Dr. Shirley Thomson - former director of the National Gallery of Canada and iconic figure in the arts leaves a lasting legacy
Ottawa - August 11, 2010
An iconic figure in the world of Canadian and international art, former director of the National Gallery of Canada, Dr. Shirley Lavinia Thomson died peacefully in her sleep on August 10, 2010.
Dr. Thomson was named eighth Director of the National Gallery of Canada in 1987 and remained in this position for 10 years. Under her strong leadership, she oversaw momentous changes at the Gallery including the opening of the new building on Sussex Drive and the institution of a new administrative system as it became a Crown Corporation in 1990.
Hallmarks of Thomson’s career at the Gallery were her steadfast belief in excellence and scholarship. This led to the presentation of a strong and eclectic exhibition programme which resulted in record attendance. Among the most popular exhibitions were Degas (1988), Emily Carr (1990), Jana Sterbak: States of Being and A Primal Spirit: 10 Contemporary Japanese Sculptures (1991), the Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, (1995), Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730 - 1930 (1994), the Queen’s Pictures: Old Masters from the Royal Collection, (1995) and Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age (1997). She also initiated the renowned and highly popular Picasso exhibition which opened in 1998.
“The great challenge for any museum director is to combine a focus on the admission gate with a concern for scholarship and research.” said NGC Chair, Michael Audain. “Dr. Thomson did both as she presented exhibitions that the public loved but that were at the same time eminently respectable in terms of their research.”
Dr. Thomson was also known for political prowess in handling some of the Gallery’s more controversial acquisitions such as Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (purchased in 1989) and Mark Rothko’s No. 16. (purchased in 1993). In this regard, her judgment was impeccable as the value of these works has risen exponentially.
“She was at the vanguard of collecting contemporary art and had an unerring eye for acquiring works that advanced the Gallery’s collections” said NGC Director, Marc Mayer. “Other valuable and significant pieces that came to the NGC Collections under her watch included several valuable works by James Morrice, Lawren S. Harris’ Decorative Landscape, Guido Reni’s Jupiter and Europa and one of the pieces that gave her great pride, which was Francois Boucher’s The Judgment of Susannah.”
Dr. Thomson’s career is also distinguished by her association with other major organizations such as the Canadian Commission for UNESCO since 1964, including Secretary-General from 1985 to 1987, and Director of the McCord Museum in Montreal. Upon leaving the Gallery, she became Director of the Canada Council for the Arts from 1998 to 2002, then Chair of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. She has a Ph.D. in art history from McGill University. She has received numerous awards during her career, including the Order of Canada as Officer in 1993, the Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001, and a Governor General’s Award for her contributions to the arts and her key role in Canadian cultural organizations in 2008. Dr. Thomson was also elected to the membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors in 1990 and served as a Trustee and Treasurer from 1996-1999.
About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art, including the extensive collection of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. The Gallery also maintains Canada's premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. To do so, it maintains the largest touring art exhibition programme in the world. For more information, visit www.gallery.ca.
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