Some five years ago, when Sara Angel was completing her doctorate in art history at the University of Toronto, she realized it was hard to find good readings about Canadian art for millennial students who reach first to online sources.
She checked around with galleries and other institutions and discovered no one was compiling a comprehensive database. “I saw there was a void in the Canadian cultural landscape,” she says.
Angel, who had spent a year as editor of Chatelaine magazine, figured she had found a niche that filled her sense of mission to introduce more people to Canada's rich art history.
Using funding from a scholarship from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as seed money, she established the Art Canada Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Massey College at the University of Toronto.
The institute, which has published some 30 digital books about Canadian artists, describes itself as an online art museum, a digital library and an art encyclopedia. Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, has called the institute “the best news for Canadian art in a long time.”
The institute generally publishes six books a year, commissioning leading curators and art historians to write about influential artists like Tom Thomson, Jean Paul Lemieux, Paul-Emile Borduas, Alex Colville and Michael Snow. Books are free and available in both English and French.
Angel says the institute, which also posts essays, videos and online exhibitions, gets about 350,000 visits each year. It receives no public funds, but Angel says she raises about $500,000 a year through private sources. “It’s a very tight operation,” she says.
The institute’s books are skewed toward Central Canada. Western artists include Emily Carr, William Kurelek, Lionel Lemoyne Fitzgerald and Jock Macdonald. Books about Winnipeg's Bertram Brooker; Robert Houle, an artist from the Saulteaux First Nation in Manitoba; and Molly Lamb Bobak, who spent time on both coasts, were published this year.
James King, an English professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., wrote about Brooker, a pioneer of abstract art in Canada. Brooker spoke out against the Group of Seven’s artistic vision and stirred up controversy again in 1931 when he condemned conservative attitudes in his essay, Nudes and Prudes.
About a third of the institute’s books are about female artists, including Prudence Heward, a figurative painter in the Beaver Hall Group; Paraskeva Clark, a Russian-born painter who focused on social justice issues; and Joyce Wieland, an experimental mixed-media artist in Toronto.
Five are Indigenous, including Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau and two Inuit artists, Pitseolak Ashoona and Shuvinai Ashoona. A book about Cape Dorset artist Oviloo Tunnillie is slated for 2019.
This year's releases included books about Paterson Ewen, known for expressive paintings on gouged plywood: Françoise Sullivan, a Montreal-born sculptor and painter; and Homer Watson, an Ontario landscape painter.
Forthcoming are books about Gershon Iskowitz, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who made art in Toronto; Ozias Leduc, one of Quebec’s early painters; Edward Poitras, a Métis artist in Saskatchewan: Suzy Lake, a Toronto-based conceptual photographer and performance artist; and Saskatchewan-born Agnes Martin, who went on to fame in the United States.
Angel says the institute will be launching thematic books. The first, by art historian Laura Brandon, who worked for years at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, is about war art. Also in the works is a series that looks at how art history unfolded in different Canadian cities. And a project that gives schoolteachers the resources to teach topics like gender or the immigrant experience through the lens of art is moving forward.