A Tribute to Jean Sutherland Boggs (1922–2014)

   

Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director, National Gallery of Canada with Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII (c. 1632), May 18, 1976. NGC, Ottawa. Photo: John Galt

The National Gallery will be celebrating the legacy of Jean Sutherland Boggs at a public ceremony in the Great Hall at 10 a.m. on Friday, September 26. Between September 22 and 26, visitors are also invited to sign the Book of Condolence in the Gallery’s Main Entrance and to share their thoughts on Dr. Boggs’ outstanding contribution to the advancement of the visual arts in Canada.

It is impossible to spend any time at the National Gallery of Canada without coming face to face with the legacy of its former Director, Jean Sutherland Boggs. Enter through the heavy doors, walk up the long ramp with the panoramic view, admire the Rideau Chapel, or Fred Varley’s blue-green Vera, or Jackson Pollock’s famous painting on glass. All are there because of her. 

Jean Sutherland Boggs died in Ottawa on August 22, 2014 at the age of 92.

She was a remarkable woman: a dynamic leader, respected scholar, committed educator, and generous, humane friend. “We all adored her,” said Gyde Shepherd, on the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shepherd, who had a long curatorial and administrative career at the Gallery, worked under Boggs when she was Director from 1966 to 1976, and again in the 1980s, when she oversaw the building project for the new Sussex Drive site. “She carried you along like a comet, and you were in the comet’s tail.” 

A kaleidoscopic decade 

It was fertile ground that Boggs had to work with, to be sure. In the mid-1960s, the Canadian economy was strong and the art scene explosive. But she also had rare qualities as a leader and an art historian, and succeeded in mobilizing all around her — from junior curators and administrators to architects and prime ministers — to accomplish extraordinary things. She was a catalyst for change.

 

Jean Sutherland Boggs at the press conference to announce her appointment as Director, National Gallery of Canada, May 4, 1966. NGC, Ottawa. Photo: Doug Bartlett

Retired Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art, Brydon Smith, who won this year’s Governor General’s Award for his extraordinary contribution to the visual arts in Canada, credits Boggs with backing him up on many daring projects. “She was very supportive of me,” he said during an interview at his dining table, “so I got a lot accomplished.”

When Boggs arrived in Ottawa in 1966, after stints at two American universities and the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery was housed on Elgin Street in the Lorne Building. The 10-storey office building might have been bland, but what Boggs did with it was anything but. In her decade there, she guided a huge expansion of the collection. Among the 8,000 works acquired on her watch were Bernini’s marble bust of Pope Urban VIII, Degas’ Woman with an Umbrella, Klimt’s portrait of a pregnant woman, Hope I, Warhol’s famous Brillo boxes, along with works by Canova, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Mondrian and other masters.

Boggs also knew how to court donors — among them, Vincent Massey and A.Y. Jackson, who made major gifts. She created a new Photographs Collection, and expanded the Canadian Art department, making French Canada a greater focus.

Many landmark exhibitions took place under her as well, including Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art, Dan Flavin, Masterpieces of Indian and Eskimo Art, The Group of Seven, True Patriot Love by Joyce Wieland, Canadian Painting in the Thirties, Donald Judd, Some Canadian Women Artists and especially her Degas retrospective, which was seen by over 930,000 visitors.

 

Jean Sutherland Boggs and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in November 1968, at the opening of the National Gallery exhibition, Jacob Jordaens, 1593–1678. NGC, Ottawa. Photo: Unknown

 

Boggs’ decade was one of “kaleidoscopic activity,” as Gyde Shepherd put it. Exhibition openings were festive celebrations, with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau a regular participant, brass bands marching down Elgin Street, a fashion show with inflatable clothing, and for the 1967 centennial exhibition, a huge Arctic cake.

She greatly enriched the Gallery’s publications program, too, producing in-depth exhibition catalogues, permanent collection catalogues, periodicals, series and annual reports — all in both official languages. 

A formidable leader

Coming to the job with a solid foundation in art history scholarship and curatorial experience, Boggs knew her material well. Indeed, she was the first NGC Director with a doctorate in art history. She had a passion for art, for educating the public in art, and for sharing her own knowledge. Curator of Photographs Ann Thomas recalled, “She talked so persuasively and clearly about the qualities of works of art.”

 

Jean Sutherland Boggs with Edgar Degas’ La femme à l’ombrelle (c. 1876), May 18, 1976. NGC, Ottawa. Photo: John Galt

 

Boggs possessed formidable leadership skills as well: vision; curiosity and a fine listening ear; extraordinary team-building skills; respect for her staff; supportiveness; and high standards. Lori Pauli, now Curator of Photographs, was a young Master’s student when Boggs hired her for the team preparing the Degas exhibition. “She was a real mentor to all of us,” said Pauli in an interview. In fact three of the handpicked curators working on the ‘Degas team’ — Henri Loyrette, Douglas Druick and Gary Tinterow — have gone on to become directors of major international art museums. “It’s a wonderful inheritance they gained from her.”

A photograph of Jean Boggs taken with Bernini’s bust of Pope Urban VIII seems to say it all: a strikingly handsome woman looking straight ahead, holding her own with a pope, while raising a knowing eyebrow.

On Nepean Point

If you stand on Nepean Point, you can’t help falling in true patriot love with this incredible natural and architectural site. Turn slowly 360 degrees, and you take in the Parliament Buildings perched on a dramatic cliff, the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal below, the ancient Algonquin burial ground of Victoria Island in the near distance, Douglas Cardinal’s curvilinear design for the Canadian Museum of History across the bridge, and finally, Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery, elegant in rose-hued granite and blue glass.

After returning to Harvard in 1976 as an art history professor, and then becoming Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jean Boggs was called back to Canada in 1982 by Prime Minister Trudeau himself. Appointed CEO of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation, she was charged with building two museums: the National Gallery and the Museum of Man (today the Canadian Museum of History) within five years. 

 

Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director, National Gallery of Canada with Georgia O'Keeffe, when both received honourary doctorates from Mount Holyoke College, November 7, 1971. NGC, Ottawa. Photo: Unknown

Boggs worked indefatigably on the dual building project, travelling around the country to visit architects, and eventually selecting Safdie for the Gallery. Knowing it was important to engage the architect in a dialogue with curators, she organized plenary sessions, to which she invited museum directors of newly constructed museums in the U.S. She sent Safdie and Brydon Smith on a reconnaissance mission to Europe. “She was a great lady,” said Safdie from his studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. “I think her contribution to what we did was central. She was one of the most opinionated but knowledgeable clients I ever worked with. She inspired the design.”

Although her health declined in her final years, Boggs’ interest in the Gallery never failed, according to Cyndie Campbell, Head of Collections in the Gallery’s Library and Archives. Campbell visited her often in the retirement home she chose for its proximity to downtown and her former colleagues. “She could even see the Gallery from her window,” said Campbell.

In her 1980 essay, “The viewer over your shoulder,” published in ARTnews, Boggs made an impassioned plea to art historians and curators to have a “greater grace and sense of humanity” towards artists and the public. “We art historians are the moderators between the work of art and the public,” she wrote. “We make it available. We document it. We interpret it. We explain it. But whatever we do we should do with gusto and love.”

By all accounts, Jean Boggs practised what she preached.

The author thanks the following people who contributed their warm and thoughtful reflections on the life of Jean Boggs: Cyndie Campbell, Charlie Hill, Lori Pauli, Dennis Reid, Moshe Safdie, Gyde Shepherd, Brydon Smith, Ann Thomas and Deborah Tunis.

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