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The Art of Collection Building


The Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection of prints and drawings would make an interesting case study of how to create and build a museum collection. The collection is central to programming, but the department’s core activity remains collection building.

The greatest drawing collections have taken centuries to build and are generally found in royal holdings. For the AGO, acquiring a collection from scratch near the end of the 20th century was a formidable task. This exhibition explores the evolution of the print and drawing collection through the personalities, artworks and stories that make it unique.

What compels people to collect? What are some items you choose to collect?

Use the links to the right to browse this presentation.


The Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Centre, a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the study of prints, drawings and photographs, opened in 1993. The centre houses a collection of over 60,000 works on paper dating from the 13th century to the present day. Among the fastest growing collections at the AGO, it includes works by international artists James Tissot, Ernst Barlach and Henry Moore, as well as numerous works by Canadian artists David Milne, Betty Goodwin and David Blackwood.

In the Beginning...

University of Toronto professor Dr. Walter Vitzthum, an international authority on Italian drawings, was responsible for beginning the collection of European drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While sourcing works for the Art Gallery of Ontario, he would visit dealers in London and Paris. Although he occasionally purchased a finished and firmly attributed drawing, the majority of his purchases were preparatory sketches by members of the Italian School. By purchasing works that are not attributed to specific artists, Dr. Vitzthum was able to make affordable purchases and expand the collection. His contribution to the AGO’s collection was described as “a model of intelligent acquisition on a small budget.”

To this day, curators continue to look for the right opportunity by purchasing great works that are out of fashion or that turn up in unlikely places.

Learning in London

The AGO had to focus on acquiring prints and drawings before it could mount exhibitions. This work requires curatorial expertise. Katharine Lochnan was asked to prepare for the position of curator of prints and drawings at the AGO by spending a year at the British Museum in London. There she closely studied the works of the greatest masters, working through schools and centuries in order to develop a good eye and a keen familiarity with the material. Arriving back in Toronto in 1976, Lochnan was appointed the AGO’s first curator of prints and drawings.

Donors and Collectors

Dr. Vitzthum always found more drawings than he could afford to buy, and he began to encourage AGO board member and major donor Marvin Gelber to build a personal collection to complement the Gallery’s. Dr. Vitzthum selected the drawings and Mr. Gelber took pleasure as the walls of his apartment began to fill up with art. As Dr. Vitzthum had hoped, these drawings, which included this Cavaliere d’Arpino drawing, eventually were given to the Gallery.

Museum collections are dependent on gifts. The AGO’s collection of modern European drawings was given a terrific boost when, shortly before his death in 1970, art collector Samuel J. Zacks and his wife, Ayala, bequeathed their outstanding collection of European art to the Gallery.

Building relationships with collectors is much easier when local galleries or dealers dedicated to prints and drawings help collectors to connect with each other and to curators and scholars. In 1976 Gabor Kekko opened a gallery in Yorkville. The AGO was then able to foster relationships with collectors by inviting them to participate in departmental activities and programs designed to engage their interests.

Collecting Strategy

As curator of prints and drawings, Katharine Lochnan faced the challenge of building a new collection close to the end of the twentieth century. In the art market, prices were rising rapidly, and drawings by major figures were quickly disappearing from the market as they entered the collections of major museums. In forming a collecting strategy, Lochnan relied on two important pieces of advice: don’t buy scraps, and never buy a drawing you cannot see from across a crowded room!

Collections Management

Prints and drawings require proper storage. As the collection grew, staff worked quickly to build the first print room adjacent to the paintings vault. A modest room was fitted in the late 1960s with a light table, shelves for the new acid-free solander boxes (in which the works are stored), bins for framed works, and filtered fluorescent light, which represented a great step forward. The facility continued to be enhanced as the collection grew.


Dr. Vitzthum encouraged the AGO to mount major master drawings exhibitions. He initiated French Master Drawings in North American Collections (which was organized for the Gallery by Pierre Rosenberg). The exhibition, which opened in 1972, was a milestone in French master drawings scholarship. It included some of the drawings that Dr. Vitzthum had purchased for the AGO, such as Israël Silvestre’s View of Venice from the Campanile of San Giorgia Maggiore. It was not until 2008 that the Gallery was able to present an exhibition that highlighted its master drawings collection.

Today’s Collection

While no collection is ever complete, the range and quality of the works acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario over the last four decades have seen the print and drawing collection come into its own. It represents the combined tastes and histories of many collectors, rather than a dominant curatorial voice. The collection broadly covers all the major European schools, with the following areas of note: British drawings and watercolours, late 18th- to early 19th-century German landscapes, and modern prints and drawings. The accumulated effort has provided the print and drawing department with a solid base on which to build in the future.

Click HERE to learn more about the Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Centre.