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The Donovan Collection

Over the past 30 years, what began as a private quest has gained a reputation in the Canadian art world that reaches far beyond the boundaries of St. Michael's College. Including 336 works by 154 artists, and counting, Fr. Dan Donovan’s personally selected collection of mainly Canadian contemporary art makes its home not in a museum, but in seven College buildings, where students live with them day in and out. In the following excerpt, Donovan tells about the beginnings of his personal passion-turned-lifetime mission.


One of the things that has most surprised me about my life is the role that the visual arts have come to play in it. They were not part of my family background, or of the education that was meant to prepare me to be a priest and theologian. My undergraduate studies were in the liberal arts, especially in philosophy and english literature, while my graduate work focused on theology and biblical scholarship. it was only during the four years I spent in Europe in the mid 1960s as a graduate student that I began to discover and to be fascinated by the great works of Western art and architecture.

When I returned to Canada in 1967 I brought with me as souvenirs of my stay in Europe two woodcuts by a German Jew, Jakob Steinhardt. Active in Berlin in the 1910s and 20s, he emigrated to Palestine in the early 30s. The works I chose reflected the interests of a young priest and biblical student. Both are figurative and portray biblical characters, one, Job, and the other, Habak-Kuk. The latter is one of the so-called Minor Prophets or, as the Jewish tradition puts it, one of the twelve. The former is much better known. The book that bears his name is primarily taken up with a theological/philosophical debate about suffering, especially innocent suffering. Steinhardt's work evokes the end of the story. Everything is in ruins, the clouds are parting, the sun is still there, and Job talks to god. What he says is basically "I still don't get it. I don't understand why innocent people suffer. But I believe in you, I believe in life, I am going on."

Steinhardt's woodcuts are expressionist in style, biblical in content, and universal in their emotional and human implications. I was struck initially by their strength and directness. with time I came to appreciate the way in which they permit biblical figures to break out of their historical contexts and speak to contemporary issues and concerns, including and especially the Holocaust.

In 1971 I returned to St. Michael's College, where I had completed my undergraduate work in 1958, and began teaching in its faculty of theology. later I would also teach in the College's undergraduate Christianity and Culture program. Although I continued throughout the 1970s to develop my interest and knowledge of art by visits to Europe and then increasingly to New York and other major American cities, it was only in 1980 that I began to collect art in any kind of serious way. That year, a Russian-born Jew, Kosso Eloul, had a show in Toronto which included a large photograph of a work that had won a sculptural competition in Japan, where it was then installed. On learning that the piece, entitled Zen West, existed in an edition of two, I decided to purchase it for St. Michael's. It struck me that its geometric form and metal material would both contrast with, and give a focus to, a small park on the College property. In spite of its size, the work suggests a delicately balanced forward movement thus creating a bridge between the city and the College, between Bay Street and the church that stands in the middle of St. Michael's campus.

In contrast with Steinhardt's woodcuts, Zen West is not in any obvious sense a religious work. it is, however, striking and, in a certain way, elegant and even beautiful. It clearly adds something to its surroundings even while being at home within them. This is another function or role of art which has become increasingly evident in the collection over the years.

Some works in the collection evoke traditional religious images and stories and in doing so give expression to some form of religious concern or question. The presence of such content, at least when it is not used to mock religious hypocrisy or other failings, underlines the seriousness of whatever it is the artist is trying to express. A painter once told me that he falls back on images relating to Christ and especially to his suffering and death when he wants to say something profound about human life. That same artist expressed a desire to paint the crucifixion. Another painter, ordinarily not identified as a religious artist, declared his longstanding desire to do a painting of the agony in the garden.

None of the explicitly religious works in the collection were commissioned. Artists have recourse to such imagery because it continues to have a capacity to evoke and give expression to deep human concerns and longings.

The collection, as a whole and in the kind of differentiated way that I have suggested, reflects the continuing presence and vitality of the spiritual in contemporary art. In doing so it suggests a possible bridge between our secular culture and the long and rich religious tradition out of which it has come and against which at different times and in different ways it has reacted. Many of the works function as points of contact, as possibilities of conversation, between the two. It is this that gives the collection as a whole its distinctive character and that relates it in a special way to St. Michael's and its traditions.