Louise Walker McCannel's most obvious legacy is the transformation of her grandfather's art collection into what is now the Walker Art Center.

But her drive to support local artists, her fight against racism and her push to make mental health services more accessible defined her.

"She was a fierce, no holds-barred liberal when it came to social causes," said Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Center. "She was always on the side of the little guy. She had a great sense of community and was an enemy of anything that smacked of racism. She was really dedicated to making a better world."

McCannel, the granddaughter of Minnesota lumber baron Thomas Barlow (T.B.) Walker, died June 4. She was 96.

McCannel, who studied art in Paris and Minneapolis, was quite "amazing," said her daughter, Teri Motley of Jaffrey, N.H., who only recently discovered her mother's illustrations and portraits. "I didn't know how good she was. She never talked about it. I just remember her once saying that she wasn't ever going to be a real artist, so she gave it up."

Instead, McCannel turned her knowledge and talents to being a curator and cataloguer for the Walker Art Gallery, which housed her grandfather's art collection.

"It went from a glorified gallery in someone's attic to a modernist art museum for the people," Motley said.

"Louise had a great sense of humor and went along with some of what may have seemed to many people on the board to be outlandish proposals," Friedman said. "But you could always count on Louise. ... And when it came time to turn over the museum into a public institution, she was right there."

McCannel believed in the strength of a local art community. "She liked artists," said Lyndel King, director of the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum. "If ever they needed money, Louise would buy some art from them. She didn't buy art because it was in fashion or to decorate her house. She wanted to support artists."

"We're losing a lot of people who were leaders in our community who supported the arts here because they genuinely cared about our community," King said. "The second generation of those families that built our institutions don't live here anymore and they don't feel the same sense of loyalty to our community that their parents and grandparents did. "

Because of her family ties, McCannel moved easily in high society. "But she was independent and not very much into the social life," Motley said. "She had a knock-down, drag-out fight with my grandmother, who wanted her to have a debutante party. But she wanted no part of it."

Instead, McCannel used her influence to do good. "She was of that philosophy that you do all the good you can, as hard as you can, as long as you can," Motley said.

In the 1930s and '40s, she became part of the mental health movement to ensure treatment for people who were not institutionalized, Motley said. She later served on board for the Minnesota Association for Mental Health. She was a champion for women's issues and became an environmentalist before it was fashionable. McCannel also was a stalwart advocate for social justice issues, chairing the Interfaith Fair Housing project that push for desegregation in housing. She helped launch the Minneapolis Urban Coalition and served on the board for The Way, a nonprofit group that worked to empower the North Side community.

Rolland Robinson, who served as a United Methodist minister on the North Side and was a founder of The Way, said McCannel used her connections, influence and resources to bring money to The Way. "She got more things done behind the scenes than anyone I know. She was incredible," he said. "She understood the issues of love and justice. And she acted on those beliefs."

She's also survived by her husband, Malcolm McCannel of Minneapolis; daughters Dana McCannel of Provincetown, Mass., Abigail Walker-Worley of Richfield and Mexico, and Laurie McCannel of Richfield and New York City; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788