Cornish-born (Falmouth) Michael Canney was of critical importance to the life of the NAG from 1956, when he took on the Curator's role from Eileen HUNT who had filled the post over the previous four years. Canney and his wife Madeleine moved into the rooms in the basement of the little Gallery which had been provided to previous curators in lieu of a living wage. From the first, he set out to instil a professional and energetic sense of 'forwarding art' rather than simply 'hanging the work' that had prevailed for several decades and through the war years.
Jeremy LE GRICE commented: 'The appointment of Michael Canney as curator in 1956 consolidated the transformation of the appearance of exhibitions. The pleasure he took in the company of artists, the powers of observation, mimicry and anecdote, together with a reckless sense of humour and excitement in the earlier days of his job, sharpened the atmosphere considerably.'
In 1957 the Gallery was so much changed from its renovations that 150 exhibits had to be turned away in what was called by the Cornishman (Apr 11) 'Newlyn Art Gallery's Revival'. The next years were filled with innovative and exciting exhibitions, and the beginning of links with larger organisations like the newly formed Arts Councils.
Michael was aided and abetted in his own tenure (seven and a half years in all) at NAG by Peter LANYON, newly arrived at the NSA from the Penwith Society at St Ives, and soon to be president of the Newlyn Society of Artists. It was, perhaps, partly due to Peter's death in a gliding accident in 1964 that determined Canney to leave Cornwall where he had been born and first studied art (Redruth and Camborne's schools of art, and under Leonard John FULLER). He had grown tired of the perpetual struggle to make ends meet, and also the lack of time and opportunity to concentrate on his own work rather than continually supporting the work of others.
His first thought was to set up a school of painting and arts himself, with the plan that this could be situated in Porthleven, but the financial situation did not prove favourable and the idea was abandoned. He taught part-time in Plymouth, and then for a year took over the Visiting Directorship of the Gallery with teaching duties at the University of California campus at Santa Barbara. In 1966 he returned to England and took up a staff post at the West of England College of Art (later Bristol Polytechnic, now University of the West of England). He remained there until 1983 when he and Madeleine went abroad to live and work in Italy.
He worked directly with Barbara HEPWORTH on an exhibition of British sculpture in Penlee Park, Penzance in 1957. His closest friends and colleagues were Peter LANYON, Paul FEILER, John MILLER, Patrick HERON and many others who worked with him in Cornwall.
Upon their return from Italy to the UK he and Madeleine lived in Devizes, Wiltshire. In 1995 Michael and Madeleine contributed much to the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of NAG, and the 'Michael Canney Notebook', put together with Melissa HARDIE, is an important reservoir of information for that period in the life of Cornish art.