It was with great sadness that the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts learned of the passing of Dr. Sean B. Murphy, one of its greatest ambassadors and Museum President from 1968 to 1979. An ophthalmologist and former McGill professor, Dr. Murphy will be remembered for his wit, diplomacy and tireless championing of the Museum. The MMFA wishes to salute the life, zeal and generosity of this true gentleman who was equally dedicated to his family, his patients and the Museum.
“We were deeply saddened to learn of Dr. Murphy’s passing. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I would like to extend my sincere condolences to Dr. Murphy’s three children, Gaill, Brian and Carolyn, as well as his four grandchildren and great-grandchild. The MMFA, the city of Montreal, Quebec and Canada have lost an exceptional man whose achievements are woven fast into the fabric of our history. We will pay him tribute at the Museum in the coming months,” said Jacques Parisien, Museum President.
Dr. Murphy’s extraordinary service to the Museum encompasses over half a century. In 1959, he joined the MMFA’s Membership Committee and then became a Museum Trustee in 1965. In 1968, Dr. Murphy accepted the mandate of Museum President, a position he held until 1979.
Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator of the MMFA, said, “Sean was a gentleman in the truest sense. A man with a superior vision…. and not only in ophthalmology! A former Museum President, this wonderful volunteer, who has been recognized on the national stage, was at the helm of our institution during a determining period of its history, during its expansion, francization and professionalization... Thanks to his incredible openness, the MMFA became more of a modern museum and less an elitist club. A generous donor and enthusiastic collector, but above all a warm and caring individual, he knew how to raise the tone of the debate and brought out the best in everyone. Although he was very determined, he was unfailingly kind. Sean maintained a child’s sense of wonder his whole life. He had a curiosity, an openness, a youthful outlook that was immune to offense… he was always open to innovation and the most contemporary forms of art. He was always sketching.
The impact of Dr. Murphy’s presidency on the Museum is still felt today. In the early 1970s, Dr. Murphy approached the Quebec government for support, a first for the Museum. Dr. Murphy also played a key role in the Museum’s much-needed expansion project, which was completed in 1976. According to Dr. Murphy, “The development of a better plant was one of the main reasons Quebec and the Museum entered into an agreement.” As President, Dr. Murphy was instrumental in securing funding from government agencies, private donors and corporations, effectively bringing the Museum’s first major building addition to completion.
Dr. Murphy’s other appointments included President of the National Museums of Canada (1979-1984 and 1987-1990), member of the Canada Council for the Arts’ executive committee (1977-1979), President of the Canadian Federation of Friends of Museums (1977-2009) and Vice-President of the World Federation of Friends of Museums (1977-2009). Dr. Murphy established the Cecil Buller Annual Bursary for Needy Teachers at the Visual Arts Centre in 1996 and the Annual John J. A. Murphy Cecil Buller Prize in Drawing, an award given to two Fine Arts undergraduates at Concordia University, in 1999.
“He graduated from Harvard University in 1943 and then studied medicine at McGill University before specializing in ophthalmology at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York. He took to visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fascinated by David, Ingres, Delacroix, Nicholson, and Moore. He would study their works for hours, and loved to sketch and copy the great masters in his spare time. In Montreal again, after two and a half years in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he joined the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he became ophthalmologist in chief, later becoming chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at McGill University. After a hard day in the operating room, he would sometimes stroll down to the Museum to have a look at one or two works of art, a Mantegna, a Moore, a Colville, returning to see the same ones again and again… Murphy believed that in viewing works of art, a man discovers and understands who he is, and that art, like music, can soothe the soul.” (Georges-Hébert Germain, A City’s Museum: A History of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, MMFA, 2007, p. 138.)
After stepping down as President in 1979, Dr. Murphy remained active as Honorary President, serving on the Acquisition Committees for both Non-Canadian Art after 1900 and Non-Canadian Art before 1900 and the Programming Committee. A generous benefactor, he donated 141 works of art to the Museum.