A visitor to the AGM writes a tribute to Robert Freeman on the gallery wall. Messages included "Rob, you will be missed and forever remembered" and "Always did your best to raise the bar for the arts in Mississauga."

A visitor to the AGM writes a tribute to Robert Freeman on the gallery wall. Messages included "Rob, you will be missed and forever remembered" and "Always did your best to raise the bar for the arts in Mississauga."

Mississauga's arts community gathered Saturday afternoon (Jan. 12) to celebrate the life of a man regarded as one of its greatest supporters.

Robert Freeman, executive director and curator of the Art Gallery of Mississauga, who died in December, was remembered as a man whose humble manner and thoughtful personality couldn't disguise his deep passion for the arts.

"Rob Freeman was one of the staunchest supporters of the arts in Mississauga, and for that he will be dearly missed," said Susan Burt, director of the city's Culture Division.

Calling him a "wonderful colleague," Burt told the audience, "He was a great person to talk to about art and about life in general. And he had a wonderful sense of humour, he could always laugh."

Burt was among a long line of people who rose to share their memories of Freeman at the packed memorial service held at the AGM. More than 150 people crowded into the gallery's main exhibition space, which was for once empty of artworks and with only a single television showing images from Freeman's life.

Outside the room, visitors were encouraged to pencil their tributes to Freeman on the white walls of the gallery. Dozens had done so.

Standing at a podium placed before a dramatic red and white background, speaker after speaker paid tribute to Freeman, who died at the age of 62 after battling lung cancer.  

First to speak was the mayor, then followed members of parliament, councillors and cultural leaders. After them came the artists, co-workers, colleagues and gallery volunteers.

Their memories of Freeman were diverse and their anecdotes referenced everything from plastic salmon to David Bowie, but all the speakers were united in a deep respect and fondness for a man whose death shocked the city's arts community.  

Bohdan Shulakewych, president of the Mississauga Arts Council, said Freeman believed art should be an intrinsic part of life.

"The vehicle to bring this to our community and to grow our community is through an art gallery," Shulakewych said, "but he believed fundamentally that art should exist in all of us and be part of our lives everyday. We have lost a friend to the arts community in Mississauga."  

Freeman joined the AGM as its curator in 2001, adding the title of executive director in 2007 and ambitiously promoted a plan to expand the gallery. Current curator Stuart Keeler called Freeman a mentor and said that "he loved art and loved artists even more," listing the names of many of the emerging talents Freeman had helped nurture.

Saying that Freeman's voice would continue to guide the gallery's staff, Keeler added that he often asks himself, "What would Robert do?"

dpaterson@mississauga.net