Signe Kirsten McMichael
10 February 1921 – 4 July 2007
Kleinburg, 5 July 2007
Signe McMichael will forever be remembered as one of this country’s strongest advocates for Canadian art and artists. Her lasting legacy, shared with her husband Robert McMichael, is her gift to the people of Ontario of an outstanding collection of Canadian art and a gallery that is singular among Canadian art museums.
Thomas Smart, Executive Director and CEO McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Signe Kirsten McMichael (nee Sorensen), the co-founder of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection passed away at Toronto East General Hospital in Ontario on 4 July 2007. Signe was born in Sandersig, Denmark on February 10, 1921, and at the age of six travelled with her family to Peace River, Alberta to visit relatives. While in Canada Signe’s mother, Anna Tera Kirstine (nee Oggesen) became ill and passed away. Her father Soren Christian Sorensen then decided that he and his three daughters should settle in Alberta rather than return to Europe. The family settled on a farm in the Peace River Country.
After graduating from Alberta College, Signe worked in the media and in advertising. During World War Two, she served with the RCAF, working in the communications branch. During the course of her career she held a number of positions with radio stations in Edmonton, and Vancouver before moving to Toronto to work in the advertising department of CKEY.
In 1949 Signe married Robert McMichael and three years later the couple purchased ten acres of woodland overlooking the Humber River Valley in the Village of Kleinburg. Using giant hemlock beams dismantled from old farmhouses and barns, the couple built a unique log home, which they named Tapawingo. When asked why the log house bore this name, Signe McMichael explained; “We researched Indian names and came up with Tapawingo, which means Place of Joy.”
Signe’s great contribution to Canadian culture began when she and her husband, who shared a keen interest in Canadian landscape art, began to purchase paintings by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson and their contemporaries. It wasn’t long before the artists themselves and like-minded art lovers began visiting Tapawingo to see Mr and Mrs McMichael’s growing collection, which soon expanded to include art by First Nations and Inuit artists.
In the early years, with Robert McMichael often out of the country, Signe McMichael took an active role in the growth of their collection. With a strong sense of business and a growing understanding of Canadian art, she not only looked after the couple’s home, but also their collection. “We love our paintings so much,” said Signe, “that we consider it selfish to keep them just for ourselves. We have yet to turn away anyone with a desire to see our collection.” The buildings, the grounds, and the McMichaels’ growing collection were given to the people of Ontario in 1965.
Signe and Robert McMichael continued to live at the gallery until 1981 when they moved from Kleinburg and took up residence in nearby Belfountain. Signe, appointed a “Trustee for Life,” continued to be active at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection for many years, serving not only on the Board, but also on many of the committees associated with the new public gallery.
In 1983, the University of Waterloo recognized Signe for her selfless work and presented her with an Honourary Law Degree. Joining her husband, Robert McMichael, she was the recipient of the 1978 Society of American Travel Writers’ Connie Award, and, in 1979, was made a Fellow of the Ontario College of Art. They were also the first to receive the Contribution to Canadian Art Award presented in 1981 by the Ontario Society of Artists. In 2001, both Signe and Robert McMichael were awarded the Order of Ontario. The following year, they were inducted into The Caledon Walk of Fame.
Signe McMichael was predeceased by her husband, her parents, and her sister Helen Miniker. She is survived by her sister Astrid Wright and several nieces and nephews.
A quiet, very private woman, the late Signe McMichael will be interred on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. At her request she will be buried in the McMichael cemetery beside her husband and members of the Group of Seven and their wives.
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is an agency of the Government of Ontario and acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Culture. The gallery is located on Islington Avenue, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in Kleinburg and is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. www.mcmichael.com