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Interviews / September 19, 2018

“If Emily Carr Were Born in Seattle, She’d Be World-Famous”

As curator Ian Thom prepares to open his final exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, he discusses what he’s learned about Canadian art—and its problems
Emily Carr, <em>Tree Study</em>, c. 1930. Oil on paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition
Fund, VAG 91.3. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery. Emily Carr, Tree Study, c. 1930. Oil on paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund, VAG 91.3. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.
Emily Carr, <em>Tree Study</em>, c. 1930. Oil on paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition
Fund, VAG 91.3. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery. Emily Carr, Tree Study, c. 1930. Oil on paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund, VAG 91.3. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Lawren Harris. B.C. Binning. Gordon Smith. And yes, Emily Carr. These are some of the artists curator Ian Thom has studied, acquired, admired and exhibited over the course of 30 years and more than 80 exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Now, as the final exhibition of his career there—appropriately titled “A Curator’s View: Ian Thom Selects”—readies for opening on September 22, Thom takes time to discuss unsung Vancouver-art narratives, Canada’s long-time art-inferiority complex, a landmark legal ruling, the rise of curatorial studies programs, and the challenges of collecting.

Leah Sandals: The description for “A Curator Selects” states that exhibition interrogates personal meaning and larger institutional importance of works on view. How is this so?

Ian Thom: Well, the exhibition includes a lot of works that I was responsible for putting into the Vancouver Art Gallery collection, and obviously one of the reasons why you, as a curator, would choose to put things into a collection is because you feel that, in your professional judgment, they have relevance to the community.

When I came to the Vancouver Art Gallery as senior curator in 1988, the gallery had two John Vanderpant photos which I had also been responsible for putting in gallery’s collection in the 1970s, when I’d worked there previously. Then, we acquired a very large group of his vintage photographs, original prints; we went from having no serious representation of his work to probably the most important representation of his work in public hands.

Vanderpant also ran a gallery on Robson Street, where he had a studio and showed other people’s works. And when Fred Varley came to BC in 1926, they met and became friends, and Vanderpant bought one of the Varley works which is now in Thomson Collection at the AGO—Immigrants (1922). That painting is in the background of many Vanderpant photos. And Varley returned the favour and painted a portrait of Vanderpant which we bought a few years ago for the Vancouver Art Gallery.

LS: It seems like you’ve done a lot of work in your career surfacing important but little-known stories like that, stories about Vancouver and BC art. Will those narratives and details be explained in texts or other materials in this exhibition?

IT: Some of the works have extended labels, and there will be an audio guide. A lot of the works are in the exhibition for a variety of different reasons. One of the works in the show—that I had nothing to do putting into the collection—is a piece by George Segal that I saw at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1969. The were part of an exhibition then called “New York 13,” organized by Doris Shadbolt. The Segal was one of those pieces that riveted me on the spot, and the gallery collected it out of that exhibition. I wanted to show that work in “A Curator Selects” because it made a great mark on my own life, and it is certainly a very important piece of American sculpture in the collection.

LS: You stewarded hundreds of art acquisitions and art donations at the Vancouver Art Gallery over the years. Recently, a number of Canadian museums issued a public letter about a freeze on artwork donations due to recent federal court ruling. What is your take on the ruling and the letter? What do you think needs to happen next?

IT: I obviously can’t speak on behalf of the Vancouver Art Gallery on this point, but as a long-term museum professional in this country, that [court] decision raises great concerns for me, because I know there are several significant works of art in various public collections in this country that are here because of the mechanisms of the Cultural Property Import and Export Act, and the way those mechanisms slowed export to keep work in the country. For example, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh works at the Royal Ontario Museum came in through that mechanism. And if you look at the basis on which the recent court decision was made, I don’t think that work would have remained in Canada.

LS: I agree. The Mackintoshes wouldn’t have been kept today under the recent ruling.

IT: And take the entire contents of the Gardiner Museum—again, it would be very hard to argue that a lot of the material there has a direct relevance to Canada.

LS: What do you hope comes next in the wake of the open letter by these museums, then?

IT: I hope they are successful in appealing the decision, and if the decision is not appealed, than I obviously would hope that that here is a move to amend the law. Because I think the reality is that Canada does not have a lot of major works in it from countries around the world. Even as the law currently stands, it doesn’t stop artworks from being exported absolutely—all you can do is stop the work from being exported for two to six months. And those months give museums in this country the opportunity to marshal resources to buy the artwork—sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Canada has long had this inferiority complex: this idea that because it was made here, it can’t be as good.

LS: Queen’s University law professor Cherie Metcalf has noted that what also made that court ruling significant was that the judge refused to defer to an expert board—in effect questioning art experts’ knowledge. I understand you may have had your own expertise questioned as well in relation to some J.E.H. MacDonald paintings you authenticated for the Vancouver Art Gallery and that were later referred to the Canadian Conservation Institute for reappraisal. What is the status of those JEH MacDonalds, and your experience with them?

IT: I’m not in a position to comment on that.

LS: Is there any way you think subjectivity is a difficult part of being an appraiser of art, or an expert on it? Particularly in the instance of those JEH MacDonalds or the more recent court case affecting museums and art experts right now?

IT: I’m not in a position to comment on that.

LS: Okay, I understand you can’t speak to that right now. Yet you are an expert in BC and Vancouver art—and Canadian art. What is the most misunderstood thing, in your mind more generally, about BC art, Vancouver art, or Canadian art?

IT: I think mostly it would be the idea that “It’s not important because it’s Canadian.” Or that “Because it’s Canadian, it’s not of significance.” I think there is a great deal of art that happens in this country that is of significance—not necessarily because it has influenced thousands of other things across the world, but because is every bit as good as other things that have been made. I think Canada has long has this inferiority complex, this idea that because it was made here, it can’t be as good.

One of the interesting challenges about dealing with Canadian art is that it is extraordinarily regionalized. Someone who has incredible importance in BC, like B.C. Binning, someone who practiced from the 1930s to the 1970s and had roles to play in Modernist art and architecture—well, he is a complete nonentity in Halifax. And the same thing applies in reverse: an artist who is of major importance in Maritime Canada, like Tom Forrestall, is virtually unheard of in BC.

So a challenge as a curator working in Vancouver is, How do you bring that other material into a collection? And how do you make it relevant to the people of BC? As well as you can, you try to tell the larger story of art in Canada and in the province. Certainly in the time I worked at the Vancouver Art Gallery, my major responsibility was to tell the story of what happened in BC as thoroughly as possible, and augment that by bringing in other things from other parts of Canada when we could.

LS: Training of curators has changed a lot since you began working in this field. What, to you, is most significant about these shifts in curatorial education and practice?

IT: In a lot of ways, it’s been an extraordinarily good shift. One of the things I do think is challenging in terms of university studies in curatorial practice, versus day-to-day practice, is that a lot of the realities of dealing with objects and dealing with collectors and collections don’t get addressed at universities. And those things are a major part of a curator’s job: how you assess the importance of an object, or the state of the object; how it might fit into the gallery’s collection; and so on. That is not something you tend to get if you are in a theory class.

But that being said, the rigour of the intellectual ideas that are being brought to exhibitions has dramatically improved. You don’t just do a show for the sake of doing an exhibition: it’s got to have a purpose, it’s got to have a thesis, and you also have to think about who the audience for that is, too.

Actually, that’s another thing that has changed quite a bit. When I began working as a curator, most museums didn’t care about the audience—which is awful to say, but it’s true. Or the audience was thought of as much smaller: the artist and the collectors, and that was about it. But no responsible public institution nowadays would organize an exhibition without giving thought to the audience. Let’s be honest: engaging with contemporary and historical art can be a remarkable challenge to people. Programs are needed.

LS: How have you tried to be responsive to audiences, or think through audience concerns?

IT: One of the artists I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to is Emily Carr, and I’ve had people tell me as recently as this year that they are sick to death of Emily Carr. They tell me why they don’t want to see any more Emily Carr. They ask, what more is there to see or know about Emily Carr?

Well, this year I did a show of Carr’s art alongside work by a woman named called Mattie Gunterman. Gunterman was a BC photographer whose life more or less precisely overlapped with Carr’s—and Gunterman was completely unknown until after her death. She did these rather extraordinary photos of the BC landscape—mainly by putting herself in them. She wouldn’t just show a cliff; she would show herself climbing up the side of a cliff. And Carr, of course, painted the landscape of BC, but never put herself in them. It’s a huge contrast.

Whether that show told people something new about Emily Carr is not for me to decide—but I think that Carr’s works remain relevant to how people, particularly in BC, look at the landscape, and there is no doubt that her work has had a tremendous influence on how subsequent artists have dealt with that landscape.

LS: And it’s relative. In the past few years, international audiences have started to be aware of Carr’s work through things like Documenta in 2012 and the Dulwich Picture Gallery solo show in 2014.

IT: I have always maintained about Emily Carr that if she were born in Seattle rather than Victoria, she would be world-famous. But she wasn’t born in Seattle—she was born in Victoria. Carr didn’t have a dealer till the very end of her life. Until 1927, she was completely unknown outside of BC.

LS: Plus Carr is being revisited and challenged by Indigenous artists like Sonny Assu

IT: …And by Marianne Nicolson and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. I mean, she was a person of her time. And a remarkable person of her time. Because if you look at what everyone else in BC was doing when she chose to depict First Nations totem poles and villages and so on, I mean she was completely out there in left field. No one else was doing it. And she genuinely believed it was going to disappear—I mean, thank god it didn’t, but that is what she and most of her [settler] generation believed.

LS: You have collected many stories and much knowledge about art over the years. What’s next for you?

IT: Well, it feels a bit strange retiring from a gallery after 30 years of working there as a curator—but I’m hoping that does not mean I stop being a curator altogether. I’m hoping there may be some projects that emerge from a variety of sources in the future, and I’ll be able to take forward some of the skill set I developed there as fairly reasonable researcher, and as someone who brings particularly Canadian historical art to the attention of other people.

“A Curator’s View: Ian Thom Selects” opens September 22 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, with a curator’s tour on September 25 at 7 p.m. as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via