Boutilier remembers the first time she had a phone call from Ottawa-based art collector and philanthropist Ruth Soloway. “She was testing the waters,” recalls Boutilier, the Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (“the Agnes”). “It wasn’t entirely clear what she wanted to do.”
When Soloway did make her intentions clear, however, they were significant: she wanted to donate an important collection of Canadian paintings to the gallery.
The donation, one of the most significant in the Agnes’s history, is made up of 61 paintings, drawings, and sculptures spanning a period from the 1840s through the 1980s. The collection includes works by an array of significant artists, including Emily Carr, Jean Paul Lemieux, Paul-Émile Borduas, Alex Colville, and David Milne.
“We’re thrilled to have this collection,” says Jan Allen, Artsci’87, BFA’90, MAH’92, Director of the Agnes, explaining that while the collection is a personal one, its scope reflects the history of art in Canada. “The character of this collection is fascinating – and it’s made up of works that Ruth Soloway lived with in her home, so many of them have not been widely seen.”
Born and raised in Ottawa, Soloway – who’s now 98 – developed an interest in art in the 1950s while serving as a volunteer at the National Gallery of Canada. She was particularly inspired by the Gallery’s then-director, Alan Jarvis, who she has said got her “hooked into the art world.”
Soloway built her collection quietly, guided initially by knowledgeable friends and her own interests. “She never collected any particular artist in depth,” says Boutilier. “She was going for an overview. It really is a mini-lesson in Canadian art history.”
Soloway’s late husband, lawyer Hyman Soloway, BA’36, was not an art collector himself, but he’d made donations to his alma mater. So when it came time for his wife to find a permanent home for her significant collection, she knew where she wanted it to end up.
Jean-Paul Lemieux, Le beau monde, 1969, oil on canvas is one of the paintings included in the Soloway gift to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
“The reason Mrs. Soloway didn’t want to donate the works to a large institution like the National Gallery is that she felt they would already have enough significant works by the artists in her collection,” says Boutilier.
“She really felt it would make a bigger difference here,” adds Allen. “It appealed to her that students would be involved with the collection, and that people could use it for research and teaching.”
Forty works from the collection are on view until April 20 in an exhibition called “A Canadian Collection: The Soloway Gift,” which is accompanied by an illustrated publication. Since opening in September 2013, the works have proven very popular with gallery visitors, students, and school, groups.
“These paintings have drawn out a lot of stories from visitors,” says Boutilier. “And they’ll continue to be used in future projects and exhibitions. The Soloway collection is a treasure trove of milestones in Canadian art.”