This past Canada Day was extra flag-worthy for art historian, writer, and Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian Thom. He was at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, to launch his new book, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast (Douglas & McIntyre, $60 hardcover), and to open the exhibition of the same name, which he also organized. That day, Governor General Michaëlle Jean announced 60 new appointments to the Order of Canada, and Thom—make that Ian MacEwan Thom, CM—was among the honorees.
Thom was cited in the announcement for his “contributions as a curator of Canadian art and as an advocate for British Columbia artists”. At the same time, actor, producer, and director Robert Lepage was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, as was hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. Unlike sports stars and theatre wizards, curators don’t usually generate much public or media attention. It’s their job, after all, to stand behind the exhibitions they organize, not in front of them.
Still, when Thom speaks of the honour, he names others in his field. “I’m very gratified and humbled to [be a Member of] the Order of Canada because it puts me in rather extraordinary company,” he says. “Amongst curators, Charles Hill of the National Gallery, Dennis Reid of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Gerald McMaster, also of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and scholars like Franí§ois-Marc Gagnon at Concordia University.”
Thom is talking to the Straight in a quiet corner on the VAG’s fourth floor. On the second floor, summer crowds take in Two Visions: Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt, an exhibition Thom organized from the gallery’s permanent collection. It’s just one of the many projects for which he is admired: Thom’s curatorship manages to be both scholarly and widely appealing.
“I’ve organized something on the north side of 100 exhibitions,” he says, when pressed to outline the accomplishments of his 30-year career. His historic subjects have ranged from David Milne, Tom Thomson, and the Group of Seven to Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. Thom has also curated solo shows of a number of senior B.C. artists, such as Ann Kipling, Gordon Smith, and Takao Tanabe. In the process, he has become the presiding expert on their work, as he is on the art of Emily Carr.
While still a high-school student, Thom began volunteering at the VAG; by the time he’d completed his MA in art history at UBC, he’d been hired as the gallery’s registrar. From there, he went to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, eventually assuming the position of chief curator. A six-year stint at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where he was curator of collections, preceded his return to the VAG in 1988, to take up the position of senior curator of historic art.
Challenging Traditions (which launches September 2 at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, where the accompanying exhibit travels in 2011) is Thom’s 13th major book and something in excess of his 100th publication. As with Art BC, Thom’s survey of outstanding British Columbia artists from 1890 to 1998, Challenging Traditions was commissioned by Vancouver-based philanthropist Michael Audain and funded by the Audain Foundation.
“Mr. Audain said to me one day he thought there should be a book about contemporary Northwest Coast art,” Thom recalls. “And initially, I was somewhat reluctant to think about [doing] it.” Despite having organized a major retrospective of the work of Haida artist Robert Davidson in 1993, Thom did not consider himself qualified to take on the project. Eventually, however, he overcame his qualms by resolving that the process of creating the book would be largely collaborative. He invited the 40 artists surveyed to choose the works by which they wanted to be represented and he quoted them extensively, so that their individual voices emerge, loud and distinct.
“I needed to know my identity,” Beau Dick says about why he makes art. “I needed to know where I came from, I needed to know that I was worthwhile.” Chuck Ya’Ya Heit says, “I want people to find something in my artworks that they can think of as their own—a memory, an experience, a feeling.” And Marianne Nicolson says her desire to make art is about understanding “the human experience”. So, it would seem, is Ian Thom’s desire to bring art forward to a wide and appreciative audience.