MONTREAL – Michal Hornstein, a Holocaust survivor who came to Canada with little and became one of its most generous benefactors of the arts, in particular, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), died April 25 at age 95.
The MMFA’s main building bears the name of Hornstein and his wife, Renata, devoted art collectors, in recognition of their philanthropy and decades of volunteerism.
Hornstein, who was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1920 and immigrated in 1951 to Montreal, where he became successful in business, did not live to see the opening of the MMFA’s Michal and Renata Pavilion for Peace, scheduled to be completed in November.
The construction of that new building was necessitated in part by the couple’s donation in 2012 of a collection of paintings covering a period from the Renaissance to the dawn of modern art, valued at the time at more than $75 million.
It was the latest of many major gifts over the decades to the MMFA, which Hornstein considered a second home, and believed to be the largest private donation to a Quebec museum in modern history.
In total, the couple donated close to 420 works and made contributions that enabled the purchase of 23 works. They also underwrote the restoration of the 1912 pavilion named for them in 2000.
Hornstein said it was their way of thanking the city and province that had given them so much.
He was a museum trustee for 46 years. In 1982, he was appointed chair of the acquisition committee for international art before 1900 and ancient cultures.
MMFA board chair Brian Levitt said Hornstein deserves much of the credit for the international reputation the museum has today.
“The MMFA has lost a friend, a wise adviser, a great patron and a renowned collector…” Levitt said. “For many years, we have had the extraordinary good fortune of benefiting from the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Hornstein to enrich our national heritage. Without their incredible magnanimity, the museum would never have been able to even imagine acquiring such valuable works.”
Director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil noted that Hornstein had recently visited the site of the new pavilion under construction on Bishop Street, and was pleased with the progress.
“We already miss his sharp mind, his laconic repartee and his lively sense of humour, but his generosity will remain, as will his vision of a larger museum as a benevolent institution for future generations.” The pavilion will also house the MMFA’s educational activities.
Hornstein was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, but escaped by jumping from the train and hiding in the forests of Czechoslovakia, according to his biography. He then went into hiding in Budapest until the Soviet army arrived in 1944, when he fled to Bratislava.
After the war, he and Renata, also Polish- born, married in Rome.
She was the one who introduced him to 16th- and 17th-century European painting, and he quickly shared her passion for art.
As newlyweds, they began their lifelong collecting, being partial to Dutch and Flemish masters.
In 2004, Hornstein said: “For Renata and me, collecting is a labour of love and not merely a commercial transaction… One of the greatest pleasures for an art collector is sharing his works with people who appreciate them… This has been a source of joy and satisfaction for Renata and me.”
After settling in Montreal, Hornstein founded Federal Construction Ltd., a real estate company, and remained its president until his death. He continued to go into the office five days a week until his final days.
In addition to the MMFA, he supported other cultural projects, as well as higher education and health care, including the Jewish General Hospital,
In 2012, he and Renata were named Great Montrealers for their contribution to the city’s economic development and community involvement.
Mayor Denis Coderre commented that, since his arrival in Montreal in 1951, Hornstein “never ceased to give back to Montreal and to Montrealers, who welcomed him. His generosity was limitless. The heritage he has left [the MMFA], not to mention elsewhere, is simply priceless.”
Among his many honours, he is an officer of the Order of Canada and a grand officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and has an honorary doctorate from Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business and a Lifetime Achievement Award from McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.