'The world needs Canadian art. I'm going to give it to them,' says new head of McMichael gallery
British curator Ian Dejardin brings his passion for our homegrown art to this side of the pond
"It's time Canada started saying what great art it's got," says Canadian art's unofficial cheerleader-in-chief, who also is also the recently appointed director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Decades ago, British art curator Ian Dejardin stumbled upon a book of Canadian art at a library in London, U.K. He quickly fell in love with the range of colour and the vastness of the landscapes painted by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. He was amazed that these artists were virtually unknown outside Canada, and he vowed to change that.
Flash forward to earlier this decade: Edinburgh-born Dejardin was running the famed Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and made good on his promise, mounting two exhibitions of Canadian art: Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven in 2011 and From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia in 2014.
Both shows were big hits, garnering rave reviews and lineups around the block. Dejardin, through his expertise and enthusiasm, did what no Canadian had managed before: getting the Brits to appreciate our artists.
So for his next trick Dejardin brought his passion for Canadian art to — where else? — Canada. He took over running the McMichael collection in Kleinburg, Ont., earlier this year.
Like a kid in a candy shop
He realized there was no better way for him to get to know the collection than to plan and put on an exhibition.
So Dejardin is staging his first curated exhibition:The Art of Canada: Director's Cut. It takes 150 works out of the vault from the more than 6,500 items stored there, some of which haven't been seen in years.
Exploring the vast McMichael collection for the first time, Dejardin confessed he felt like a kid in a candy shop.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I knew they had great, great collections, I knew there was a lot of Group of Seven, I knew there was a lot of very good Indigenous art and Inuit art, but I hadn't expected the breadth and depth of the collection."
The show has works by familiar names such as Thomson and Carr, Norval Morrisseau, David Milne and Alex Colville, but it also includes many lesser-known artists.
Out of the vault
One such work Dejardin gushed over at the preview was a 1937 painting titled Pomona which shows a woman peeling apples. Dejardin included this and several other works in the exhibition by L.A.C. (Lawrence) Panton (1894-1954), an artist who'd been known in his day but whose reputation has since faded.
Escape from England
"Canada is the place to be at the moment," Dejardin told CBC News.
"Basically everyone in England wishes they were here, and I got here first so they can't. I literally got my contract the day after Brexit. Just saying: timing is everything."
The world needs more Canadian art
"My ambition is to make this the place to come and find out about the art of Canada in the whole of Canada and, indeed, the world," he said.
And if we are too modest to do that, no worries. He's got us covered.
"The rest of the world needs Canadian art. I'm going to give it to them."
An immersion course for being Canadian
As a curator in London, Dejardin did more than perhaps anyone to promote Canadian art. And while he plans to use his experience getting foreigners turned on to Canadian art, he also hopes to draw more Canadian visitors.
The McMichael is less than an hour's drive from downtown Toronto, and it's nestled in a vast area of picturesque walking trails. Dejardin says those in the surrounding area could make a trip to the McMichael a full day's outing by looking at art, enjoying nature and stopping for lunch in the nearby village of Kleinburg or at the gallery's own restaurant.
"I think for Canadians this place represents Canada," he said.
"It's like an immersion course for what being a Canadian is, what the Canadian spirit is."
It's time for Canadian art
If passion and enthusiasm is all it takes, Dejardin will have the enormous McMichael packed with art lovers in no time.
"Canadian art is sensational, and it's sensational all the way along the line," he said. "And it's got thousands of years of history behind it, as well."
The Art of Canada: Director's Cut is on display at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until Nov. 18, 2018.
With files from Stephanie vanKampen