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Features / September 30, 2010

Mira Godard: A Pioneer Passes

Mira Godard in her Montreal gallery, c. 1960s

The Canadian and international art worlds lost a titan last week with the September 20th passing of dealer Mira Godard. An indomitable character with a sharp eye and keen business sense, Godard was one of the country’s foremost contemporary-art pioneers.

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Godard arrived in Montreal in 1950 after having studied art, physics and math at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne in Paris. She applied her broad intellectualism to her first major career move, the purchase in 1962 of the innovative Agnes Lefort Gallery in Montreal. She then relocated to Toronto and opened her eponymous Yorkville gallery. At the end of the 1970s she blazed a trail west to Calgary—a place few gallerists dared venture at the time.

Godard was known for her passionate arts advocacy. Her association with the prestigious New York– and London-based Marlborough Galleries and her hosting of an important 1965 show of late-Picasso works testified to her desire to make ties outside the domestic scene. Meanwhile, her Toronto gallery amassed some of the biggest names in Canadian art: Alex Colville, Christopher and Mary Pratt, Takao Tanabe and the estates of David Milne and Lawren Harris. She was a founding member and first president of the Art Dealers Association of Canada, which will present her with a posthumous award this November.

In light of Godard’s accomplishments, Canadian Art asked several of those who had professional and personal ties for their thoughts on her legacy.

Paul Kuhn – Director, Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary

I was living in Vancouver in 1979 when I wrote Mira Godard a letter suggesting that she should open a frame shop as an addition to the new gallery she was building in Calgary and that I would be happy to run it for her. I had never met Mira Godard so I had no expectation that I would receive a reply. About nine months later I got a phone call from Mira apologizing for her tardiness in responding to my letter and saying that she was interested in my proposal. As a young artist I felt as if the Queen had phoned me. We met shortly after this over breakfast; I remember being very nervous and must have eaten 15 croissants as we had coffee. We liked each other and I ended up in Calgary involved in her new venture. Sadly, with Mira’s passing, an era has ended in the Canadian art scene.

Christopher Pratt – Artist, Salmonier

I had my first show with Mira Godard in Montreal in April 1970. Now, 40 years later, I have a show at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. It is, by sad coincidence, the last show to have been planned and installed in her lifetime. The significance of that, the unforeseen honour, does not escape me. It has about it an asymmetrical balance, a precision that we both found satisfactory.

I met Mira in 1969. Over the past 40 years, Mira and I became friends. She visited my home and studio in Newfoundland frequently. Those visits were a mix of business and camaraderie. She changed and upgraded the understanding of “professional” in the visual arts in Canada. I, and many others, have been its beneficiary.

Miriam Shiell – Director, Miriam Shiell Fine Art, Toronto

The thing about Mira is that she was one tough lady. She got the job done. She lived through a lot of interesting things. She lived through the Marlborough scandal. She had good relationships with the Paris dealers—that’s where most of her Picasso show came from. There was a piece stolen from it—in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the night. I don’t think it was ever recovered. We all remember that show: it was groundbreaking. She did the international alongside the Canadian. She held the estates of Lawren Harris and David Milne, the latter being an important relationship which she worked hard to cultivate throughout her life. Then there were the major artists she supported, Alex Colville, with whom she had a fiery relationship, and Christopher Pratt.

It appears that the gallery will keep functioning under her name, with Gisella Giacalone. Mira’s spirit will continue. She was a grand survivor in conditions that weren’t always pretty.

Yves Trépanier – Co-director, Trépanier Baer Gallery, Calgary

I loved Mira. I am writing this in our gallery at 999 8th Street SW, Calgary, in the space that she rented for two years in 1979 prior to moving into the building she acquired on 16th Avenue a few years later. I bought my first “picture” from her and had my first serious debates about contemporary art with her and her gallery director Peter Coleman in this space. She invited me into her world, and I am forever grateful. I was 25 years old and, like her, new to the city. Those early meetings and conversations with Mira exposed the art world to me—a world and a community that eventually became my life. I am forever grateful. I will miss her immensely.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for The Guardian, Artforum, The Believer and others, and is currently editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.