The headline Donor supports Venice Biennale’s Canada Pavillon caught my eye. I’m fond of Venice – one big art gallery, really! – and visited the Architecture Biennale in 2016. (You can read a short post about my Biennale adventures here, and a brief description about the Canadian exhibition here.)
What is interesting about the $3 million donation to maintain the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale site is that the donor remains anonymous. Instead, the patron wishes to honour a former director of the National Gallery of Canada, Dr. Shirley Thomson (1930-2010.) Barbara Stead- Coyle (National Gallery of Canada Foundation) reports The donor wanted the focus to be on Dr. Thomson and Dr. Thomson’s time at the gallery.
Among her many achievements, Dr. Thomson was the director of the National Gallery of Canada when it moved from an office building to its current (and stunning) purpose-built location along the Ottawa River.
During her 1987-1997 tenure at the National Gallery, Dr. Thomson diversified the permanent collection, acquiring contemporary art, as well as important historical works. Under her direction, the gallery purchased Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) in 1989 for $1.8 million. It proved to be a highly controversial topic in Canada, outraging Conservative politicians, and sparking discussions amongst Canadians. How wonderful to have citizens talking about art!
Here’s a concise video by National Gallery curator Annabelle Kienle Ponka explaining the significance of this painting.
In addition to her degrees in fine art and history, Dr. Shirley Thomson received an honorary degree from Université Concordia in 2001. This citation outlines some of her many accomplishments throughout her career, as well as at the National Gallery. Besides diversifying the permanent collection with savvy purchases (imagine what Voice of Fire is worth today) she valued education and accesibility for all: she initiated an internship program for university students, and began the Cybermuse program, which ensured the collection’s online availability. In honour of the donation, the Abstract Expressionist space is now The Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery.
Isn’t it refreshing to have an arts advocate honoured, instead of the usual Mr. and Mrs. Millionaire/Billionaire Memorial Gallery? For a bit of insight into Dr. Thomson’s leadership style and personality, this interview with Rob Labossiere provides some insight into this remarkable woman. Our thanks to the generous donor for maintaining the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale and for bringing Dr. Shirley Thomson to our attention.