A lost art oasis in Northern Ontario; Joe Hirshhorn's vision for a town that never was
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 November 2008)

WASHINGTON - Joe Hirshhorn, a brash young millionaire from New York, came to Canada in 1933 to invest in gold mines. Typically, he announced his arrival with a full-page ad in the Northern Miner headed "My Name is Opportunity and I Am Paging Canada."

He did well with gold but made much more money in uranium. In 1953 he and his geologist partner, Franc Joubin, found a rich uranium deposit near Blind River, Ont. That allowed Hirshhorn to become the most prolific collector of serious art in his time and perhaps any other.

"I buy very fast," he said. It was nothing for him to purchase three or four Henry Moore sculptures during a lunch break at a conference in London. For years he bought an average of two works of art a day. Abram Lerner, a former painter, became Hirshhorn's full-time curator in 1957.

When I met Lerner a couple of years later, he was building a complete catalogue of Hirshhorn's holdings, but was falling far behind; Hirshhorn bought much faster than Lerner could catalogue. Often he would phone Lerner and say, "I did some damage today," meaning he had added a dozen new works to his collection.

In some cases, the work went right from the art gallery to his Brooklyn warehouse, never to be seen again by Hirshhorn. The act of buying was itself a compulsion and an intense pleasure. Always he bargained with the art dealers, and almost always he paid the price he thought correct.

This season, until March 22, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D. C., is running an exhibition that explores a fantasy he harboured in the 1950s. It was his peculiar notion that he would create his own town, Hirshhorn, Ont., inhabited by miners and others who worked in the uranium region north of Lake Huron.

One day in 1954, having helped to develop Blind River and Elliot Lake, he announced: "Now, I want to build a town." He made this declaration to Philip Johnson, who was designing a house for him.

On a site 13 km east of Blind River he proposed building "an aesthetic town" with "a big square, like in Italy," as Barry Hyams quotes him in Hirshhorn: Medici from Brooklyn (1979).

Great modern art would be exhibited there. A 10-storey office tower would have a plaza dominated by international sculpture.

Philip Johnson was ecstatic. How many architects get to design a whole town? He prepared a model and drew maps showing a library, school, clinic, etc. -- as well as a Hirshhorn Museum in the town centre. Surveyors laid out the street plan. Some of the site was cleared by bulldozers. It sounded crazy (how many people would live there, or near there?) but many took Hirshhorn seriously. On July 30, 1955, The Financial Post carried a page-wide headline, "Picasso Finds New Home In Ontario Wilderness."

Terence Gower is a 43-year-old Canadian artist from Vernon, B. C. who divides his working life between Mexico City and New York. He makes "research-based art," studying obscure corners of cultural history and depicting them in exhibits and installations. Last year he came across the story of Hirshhorn, Ont. and began building an exhibition that makes the fantasy look amazingly real. A large animated film, three minutes long, complete with deadpan commentary, takes us on a tour of Hirshhorn City, from the Hirshhorn Museum to the wilderness beyond. There are two aluminum shapes that demonstrate, at one-tenth scale, the building forms Johnson planned. The catalogue is titled Hirshhorn, Ontario: A Modern Utopia in the Wilderness of Canada. One of the most remarkable figures ever to inhabit the republic of art, Hirshhorn was born in Latvia, the 12th of 13 children in a Jewish family. When his father died his mother took the family to Brooklyn and went to work in a factory making women's handbags. "That's why I always wanted to make an awful lot of money," Hirshhorn remarked many years later. "When my mother went to work it used to kill me. She used to get up at six o'clock in the morning" to work in the factory. At the age of seven or eight, "I made up my mind that goddammit, one day I'm going to make a million dollars. And this is what happened." He spent only a few months in high school and then began selling newspapers on the street. Eventually he landed a messenger's job on Wall Street. He learned to be a trader at the lowest level and by the age of 29 had accumulated US$4-million. He sold all his stocks a few months before the 1929 collapse.

When he was 18, Hirshhorn acquired his first art, two etchings by Albrecht Durer for $75 each. (He still had them in old age.) As he grew rich, the art he bought reflected the size of his fortune. He became best known for acquiring sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti, among many others.

After some of his collection was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1962, its eventual destination was widely discussed. There were those who thought it should go to Ottawa because he made most of his money in Canada. After flirting with that idea, Hirshhorn realized that Ottawa wasn't seriously interested in making a proper home for it. There was talk about locating it in Italy, and more serious talk about putting it in Regents Park in London.

But when U. S. president Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird showed an interest, a museum on the National Mall became possible. Johnson's legendary skill at persuasion brought Hirshhorn, Congress and the Smithsonian together. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1974. He donated 6,221 art objects, including 28 by Henri Matisse. And what happened to Hirshhorn, Ont.? As soon as the newspaper stories broke, merchants from Blind River informed Hirshhorn that they considered the new town a threat to their local businesses. The Ontario government showed no enthusiasm. The early estimate of the investment necessary, US$35-million, was thought to be much too low. Hirshhorn lost his enthusiasm and let it die. But for a while the idea of an art centre with a population of Hirshhornians, deep in the woods of northern Ontario, was a bizarre but grand Utopian dream.

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