The Sobey family and their affiliated companies have been collecting Canadian art for decades, a practice that started with the grocery chain’s founder Frank H. Sobey, but was spearheaded by his youngest son, Donald. Over his long life, Donald R. Sobey displayed a love of art and a passion for collecting that, based on the evidence gathered in Generations: The Sobey Family & Canadian Art, a new book by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and Goose Lane Editions, he successfully passed on to the ensuing generations of his family. Looking at the works illustrated in the book, one sees the results of six generations of collecting, beginning with the patriarch, continuing to Donald and his brother David, then to the next generation (including all of Donald’s three children), and even on to the generation after that. Obviously, art collecting is well established in Stellarton. 

Of course, that’s what we expect of the wealthy, isn’t it?  To amass things—cars, boats, houses, and, yes, paintings— that only the very rich can afford? True enough, I suppose, and most of the works pictured in Generations are certainly beyond the financial means of the average person. But the book is also evidence of another important passion of this Nova Scotia-based family: philanthropy. 

Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art, Edited by Sarah Milroy Published by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and Goose Lane Editions Hardcover, 224 pages, $55.

Generations: The Sobey Family & Canadian Art documents not just the family’s collecting activity, but their generosity as well. Included in the book, for instance, are several works gifted to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia by members of the Sobey family. Also included are works from family collections by Kent Monkman, studies for monumental paintings donated by the Sobey Art Foundation to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even more impactful has been the Sobey Art Award, established in 2002 by the Sobey Art Foundation and implemented by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. For twenty years the Sobey Art Award has celebrated contemporary Canadian art and has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to young artists. Several artists who have won or have been shortlisted for the award are represented in Generations, including the first winner, Brian Jungen, and the first Atlantic Canadian to win the award, Ursula Johnson. 

Generations accompanies a touring exhibition of the same name (generously sponsored by the Sobey Art Foundation and Empire Company, among many others—see how the theme continues?). Organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario, the exhibition will come to three venues in Atlantic Canada: the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, ensuring that many Atlantic Canadians will get to see the work illustrated in the book. The Sobey family have also been generous with sharing their collection, Generations is the latest in a long line of exhibitions from the Sobey Collections, dating back decades.

The book’s greatest strengths lie in its physical qualities—it is a very beautifully designed object with excellent quality of illustrations—and in its art historical content. The three essays situating the Sobey historical holdings within the larger Canadian art context by Jocelyn Anderson, Michèle Grandbois, and John Geoghegan are particularly strong, contextualizing the evolution of a sense of “Canadian” art and the relationships between the Group of Seven and their predecessors and contemporaries, particularly in Quebec. 

Generations differs from previous Sobey collection exhibitions in the amount of contemporary art that it includes, reflecting the changing focus of collecting by Sobey family members. There is an illuminating interview by Sarah Milroy with Kent Monkman in which the artist talks about the Sobey Art Foundation’s patronage of his work, and about the circumstances of his exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, while Sarah Milroy’s essay on the work of Mario Doucette, Annie Pootoogook, and Brenda Draney in relation to the narrative tradition of William Kurelek is interesting as far as it goes, the book suffers from too little attention paid to the diversity of the contemporary art included in the exhibition. More mention of the works by Jungen and Johnson, for instance, or the remarkable paintings by Peter Doig, would have been welcomed.

However, that’s a quibble. Generations succeeds as an art book, in that it is not dependent on the exhibition for its relevance, but it also will certainly enhance any experience of the show. Generously illustrated and beautifully produced, it will be a welcome addition to many collections.