Which law firm has the best art collection?

By: September 10, 2009

A list of firms that are getting creative

Best art collection: Osler

The late 1970s were a turning point for Canadian art. Artist run centres were hotbeds for the avant-garde, new public galleries of modern art were making waves and Osler was among the first law firms in Canada to start collecting contemporary Canadian art. That’s when a young partner with the firm, Stephen Smart, convinced management to allocate $20,000 a year to replace the ubiquitous maps, portraits and paintings of landscapes and ships.

Without any formal arts training, Smart amassed a collection of delightfully diverse work by early- to mid-career Canadian artists. It was, and is, a bold collection policy. Sure, the firm has pieces from artists whose careers went nowhere. But more often than not, it has snagged early work from such outstanding artists as Kent Monkman, Evan Penny and Kelly Mark.

It’s such a strong collection that the McMichael Canadian Art Collection used the firm’s art in an exhibit demonstrating the potential of a corporate collection. Now retired from private practice, Smart works as an independent curator. His passion for collecting has been passed along to a group of partners at Osler who meet casually to buy works for the firm.

Other great collections

Three more firms that can keep up with local galleries.

1. McCarthys

After years of renting from the Art Gallery of Ontario, McCarthys decided to start its own art collection in the mid-’80s. Its collection now rivals museums with a mix of video, sculpture, installation, photography and paintings from some of today’s hippest and critically acclaimed artists.

2. Torys

This impressive collection bloomed in the ’90s, along with the size of the firm. It was a perfect time to scoop up Canadian photographers then taking the international stage. The firm remains dedicated to collecting photographic works with a 2007 commission installation video/photography piece on its reception floor.

3. McMillan

Up-and-comer McMillan recently flexed its art muscle with a multi-room, site-specific photography commission. The piece takes the firm’s already diverse collection of contemporary Canadian art to the next level.

Controversial works

Antiranking_bJust because an artwork is an attention-grabber doesn’t mean it’s the best way to greet clients. In fact, more than one firm has had to redecorate its reception area.

McCarthys purchased “Five Coloured Words in Neon” by Ron Terada, a cheeky neon sculpture mimicking America’s Homeland Security Advisory System. The piece was removed from reception amid concerns it would offend U.S. clients. Ask to see it in the common area on the 50th floor.

Two dour photos of unnervingly realistic humanoid sculptures by Evan Penny were moved from Osler’s reception area and replaced with livelier paintings by Martin Goland. The humanoids were relocated to one of the firm’s boardrooms, where they watch over meetings with eerie, blank stares.

Antiranking_dGreat minds

The combination of a small Canadian contemporary art market and a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competitiveness among law firms means that if you are making the rounds for interviews, you’ll likely spot work by the same artist more than once. Among these, look for the three artists named below. Show your life experience extends beyond first year Contracts with a few well-chosen words about these works.

Dude, where’s my Dalmatian?

As a joke in the late 1980s, a senior partner installed a ceramic Dalmatian and hydrant among the odd sculptures popular in FMC’s reception. The piece passed as modern art for days before the joke was revealed. These days, temporary ownership of the thigh-high pup, now worse for wear, with a reattached leg, chipped ear and incision from a failed attempt to install a voice box, is auctioned off semi-annually within the firm to raise money for the United Way.

Antiranking_ePortrait of the artist as Attorney General

Amid Gowling’s art collection, eight cityscapes and landscapes stand out. They hang outside the corner office of counsel Roy McMurtry, the former Attorney General, judge and diplomat who painted them. Fascinated by painting since his youthful summers spent working in the Rockies, McMurtry started painting seriously 20 years ago under the mentorship of Group of Seven member A.J. Casson. McMurtry’s art has been used for the firm’s Christmas card, and he does a few commissions each year for charity. “When I’m asked, ‘where do you find the time or the energy for painting?’ I say the most important decision I ever made was to not take up the game of golf,” says McMurtry. “That probably doesn’t please my golfing friends, but I would not have had the time to do both.”

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