Vibrant story of the dynamic art scene in British Columbia: Gary Sim’s collection

British Columbia College of Art: Illustrated Prospectus. Vancouver: The College, 1933--34


Since 1998, the foyer of the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives has shown a series of exhibitions of unique, rare and eclectic materials, often paralleling or augmenting exhibitions in other parts of the Gallery, and always hinting at the wealth of holdings inside the Library. 

“When the Joseph Beuys installation was on view, for example, we showed Beuys multiples and related material in the Library and Archives holdings,” says Cyndie Campbell, Chief, Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program. “When the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries opened last year, we organized Canadian Artists in Photographs to give the public an idea of what the artists looked like and thus complement the works on view. It presented a sampling of some of the photographs and portraits of well-known artists and photographers in our collection.”

Gary Sim in his library.


The current exhibition, B.C. Artists: The Gary Sim Donation, allowed curator Katherine Stauble to shine a spotlight on a significant, recent donation by collector Gary Sim of almost 1000 publications. “Over the past twenty years, Sim has assembled an outstanding collection of books, periodicals and other publications related to the artists of Western Canada, particularly British Columbia,” Stauble writes in her essay about the exhibition. “With documents dating back to 1907, his library recounts the history of art and craft in that province, from frontier times to today, documenting both little- and well-known artists.” Stauble says she chose the material based on value or rarity; importance to the NGC collection; significance to BC art history; as well as significance to the Gary Sim collection itself.

Behind the Palette. Vancouver: Vancouver School of Art, 1935.


“There were a few books that Gary himself asked us to include, one of which was Behind the Palette,” Stauble says. This rare catalogue, entirely produced by students at the Vancouver School of Art, features relief prints, colour silk screens, lithographs, photographs, and a full-colour architectural foldout page.  “It tells a vivid story of the beginnings of the vibrant BC art scene,” she says.

Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), Legends of Vancouver. Vancouver: Saturday Sunday Press, 1913.


Other highlights of the Sim display include a book by celebrated First Nations writer, poet, artist and performer, E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake).  “Johnson’s The Legends of Vancouver is a suede-bound book which is quite fragile and must be handled with care.” The book was published in 1913 with a title page designed by J.E.H. Macdonald, a co-founder of the Group of Seven. Another book on view, Made of Clay, 1998, compiled and produced by Linda Doherty with texts by Carol E. Mayer and Jane Matthews, looks at the history of ceramic art in BC. “It’s a good example of a book on fine craft, and ceramics are particularly important as a fine craft in BC,” Stauble says.  “The cover is particularly beautiful.”

34th Annual Exhibition: British Columbia Society of Fine Arts. Vancouver: British Columbia Society of Fine Arts, 1944.


The Library’s overall collection is impressive. It houses the most extensive collection of visual arts literature in Canada, tracing the development of visual arts in the country from the Gallery’s beginnings in 1880. The holdings focus on Canadiana and the history of the Western tradition from the late Middle Ages to the present, emphasizing painting, sculpture and the graphic arts of Britain, France, Italy and the United States, as well as the history of photography. The Library has 275,000 books, exhibition catalogues and bound periodicals; 700 current periodical subscriptions; 58,000 auction catalogues; hundreds of thousands of microforms, documentation files, photographs and slides; as well as substantial institutional archives and private papers. “The public can simply wander in, browse the current periodicals, and ask for assistance if they would like to research something or do their own work here,” Campbell says.  “After all it belongs to Canadians,” Stauble adds.  “The mandate of the National Gallery and its Library and Archives is to make this collection available to Canadians, to educate Canadians. These exhibitions are part of making the collection accessible and viewable, and to educate Canadians in art history.”

Installation view of the exhibition BC Artists: The Gary Sim Donation, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC.


B.C. Artists: The Gary Sim Donation is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until May 6, 2018. The NGC Library and Archives are open to the public free of charge, from Tuesday—Friday, 1—5 p.m.

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