Firestone Art Collection

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jun 26

Here’s an excerpt from Don’t Back Down, the real story of the founding of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and why big leagues matter.

In this part of my book, I talk about how my father, professor OJ Firestone, put together one of the great collections of Canadian art and then gave it to the people of Ontario. 

I also tell the story of how the collection almost ended up in Toronto, which would certainly not have been consistent with Jack’s wishes.

Instead, it now belongs to the corporation of the city of Ottawa and is housed and curated by the Ottawa Art Gallery.

I also talk about how a major piece of sculpture by Bruce Garner ended up at Ottawa’s city hall. How did that happen? I “stole” it from myself, proving, once again, that entrepreneurs would rather ask for forgiveness than beg for permission. Read on…

My dad not only loved Canada,
he loved Canadian art and artists. From the time I was four or five, I joined
him on his many trips to visit AY Jackson (in Ottawa), Jack Shadbolt
and Emily Carr (in Vancouver), Paul-Émile
Borduas (in Quebec)
and many other towns and cities across this vast nation. He collected art from
its source.

On one visit to see Mr Shadbolt, I watched the two Jacks argue over
which paintings OJ would be allowed to purchase this trip.

“No, not that one. That’s for Doris,”
Jack S would say.

Sure enough most of his best art read “For Doris” on the back of each
panel. Doris was his beloved wife.

This didn’t stop Jack Firestone from putting together a vast
collection of Group of Seven works plus hundreds more from other artists
representing the period 1900 to 1980.

While I was in Australia,
OJ and his then wife, my mother, Isobel, decided to give their art collection
of more than 1,600 works to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, so that they could
be enjoyed by the people of Ontario
for generations to come. They also gave their house to the foundation—they
became tenants in their own home. Jack was the curator of the collection, and
was required by the Heritage Foundation to give a certain number of free tours
each year.

For OJ, it was a joy to open his home to the public, and give tours of
their collection. He was a good storyteller, and would regale his audiences
with personal histories of many of the artists he’d collected. For my mother,
it was a torture.

At the same time they were donating their home and art collection
(1973), Jack decided to give up on his oldest son living 12,000 kilometers away
who was supposed to take over the family business. He started to sell off his
portfolio of real estate including land plus 100s of apartments he’d built from
the ground up.

At one point in the early 1990s, concern arose that the Firestone Art
Collection would be folded by the Heritage Foundation into the McMichael
Canadian Art Collection, already housed in a gallery north of Toronto (in Kleinburg). Then mayor Jim
Durrell (later 1st president of the Ottawa Senators) called me about

“What do you think about asking the province to transfer ownership of
the collection to the city of Ottawa,

“My parents, especially my dad, would want the collection to remain in
Ottawa, which
was his adopted hometown, Jim.”

So in 1992, it became official—the collection became the property of
the city of Ottawa; it is curated by the OAG,
the Ottawa Art Gallery.

The OAG is redeveloping its downtown site as this book is being
written. Über talented local architect, Barry Padolsky, has produced a design
that blends old and new architecture in a pleasing way.


Ottawa Art Gallery expansion, a
blend of old and new

My former boss (when he was director of Carleton’s School of Architecture),
Ben Gianni, serves on the board of directors of the OAG. A brilliant American
expatriate architect, Ben saved many of the artifacts from my parents’ home
before it was demolished to make room for yet another monster home. He had the
marble and brass stairways, walnut wallboard and other features removed and
stored in a warehouse awaiting the arrival of a new building at some point.

Part of the funding for a new 5,860 square meter (63,076 square foot)
OAG will come from the sale of air rights to a private sector proponent who
will then be permitted to construct a tower on site with a GFA (gross floor
area) of 15,158 square meters (163,159 square feet). Trading air rights or
outright buying them is common in mega cities like New
York, not so much in smaller towns like Ottawa.

It’s another way public or quasi public bodies can fund some of their

Later on, the OAG acquired another work for their Firestone Art
Collection—a huge welded bronze and steel Bruce Garner sculpture called
“Outreach”. I commissioned this work to adorn the concrete awning at the front
entrance of the first office of the Ottawa Senators, the Mallorn Centre (named
after the rare and fictional mallorn tree, in Tolkien’s Middle Earth).

If you look carefully at this picture, you can see Outreach in front
of the Mallorn Centre.


 I wrote this description of Bruce’s sculpture for the OAG:


It reflects a recurring theme of mine—how technology can extend the
reach of humanity.


Above is a picture of Outreach’s current home—it now sits on its own
balcony at city hall in downtown Ottawa.

How did it get there?

I “stole” it from myself.

As the team, parent company and arena were teetering towards
bankruptcy, I called Bruce Garner and a friend at the city in their cultural
services department, one with guts.

I told her and Bruce, “Here’s the thing. Outreach is not considered an
asset of the company; it’s my personal property (since I paid for it) on loan
to the company, but if it’s attached to the portico at the time of bankruptcy,
who knows, the trustee may consider it part of the estate.”

“What do you want to do, Bruce?” she asked me.

“I want to give it to the city of Ottawa and to OAG to curate.”

“That’s great. I’ll put the levers in motion.”

“Ah, that’s not going to work,” I said, knowing that the words
“motion” and “city of Ottawa” imply weeks or months of wrangling.

“Why not?”

“Because, here’s the thing, we have to get a crane and float and
remove it right now.”

“How soon?” she asked.

“Umm, we have to take it in the next two days.”

So with Bruce Garner supervising the move, we pulled up to the
building early two mornings later with a crane and a flatbed truck, and “stole”
that sucker from my own building.

Here’s Bruce Garner during our “getaway” looking quite pleased with


I suppose by now it’s apparent that entrepreneurs would rather ask for
forgiveness than beg for permission. They’re like itchy fingered New York cops, BANG,

Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD, ROYAL LePAGE Performance Realty broker, Ottawa Senators founder, Real Estate Investment and Business coach 1-613-762-8884


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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.