How many Canadian artists can you name?


More than half of the people polled for a 2016 survey by Mainstream Research couldn’t name a single one, not even Tom Thomson. So even if you can only name a few of the most famous, say, Emily Carr, Kent Monkman or Ontario’s own Lawren Harris, you’re batting way above average.


For the past several years, a team of art historians at the Art Canada Institute have been working to close this knowledge gap by telling the story of Canadian art to millions of online readers through a digital platform.


But this year, the ACI is changing tacks and embracing old school analog media, with a huge digital-to-print project that will convert 30-something publications from the Canadian Online Art Project into real-life, physical, ink-on-paper books. Just like the digital versions, each book is devoted to a single Canadian artist. The ACI will release four per year, sort of like those old Time Life series books that would cover off a big topic, like, say, “Lost Civilizations,” in a 24-volume set.


Since the digital project has been such a success, we wondered: Why the flip to analog? Why would anyone pay $40 for a book when they can read it for free online? In part, it’s because reports of the death of the book appear to have been slightly exaggerated.


“The goal was always to publish digitally, simply because we wanted Canadian art to be accessible to anyone regardless of their proximity to a bricks-and-mortar museum,” says Sara Angel, founder and executive director of the ACI. “But what ended up happening is a lot of people asking if there were print editions of books available, and we came to the decision that we really are living in a multi-platform world right now and that we would start releasing print versions of the digital content online.”


The content is exactly the same in print as online, so the demand for hard copy versions clearly speaks to an enduring cultural attachment to the physical book, especially when it comes to “coffee table” art books, which have always held a special place in the publishing world. Since Angel’s parents were booksellers (Edwards Books & Art, a small Toronto chain in the 1980s and ’90s that did a brisk trade in coffee table picture books) she has a particular fondness for gorgeous art books.


Her experience of growing up surrounded by books and art also familiarized her with Canadian artists, a subject that remained so close to her heart that she backed off from her successful publishing career to do her PhD in art history at the University of Toronto in 2013. That was when she got the idea to launch the ACI.


“I began teaching art there and I was planning a lesson on pop art, and I saw the students learning only about Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, who are all fantastic artists, but I wanted to get Canadian pop art in, too,” she recalls. “Artists like Michael SnowJoyce Wieland and Greg Curnoe all had such an important pop influence in Canada in the 1960s, but I discovered really quickly that there was almost next to nothing on Canadian artists for a general audience.”


Fittingly, one of the first two books in the Canadian Art Library series is Judith Rodger’s Greg Curnoe: Life and Work, which was released this spring, along with Nancy G. Campbell’s book on Shuvinai Ashoona, the renowned Inuit artist who recently won the Gershon Iskowitz Prize. Just like all the other books in this series, both are gorgeously designed and expertly explain how these artists fit into the dynamic story of Canadian art. Most importantly, perhaps, they also all include a section called “Significance and Critical Issues,” which explores why the work matters now and how it can give us fresh insight into contemporary problems.


“With Emily Carr, her art is a window into things like environmentalism and clear-cutting and, with Helen McNicoll, you could be learning about childhood,” she says. “And with Greg Curnoe, he was thinking, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, about Canadian citizenship and what it means to be a Canadian. But in the age of Trump, it’s almost like he’s playing off the news today.”


Angel refers here to his famous Map of North America (1972), which erased the United States and imagined our southern border doubling as Mexico’s northern one. This tongue-in-cheek, exceptional example of Canadian conceptual art was meant to be humorous but, simultaneously, was rooted in a very serious critique of American cultural imperialism.


Under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the relationship between the two countries was strained and many progressive Canadians at the time had a negative perception of Richard Nixon, who was under threat of impeachment for clandestine military actions in Southeast Asia. And that’s just one lesson. From one book. Imagine how much insight we could gain into the “project” of Canada by the time we’re done collecting them all?


Read the article as originally published here.


Learn more about the Canadian Art Library and available print books here.

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