Better know a Canadian functionary: the Director of the National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880 by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, the Governor-General of Canada, heir to the Duke of Argyll, son-in-law of Queen Victoria and close personal friend of Edwin Landseer, the famous painter. To start, it was a part-time affair curated by members of the Dominion Architect’s Office of the Department of Public Works. It became more popular in the Laurier era and was incorporated in 1912 and afforded a full-time director. It became a Crown Corporation in 1990.

The first location of the National Gallery was in a room in the old Clarendon Hotel at the northeast corner of Sussex and George, which was the office building of the Geological Survey of Canada. (The building is still standing.) It moved in 1882 to two rooms in the Supreme Court building at the northeast corner of Bank and Wellington (now a parking lot across from the Confederation Building) before moving in 1888 to the whole second floor of Victoria Hall at the southwest corner of Queen and O’Connor, above the Dominion Fish Hatcheries Exhibition. (The site is now occupied by the Sun Life Financial Building.) In 1911 the Gallery was moved to the east wing of the Victoria Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) and stayed there until 1959, when it moved to the Lorne Building, a new office tower on Elgin Street between Albert and Slater. (It was torn down in 2011 and replaced with the James M. Flaherty Building.) In 1988, it moved into its current home, a specially-built gallery designed by Moshe Safdie on Sussex Drive where Murray and St. Patrick merge to from the approach to the Alexandra Bridge.

Locations of the National Gallery since 1880.

Locations of the National Gallery since 1880.

The Directors of the National Gallery of Canada have been:

Directors of the National Gallery since 1912.

Directors of the National Gallery since 1912.

Eric Brown, 1912-39. Brown was an Englishman who came to Canada in 1909 to supervise the loan of some British paintings to a Montreal art gallery. While he was there he met the banker and philanthropist Sir Edmund Walker, who convinced Brown to work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and then to become the part-time curator of the National Gallery’s collection in 1910. He was Director until he died.

Harry Orr McCurry, 1939-55. McCurry, an Ottawa native, had been Assistant Director of the Gallery for 20 years when he became Director. His wife, Dorothy Jenkins McCurry, was Ladies’ Figure Skating Champion of Canada in 1922 and 1923, and was the niece of the poet Archibald Lampman.

Alan Hepburn Jarvis, 1955-60. A grad of U of T and a Rhodes Scholar, Jarvis studied sculpture at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City and worked for the UK Ministry of Air Production in WWII. As Director, he directed more attention towards contemporary art.

Charles Fraser Comfort OC, 1960-66. The only actual painter to serve as Director, Comfort was born in Scotland and moved to Winnipeg at 12. He designed the murals on the front of the Toronto Stock Exchange and was a war artist during WWII.

Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs CC, 1966-76. Dr. Boggs, born in Peru, was the first Director to hold a doctorate in the arts (DFA, Radcliffe) and taught art history at Mount Holyoke College and Washington University. As director she caused some scandal when she ordered the purchase of 8 of Warhol’s Brillo-crate sculptures, two years after Charles Comfort had refused to show them in an exhibition. She was later a professor at Harvard, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and chair of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation.

Dr. Joseph Martin, 1976-77 (acting).

Dr. Hsio-Yen Shih, 1976-81. Dr. Shih was born in Hubei province, China, and came to Canada with her father, a Chinese diplomat, at the age of 6 in 1939. She earned a Ph.D. in art history from Bryn Mawr, specializing in Chinese art. She was Curator of the Far Eastern Department at the Royal Ontario Museum and a professor of East Asian studies at U of T. She resigned in disgust from the National Gallery in 1981 over budget cuts, and became Head of the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Hong Kong.

Dr. Joseph Martin, 1981-87. The first French Director, Joseph Martin earned a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Paris. Dr. Martin was a longtime employee of the Gallery, and had served as acting director after the departure of Dr. Boggs. He was also head of the Venice offices of UNESCO from 1973 to 1975.

Dr. Shirley Lavinia Thomson CC, 1987-97. After getting a Ph.D. in art history from McGill, Dr. Thomson (née Cull) was Director of the McCord Museum in Montreal and was Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. She later served as Director of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Pierre Théberge OC, 1998-2008. Théberge served as curator of contemporary Canadian art at the National Gallery in the 1970s, then was Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts before coming back to the Gallery. It was Théberge who obtained Maman, the giant spider that stands on the corner outside the Gallery.

Marc Mayer, 2008-now. Mayer started his art career supervising Canadian art exhibits in New York and Paris. He was also director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

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One comment

  1. John Dale

    Your chronology is missing one of the ‘Acting’ Directors. William S.A. Dale was acting director between Charles Comfort and Jean Boggs 1965-66 having been Assistant Director from 1961 to 1965. He went on to found the Visual Arts program at the University of Western Ontario – now Western University. At 93, he is still thriving. It would be nice to see an update on this interesting review.

    John Dale,
    Los Angeles

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