About the People
Jean Sutherland Boggs shocked sensibilities with the 1967 purchase of Andy Warhol’s Brillo. Decades later, at the request of Pierre Théberge, star sculptor Ron Mueck created a giant baby head—just for the National Gallery of Canada. From its founder, the Marquis of Lorne, on down, through a colourful succession of curators, directors and chairs, the Gallery boasts a history of bold, visionary leadership.
- John William Hurrell Watts, Curator
- L. Fennings Taylor, Curator
- Eric Brown, Director
- Harry Orr McCurry, Director
- Robert H. Hubbard, Curator
- Alan Hepburn Jarvis, Director
- Charles Fraser Comfort, Director
- Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director
- Hsio-Yen Shih, Director
- Joseph Martin, Director
- Dr. Shirley Thomson, Director
- Pierre Théberge, Director
- Marc Mayer, Director
As Dominion Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works, John William Hurrell Watts (1850-1917) is appointed the first part-time Curator of the Gallery upon its creation in 1880. Under the English-born architect and member of the Canadian Academy of Arts, the seeds for a national collection were planted with the acquisition of such works as Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay.
The Quebec-born architect L. Fennings Taylor (1864*-1947) replaces John H.W. Watts, the Gallery’s first curator in 1897, at a time when the Gallery is still a fledging institution with limited resources. No acquisitions are made during the first three years of his appointment. He later designs the Canadian Pavilion at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
*some sources note 1862 as Taylor’s year of birth.
Curator of the NGC collection from August 1910 to 1912, Eric Brown (1877-1939) becomes the National Gallery of Canada’s first director in 1912 until his death on 6 April 1939. He had met Byron Edmund Walker (later Sir Edmund) who was choosing pictures for the newly-appointed Advisory Arts Council in Ottawa; Walker asked him if he would care to go to Ottawa and bring some order into the affairs of the long-neglected National Gallery, an offer he quickly accepted.
“The purpose of the National Gallery is mainly educative, as a knowledge and understanding of art is only to be gained by the comparison of one work of art with another,” Brown wrote in an article published in the Toronto Globe on 4 May. “We must have, in addition to our own Canadian pictures, the best examples we can afford of the world’s artistic achievements by which we may judge the merit and progress of our own efforts.”
Eric Brown is born in Nottingham in August 1877. He arrives in Canada in 1909. He first works with a loan exhibition of British pictures in Montreal, then moves on to the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario).
Following the death of Eric Brown, Harry Orr McCurry (1889-1964) takes over as Director of the National Gallery of Canada in November 1939. He had joined the Gallery staff in 1919 as Assistant Director before becoming director from 1939 to 1955. McCurry was a strong advocate of the Gallery's outreach and art education programmes and he travelled across the country in support of the programmes.
An art historian and expert in French-Canadian sculpture, Robert H. Hubbard (1916-1989) is appointed as the first Curator of Canadian Art at the Gallery in 1947. By 1954, he rises to Chief Curator, a position he holds until 1978, a period that encompassed the Lorne Building’s inauguration, and a new interest in acquiring contemporary art.
In May 1955, sculptor Alan Hepburn Jarvis (1915-1972) becomes the new Director of the National Gallery of Canada. He visited many Canadian galleries, stressing the collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture and encouraging regional art.
Educated at Parkdale Collegiate (Toronto), the University of Toronto (BA, 1938) and Oxford (Rhodes scholar, 1938-39), Jarvis accepted - after learning sculpting with Toronto art collector Douglas Duncan - a scholarship to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Returning to England in 1941, he became a consultant in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. After WWII, he held a number of appointments there, including director of public relations, UK Council of Industrial Design (1945-47); director, Pilgrim Pictures (1947-50); head, Oxford House (1950-55); chairman, London's Group Theatre; and director, British Handcraft Export Corporation.
A war artist who executed a masterful scene of the landing at Dieppe, Charles Fraser Comfort (1900–1994) is the only artist to be appointed director of the National Gallery of Canada, in 1960. During his five-year term, he mounts ground-breaking exhibitions such as The Controversial Century 1850-1950.
Born in Scotland, Comfort came to Winnipeg in 1912 and studied art there and at New York City (1922-23) with Robert Henri. His friendship with the Group of Seven, his familiarity with the work of Paul Cézanne and other modernists, his interest in art history, and his work as a graphic designer in Winnipeg (1914-25) and Toronto (1925-36), were the major influences on his art.
The expressive design and dramatic characterization of his large portraits of the 1920s and 1930s are also evident in his later landscapes as well as in his murals for the Toronto Stock Exchange (1937), the first modern interpretation of mural work in Canada. As a result of his numerous executive responsibilities in art societies (including president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, 1957-60) and his record as a war artist (1943-46), he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972.
On 1 June 1966, Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs (1922-) becomes the first female Director of the Gallery. She is described by The Ottawa Citizen as “the best-looking director the National Gallery has ever had. But in addition to her charm, she is an outstanding scholar and efficient administrator.” Aside from being the first woman to head the Gallery, she is also the first Director to hold a doctorate degree in Fine Arts. Boggs will compile the Gallery’s history as it relates to its collection in the book The National Gallery of Canada, published in 1971. She shocked sensibilities with the purchase of Andy Warhol’s Brillo in 1967.
From 1948 to 1966, she taught in a number of institutions, including Skidmore College, Mount Holyoke College, the University of California and the Washington University in St. Louis. She was also curator for the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1962. After her 10 year appointment as director of the National Gallery of Canada, she became Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University (1976-1979) and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1978 to 1982). She then was chair and chief executive officer of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation from 1982 to 1985, where she was involved with the construction of both a custom-built National Gallery building and the unique Canadian Museum of Civilization. 1973, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada "in recognition of her scholarship and the vision and energy she has displayed in developing the collection and the services of the Gallery". She was promoted to Companion in 1992.
In December 1976, Hsio-Yen Shih (1933–2001), who grew up in China, Canada, South Africa and Taiwan, was named director of the Gallery until 1st April 1981. A doctor of Chinese art and former ROM curator, she significantly expanded the Gallery’s holdings in Asian art and artifacts.
On 27 July 1977, (1922–2003) becomes the seventh Director of the Gallery. He is credited with the development of several major international exhibitions. Martin had occupied several positions at the Gallery before, including Deputy Director (1970-1973), Associate Director (1975-1978), Special Advisor, External Affairs. He was also the head of the Unesco office in Venice (1973-1975), responsible for the international effort to save Venetian art treasures from flood damage. He was twice acting director from July to December 1976 and from 1981 to 1983. Born in St. Félicien, Quebec, Martin has studied sociology at Laval University, and has earned a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Paris.
Dr. Shirley Thomson (1930-2010) is named eighth Director of the National Gallery of Canada in 1987. During her 10 years in the position, she restructured an institution that had just acquired a new building and a new administrative system (the Gallery became a Crown Corporation in 1990). Forging a strong professional team, where intellectual debate flourished, Dr. Thomson led the National Gallery in a strong programme based on quality and scholarship. Public controversy over the presciently named Voice of Fire merely strengthened her resolve. The last major exhibition under her tenure, Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, sets an exhibition attendance record with 340,000 visitors.
Thomson had been associated with the Canadian Commission for UNESCI 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 1994 and a Governor General’s Award for her contributions to the arts and her key role in Canadian cultural organizations in 2008. Her death on 10 August 2010 leads to many tribute messages from the public.
In January 1998, Pierre Théberge (1942-), O.C., C.Q. is appointed ninth Director of the National Gallery of Canada. During his 11 years as director, he positioned the Gallery right into the technological age and acquired major contemporary works, including Ron Mueck’s Head of a Baby and Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider Maman, which he had installed permanently on the Plaza.
Pierre Théberge was born in 1942 in St-Éleuthère, in the Kamouraska region of Quebec. A noted member of the arts community for nearly four decades, Pierre Théberge is a graduate in art history of the Université de Montréal and also studied at the Courtauld Institute in London. From 1986 to 1997, Mr. Théberge served as Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where his original and dynamic programming strengthened the Museum’s international profile; the planning and construction of the Jean-Noël-Desmarais Pavilion was also completed during his tenure.
Numerous honours mark the progression of Pierre Théberge’s remarkable career. He was appointed Knight of the Ordre national du Québec in 1992, and Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1994. In 2001, he was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, for his exceptional contribution to the visual arts in Canada. In 2002, he received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, awarded to Canadians who have made a significant contribution to their country, their community or their fellow citizens, and, in 2003, the Austrian Honorary Cross for Science and Arts. In 2008, he was appointed Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
On December 9, 2008, following a competitive search across North America and abroad, Marc Mayer (1956-) is named the tenth Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. He takes office January 19, 2009. He is the former director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Canada’s premier contemporary Art Museum.
Marc Mayer was born in Sudbury, Ontario in 1956. A graduate of McGill University where he studied art history, he has held many influential positions on the International art scene. His career began in earnest when in 1986 he was named Assistant to the Director and then Assistant Director of the 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art in New York, a position he held from 1986 to 1990. From 1990 to 1993, he was Head of Visual Arts with the Cultural Services of the Canadian Embassy in Paris and was a correspondent for the New York periodical Rizzoli’s The Journal of Art. After that, from 1994 to 1998, he served as curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Mr. Mayer was Director of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto from 1998 to 2001 and Deputy Director for Art at the Brooklyn Museum from 2001 to 2004.