The first painting in the McGill Visual Arts Collection was, appropriately, a portrait of James McGill by Louis Dulongpré, donated in the 1830s by his friend and business partner Thomas Blackwood. As the University expanded, so did the collection: plans for new buildings and renovations of older buildings included the commissioning of works of art such as reliefs, stained glass, and murals, all of them integral to the buildings themselves.
What other works to collect was a subject of some debate; not everyone at McGill valued Canadian art, suggesting it was perhaps not important enough for a world-class university that associated itself with other leading institutions. This changed in the 1960s when the University accepted an important collection of Canadian paintings as a gift from collector Sidney Dawes.
Since then, many other donors have made substantial contributions, greatly expanding the range and the scope of the art in the Collection. At present there are over 2,000 artworks on display across the University’s downtown and Macdonald campuses. These works are on view in public outdoor spaces, as well as in corridors, classrooms, and administrative spaces, where they enhance the teaching, research, and working environments of faculty, staff, students, and visitors.
The University is proud of this mode of display: instead of being housed only in a permanent gallery space, the Collection lives a museum without walls. Members of the McGill community encounter works of art both by chance and by design. The Collection is for everyone to enjoy. It also serves as a laboratory for the training of students in art history and curatorial studies, allowing them an opportunity to have first-hand experience cataloguing and researching works of art under the direction of museum professionals.
An important aspect of the collection has not changed: McGill’s commitment to recognizing the individuals who played a role in the development and history of the University. A modern ode to our founder, the well-loved sculpture of James McGill by David Roper-Curzon, commissioned in 1996 and installed on the lower campus, is a prime example.