Major gift for the Canada Pavilion, Venice and gallery re-named to honour the legacy of Dr. Shirley L. Thomson

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Major gift for the Canada Pavilion, Venice and gallery re-named to honour the legacy of Dr. Shirley L. Thomson
Shirley Thomson. Photo: Brian Willer.

OTTAWA.- The National Gallery of Canada Foundation has received a transformational gift that will, in part, commemorate the important work of Dr. Shirley L. Thomson (1930-2010), Director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1987–1997. The announcement comes on the 33rd anniversary of the official opening of the Gallery’s building at 380 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, which was overseen by Dr. Thomson.

The new $3 Million anonymous donation establishes a Canada Pavilion Maintenance Fund to support ongoing and future upkeep costs for the Canada Pavilion in Venice, Italy, owned by the National Gallery of Canada. Since 1958, the pavilion has been used as the official site for Canada’s participation in the Venice Biennale for art.

Inspired by the 2018 successful restoration project, the Maintenance Fund will provide for the ongoing preservation and care of this important building and ensure that Canada’s artists and architects have a beautiful and functional venue for representing the country. Karen Colby-Stothart, former Foundation CEO, was responsible for co-ordinating the restoration and securing the Maintenance Fund.

Ann Bowman, Chair of the Foundation, said: “On behalf of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, we are deeply grateful for this remarkable and strategic gift which ensures the longevity of the Canadian Pavilion in Venice to continue to showcase Canadian artists on the world stage “.

The donor has used the naming opportunity associated with this and other gifts to highlight and celebrate the remarkable leadership of the late Dr. Thomson. Esteemed for championing curatorial excellence, artistic daring and public discourse around art during her tenure, Dr. Thomson remains deeply respected for her professionalism, diplomacy, generosity, and humour.

Renowned for her visionary insight, Dr. Thomson led some of the most contentious acquisitions in the National Gallery of Canada’s history. Most notable were the purchase of Barnett Newman’s modernist painting, Voice of Fire and Mark Rothko’s No. 16, both of which sparked debate about the public’s role in supporting the presentation of modern art in a national museum.

In recognition of the donation, the National Gallery of Canada will rename its Abstract Expressionist Gallery the Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery. It is a fitting tribute to her legacy that Voice of Fire, one of the Gallery’s most visited works, is displayed prominently in the gallery which will bear Dr. Thomson’s name.

“Dr. Shirley Thomson is an example to museum directors across Canada and around the world because she was a fearless champion of artistic freedom. I’ve often said the National Gallery provoked exciting conversations about art because of her leadership, something that I aspire to as well. It’s so fitting that her leadership will be commemorated by naming this particular Gallery,” said Dr. Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada.

Dr. Thomson also led the presentation of popular exhibitions showcasing the works of artists such as Degas, Emily Carr and Renoir, as well as more controversial exhibitions, like Jana Sterbaks’ Vanitas: Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic (1987), which although offensive to some, provoked important discourse about not only what should be recognized as art, but the government’s role in funding the arts.

The Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery marks the first time a National Gallery space has been named for a former director.

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