Ron Longstaffe: savouring the aha moment


July 7, 2003: Ron Longstaffe died of cancer at the end of May after a horrendous hospitalization following a femur fracture that happened when he was putting on a leg-brace. He was 69, which is not much of an age these days. He was an uncommon man, not least the way in which he straddled the worlds of business, politics and the arts with such ease.

Uncommon because it’s rare that a single individual plays with such skill and such impact in these three arenas. Business and politics, yes, they often go together; but the arts? That’s far less often part of the mix. Ron was an example of the kind of individual this cross-breeding can produce—someone with a keen sense of the pragmatic, an unerring nose for the political, but, too, an undying regard for the mysteries of the imagination.

The last time I visited him at St. Paul’s, we talked about the political issues of the day—he always had insights to bear on whatever was happening, and he was as animated and as focused as always, all the names and details easily to hand.

Then we talked about Gathie Falk’s recent successes and her newest series of artworks of ceramic baseball caps, and his eyes really lit up, and that sweet smile came over his face, and he talked about his genuine pleasure and surprise when she took one of his old baseball caps and included it in the series. It was a souvenir from a Broadway show he had seen and it was called, appropriately enough, Crazy for You.  

It was that genuine pleasure, that real delight that he took in art, that was so singular about Ron: it was a delight that had nothing to do with monetary value, which is how some people judge the worth of art, but everything to do with what the art did and said to him.

Given the range of his tastes and the scope of his lifetime’s collection, which included everything from Picasso and Warhol to Canadian stars like the Pratts and Gathie Falk, you might think he’d be a devoted consumer of the high-end art glossies. But he was impatient with the kind of deliberate obfuscation that surrounds so much art and puts so many people off. He considered most art criticism unreadable. He collected by gut instinct.

Rigour, clarity, directness: they were part of his being, part of what made him so successful in the other areas of his life. At the same time, art fitted snugly into his vision of the properly fulfilled existence. It made him, always, not only fun and provocative to be with, but playful as well, the way that art is always playful even at its most serious.

And it’s that humaneness I like to remember about Ron: a blend of passion and the raised eyebrow, and always an unfailing good humour. He’d laugh at the notion, but I think of him as a poster-boy for enlightened support of Canadian culture: the ideal example of someone who genuinely likes art, that shiver of apprehension it gives you, that frisson of understanding, the aha factor that suddenly sets you looking at the world in a different way.


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