it will remain on display until October.

Following that, the contents will be returned to its owners, with no concrete plans on the horizon for Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art to return to public viewing. In short: This is a prime opportunity to see several Canadian and Indigenous pieces that many consider to be definitive.

“It’s a very special exhibition,” said Steven McNeil, chief curator and director of collections and exhibitions for the AGGV. “Because these are works in private hands, it’s quite a rare thing to see. It’s one of the best collections in the country, so we were really excited to have the show come to Victoria.”

Generations has been on the road since 2022, and arrives in Victoria following stops at galleries in St. John’s, N.L., Edmonton, Charlottetown, Halifax, and Quebec City. McNeil worked diligently in order to make the sixth and final stop on the tour happen, and given the substantial insurance and shipping costs required to bring the 120 pieces to Victoria, it can only be counted as a Herculean achievement on his behalf.

The AGGV is the only B.C. gallery taking part in the tour, further adding to the exclusive nature of the exhibit. “This is the one and only time they have done a tour of their private collection,” McNeil said.

The collection began with Frank Sobey, the chief architect behind the nationwide Sobeys chain of supermarkets, and his wife, Irene, and has continued under the stewardship of members of the extended Sobey family (Irene Sobey died in 1983, Frank Sobey died two years later). What remains is a legacy of philanthropy (through the Sobey Art Foundation) and impressive collection of paintings, with originals by Group of Seven, James Wilson Morrice, Emily Carr and Tom Thomson among them, amassed over several decades.

Generations was organized and curated by Sarah Milroy, executive director and chief curator of Toronto’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection, who chose 170 key pieces from the collection to be part of the nationwide tour. McNeil said 120 of those were designated for Victoria and will cover between 4,000 and 5,000 square feet of space inside the gallery, “which is a lot for us,” he said.

“This is the biggest exhibition we’ve hosted in recent memory. There have been big exhibitions here in the past, but in terms of size and number of works, it’s certainly the biggest one since before COVID.”

Paintings by Victoria’s Emily Carr (Spring 1930s; Macaulay Point; and Sand Dunes) are in the exhibit, which will always draw attention. But other notable names, including Cornelius Krieghoff, James Wilson Morrice, Kent Monkman, Lawren S. Harris, William Kurelek, Jean Paul Lemieux, and Paul-Émile Borduas, among others, are equally well-represented, with several pieces in the show.

Generations is not about quantity, however. The quality is what matters above all else, McNeil said. The exhibit includes a trio by landscape painter Tom Thomson, an unofficial member of the Group of Seven, but each piece, painted a year or two before his death, is a legendary work of art unto itself. “These are big works from Tom Thomson,” McNeil said of Sunset, Canoe Lake (1916), Winter, Canoe Lake (1916), and Moonlight (1915).

“We have some great Group of Seven things [in the AGGV collection], but not Tom Thomson. It is good to have that on display.”

Two works by contemporary Scottish painter Peter Doig are in the show, “which is really exciting for us,” McNeil said. “He’s one of the highest-selling Canadian artists, in terms of prices, so this is something we could never afford to show. To have a Peter Doig on display is a big deal for us.”

The novel part of Generations, according to McNeil, is that each stop on the cross-country tour is unique unto itself. The show is slightly different in each city, as some galleries have more space than others. McNeil said the AGGV was hardly shortchanged, on account of its modest size.“There was some conversation [with curator Milroy] about what we would like to see here. We asked for the works we really wanted to have, and they made sure they were there.”

Which comes to the matter of choosing favourites. Even when asked which of the two paintings in the exhibit by abstract expressionist Jean Paul Riopelle he would rather own, he could not come up with an answer.

“It is really hard to pick,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a bit like choosing one kid over another.”

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