GG Awards Celebrate the Best in Canadian Visual and Media Arts

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Portraits of Marcel Barbeau, Rebecca Belmore, William MacGillivray, Gordon Monahan, Gregory Payce and Colette Whiten: Courtesy Canada Council for the Arts / Martin Lipman. Portrait of Chantal Pontbriand: Courtesy Richard-Max Tremblay

Don’t miss the best and brightest in Canadian art! This month, the National Gallery of Canada launches an exhibition showcasing the winning artists and arts advocates for the Governor General’s (GG) Awards for the Visual and Media Arts.


The 2013 laureates are Marcel Barbeau, Rebecca Belmore, Colette Whiten, William MacGillivray, Gordon Monahan, Chantal Pontbriand (outstanding contribution) and Gregory Payce (Saidye-Bronfman Award for excellence in the fine crafts).


A mere fifteen years ago, there were no GG Awards for the visual arts. Today, this important award not only celebrates excellence in the visual arts, but also introduces Canadians to homegrown talent, while raising the profile of Canada’s artists on the international stage.

For more than 75 years, the Governor General’s (GG) Awards have recognized the best in Canada’s arts, humanities, science and sports. The first GG Award was presented in 1937 by then-Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield—perhaps more widely known as John Buchan, author of several potboiler novels. Given his interest in the world of publishing and literary pursuits, it isn’t surprising that the first GG Award was for literature.

Over the years, the scope of the Awards has expanded with each successive Governor General. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that visual arts and media were added to the list.

“Gradually the idea of viceregal celebrations of excellence grew from discipline to discipline, beginning with literary arts then expanding to the performing arts,” says Robert Sirman, CEO and director of the Canada Council for the Arts, which funds and administers the GG Awards. “That’s when the visual arts community came alive and said, ‘Hey what about us?’”

Advocacy for a GG visual arts prize gathered steam during the 1990s, arguably spearheaded by B.C. painter Takao Tanabe, who became a GG laureate himself in 2003. According to Sirman, Tanabe, “was one of the first artists who wrote to the Governor General, saying, ‘I am so happy to hear about the performing arts awards; are you giving consideration to the visual arts?’”

In 1998, the Canada Council received additional federal funding—allowing, among other things, the expansion of the GG Awards to at last include a prize for the Visual and Media Arts.

"Visual artists express the universal importance of ways of seeing; they release our imaginations and give us creative liberty,” said Governor General Clarkson, when announcing the first-ever visual arts laureates in 1999. The list that first year included artists from all areas of the visual arts, including painting, sculpture and film—as well as an award to well-known arts advocate Doris Shadbolt.

Artist-filmmaker Michael Snow was one of the inaugural recipients. “It was terrific,” he recalls. “It is a wonderful thing to be recognized by the rest of the country as having made a contribution. Recognition of artistic excellence shouldn’t be restricted to literature. Including the other categories is important.”

“It’s astounding to me that John Scott and Michael Snow were honoured that first year,” says Sirman. “We thought of John Scott as young and controversial. Michael Snow had been practising for decades, so we saw him as a father figure. One of the strengths of these awards is that they have brought together very different profiles of art practice—some very established and some very cutting-edge.”

The first visual arts laureates each received a $10,000 prize, a medallion, and a sculpture by a Nunavut artist recognizing the creation of Nunavut—which had also taken place in 1999. Today, each laureate receives $25,000, international recognition, and—since 2001—display of their work at the National Gallery of Canada.

“It could be painting, sculpture, performance art, installation art or video, fine craft. All of these might be present in an art gallery space, and we should celebrate that,” says Sirman.

From literary awards inaugurated by a writer of popular fiction, to today’s recognition of cutting-edge media arts, the GG Awards have come a long way. This year’s exhibition of work by the GG Visual and Media Arts laureates will be presented at the National Gallery of Canada from 22 March to 1 July, 2013, in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General.

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