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Interviews / August 2, 2016

Meet the Brit Picked to Lead Canada’s Most Canadian Art Gallery

Is one show on Emily Carr, and another on the Group of Seven, enough experience to guide Dulwich's Ian Dejardin as he prepares to lead the McMichael?
Ian Dejardin, the new executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. Photo: Nordic Bakery’s blog. Ian Dejardin, the new executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. Photo: Nordic Bakery’s blog.

Imagine an art institution that collects only Canadian art. That focuses mainly on the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. Heck, that even has several members of the Group of Seven buried on its grounds.

Such a place might not seem, at first glance, like the ideal gallery for a non-Canadian to take the helm.

But Ian Dejardin begs to differ—as does the board of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Dejardin, currently director at Dulwich Picture Gallery in the UK, was announced today to become executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, just outside Toronto, starting in April 2017.

Granted, Dejardin, who has spent his entire education and career in the UK, is no stranger to Canadian art. At least, not any longer.

Since mounting the Group of Seven–centric show “Painting Canada” at the Dulwich in 2011, and “From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia” there a few years later, in 2014, Dejardin has become a bit of a UK expert in Canadian art history.

Along the way, Dejardin has also become a museum director to watch. Both those Canadian shows broke Dulwich attendance records, and they earned strong reviews, including the Guardian’s somewhat breathless assertion that Emily Carr is “Canada’s answer to Frida Kahlo.”

But is that experience enough to guide Dejardin as he prepares to lead what is arguably one of the most Canadian art galleries in Canada?

Here, in a phone conversation with Canadian Art’s managing editor, online, Leah Sandals, Dejardin makes the case.

Leah Sandals: In the press release for your appointment, you cite something called “the global interest and passion for Canadian art.” Can you tell me a bit more about this “global interest and passion”? Many of us here may not be quite aware of it.

Ian Dejardin: Obviously, I’m slightly over the top with my enthusiasm there.

But I think there’s a real potential interest. I observed that from the two exhibitions I’ve put on at Dulwich, and I know Emily Carr made quite a splash at Documenta, too.

What struck me about the two Canadian shows I’ve done is that they were both real risks at Dulwich. I mean, it’s an Old Masters gallery here, and from that point of view they were out of the ordinary, without any [UK] name recognition. Yet both shows were well received in the press. And that was certainly not a given over here.

Interestingly, it was Emily Carr who caused a real stir. It was some of the best press we have ever received for an exhibition. The same was true of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, in particular.

And the visitor numbers were exceptionally good for “Painting Canada.” I haven’t actually ever seen an exhibition take off in the way “Painting Canada” did.

LS: So you’ve had a lot of success introducing British audiences to Canadian art. But that’s quite different from trying to draw Canadian audiences to shows featuring Canadian artists they may already feel familiar with. How do you plan to attract Canadian audiences to this material?

IJ: It was David Thomson who persuaded me to take on co-curating of these shows; I was proceeding, let’s put it bluntly, from a place of ignorance. I was finding out as a went along.

But the interesting thing, I think, is that as someone trained in European and British Old Masters, my eye alights on different things in Canadian art—I respond to certain things in a different way.

And the value of that is something I would leave to audiences to decide, but I think I can reintroduce the familiar to a Canadian audience [in a new way].

LS: So is part of what you intend to do at the McMichael to build on your international connections and circulate more Canadian artworks and exhibitions internationally?

IJ: I hope I will.

But you must forgive me [for not being able to say for certain]; I haven’t even had a chance to meet the staff there yet, and I totally admire what they are doing. I know [director, curatorial and collections] Sarah Stanners and I am deeply impressed. The exhibitions, currently, are in very safe hands.

I would like to think, from the chats I’ve had with the board, that everyone would love to see Canadian art taking its place on a more international stage. And that’s something I surely can help with, partly because I feel like it’s a special skill, this business of actually interpreting Canadian art or introducing Canadian art to an audience that doesn’t know Canadian art.

You can’t just take a great artist like Colville or Kreighoff or Riopelle—you can’t just do “the great Canadian exhibition” and then send it over to Europe. I think you need to mould it for the European audience, and that is something that I would enjoy doing, and I hop that my experience would be valuable in that regard.

I think there is a real feeling that the McMichael—and I’m sorry to break into director-speak—but it does have a brand. And it should intensify that.

LS: Like the McMichael, the Dulwich is located a little bit outside of a major city centre. What strategies for success do you hope to transfer to the McMichael?

IJ: Dulwich is often seen, in London terms, as being difficult to get to. But compared the McMichael, it’s an absolute doddle.

With places like the Dulwich and the McMichael, you need to lure people out there.

The one thing I know is that to get people there in the first place, every aspect of the visitor experience must be special. I’ve been at the Dulwich for 19 years, and when I started, it was primarily known as an education venue. The education programs were led by a brilliant woman who only left last year. When I became director, it was my aim to build up everything else at the gallery to the same level as the education programs.

The McMichael and Dulwich both have this magic quality to them—they’re the kinds of places that people fall in love with. But you have to get people there in the first place, and every aspect of the visitor experience must be special.

And the McMichael is doing everything right. The exhibitions are special, the location is special, but in order to get people out to spend the day, you also need the right catering, the right ambiance.

That’s the value of the foreign eye, too. I will be looking at the whole thing and looking to polish that gem as much as possible. But that’s basically what I feel I’ve done at Dulwich—I don’t want to brag, but it’s on the map now. People go to it because they know the quality of the exhibition, they know they will get a good meal, their kids will be entertained at the education centre, and so on.

LS: Maybe talking to the Toronto Transit Commission and York Region Transit as well?

IJ: You bet. I’m a newbie, but my first question will be, Why is there not public transport? Does no one in Kleinburg ever want to get into town?

LS: Indigenous history and Indigenous presence are important aspects of Canada, as is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Working in the UK, one does not have to consider the issue of working on indigenous land or Indigenous art histories. Whereas here, at our National Gallery, staff have begun to integrate Indigenous and Canadian art collections. How do you hope to make the shift to this context, which is new to you?

IJ: I’m aware of the work at the National Gallery of Canada.

Obviously, this is difficult territory for me as a newcomer to Canada. But this is one of the great lessons of working with Sarah Milroy on the Emily Carr exhibition. She is from BC, and she helped steer me and the whole gallery sensitively through the exhibition of First Nations artifacts alongside works by Emily Carr. It was a tremendous eye-opener for all of us. And Jim Hart came over and helped us with the selection. It’s really important to integrate that into the curatorial process.

So I have everything to learn on this, and the first lesson I have begun to learn is the sensitivity. You can’t just blunder in, and you can’t make assumptions. I’ll be learning more from all my colleagues as soon possible.

LS: What else do you want Canadian art lovers to know about your plans for the McMichael?

IJ: It’s too early to [say much]. But what I want is what I’ve already said: I want to look at every aspect of the visitor experience at the McMichael and just polish it within an inch of its life to make it magic.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. She has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.