A staunch advocate of contemporary artists and a diehard aficionado of Minimalism and Conceptual art, Jeanne Parkin is one of Canada’s most essential visual art ambassadors. A woman well ahead of her time, she worked both inside and outside major institutions for more than a half-century to ensure that important works and creators were enshrined and celebrated.

Born on December 8, 1922, in Toronto, Jeanne Parkin (née Wormith) may have been predestined for a life in art. A driven and highly competitive child, she demonstrated remarkable aesthetic prowess at a young age. As early as kindergarten, she was constructing elegant structures of multicoloured blocks. She went on to win prizes in primary school contests for her skilful calligraphy, embroidery, and design, and, prefiguring her lifelong fascination with minimalist forms, she had the ability to draw perfect circles and meticulously straight lines by the time she could write her name.

 

Parkin’s attachment to the visual arts may have been a function of osmosis. Her parents weren’t bohemians by any stretch—her father, Norman, was a lawyer, though he encouraged his daughter’s creative precociousness—but she was exposed to the Group of Seven through her maternal uncle, George Pepper (1903–1962), and his wife, Kathleen Daly (1898–1994), both of whom were painters. The Peppers lived in the famed Lawren Harris (1885–1970) Studio Building in the city’s Rosedale Valley that also housed the likes of Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), J.E.H. MacDonald (1873–1932), A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Frederick Varley (1881–1969), and Charles Comfort (1900–1994). As a child Parkin played above her aunt and uncle’s workspace; each Christmas she would commune with the titans of Canadian art at their annual holiday bash, listening to Jackson’s tales of his travels through Canada, painting rhythmic landscapes that would become iconographic.

 

 

In 1945 Parkin finished a four-year program in art and archaeology at the University of Toronto, which she followed with graduate studies at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College. There, she enrolled in a museum training course with Paul J. Sachs, the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Through Sachs, Parkin had the opportunity to see priceless works from private collections—Flemish masters and rare portraits that had come to the United States during the Second World War for safekeeping. Stored in the vaults under the National Gallery, it was a rare moment to see pieces that were not made available to the public. This was a transformative experience for Parkin, seeing the works up close with an unprecedented immediacy outside of the museum context.

 

After completing her schooling in the mid-1940s, Parkin returned to Toronto, where she began a crucial association with the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario [AGO]), working in exhibitions and education as head of circulating exhibitions and adult education. In 1948 she married architect John C. Parkin. Their children, John, Geoffrey, and Jennifer, were born not long afterward, in 1951, 1953, and 1956, respectively. Motherhood didn’t slow Parkin’s drive. In December 1954 she became a senior member of the Art Gallery of Toronto Women’s Committee, a group who had tremendous sway over the acquisitions and ethos that would help establish the gallery as a player in the realm of contemporary art.

 

Even within that venerable group, Parkin was a crucial force for positive change. She agitated to shift the narrow focus of the Women’s Committee on the Paris School, suggesting instead that the gallery invest in important work out of Washington and New York. For instance, she advocated for the nascent Pop Art movement, the genesis for Andy Warhol’s Elvis diptych, a piece that anchors the AGO’s contemporary art collection to this day. In 1965, spurred by a similar program out of Buffalo, Parkin established the Women’s Committee Art Rental Service (now AGO Art Rental & Sales) together with Marie Fleming, an initiative intended to allow members of the general public to get their feet wet in the world of contemporary art without having to make a lifetime commitment. It was a great success.

 

Over the next decade, Parkin would organize a number of bold, forward-thinking exhibitions, including Plastics (1967) and Ceramic Objects (1973). It was the latter that sparked the interest of Nina Wright, who was expanding her cultural-philanthropy organization Arts & Communications Counselors to Toronto. Wright invited Parkin to join the team as senior vice-president and visual art specialist. Though it was intended to be a part-time position, the job became all-consuming. Parkin revelled in the energy and the ability to take on expansive projects, such as the 1974 undertaking Art in the Subway, which saw the likes of Joyce Wieland (1930–1998) and Gordon Rayner (1935–2010) install permanent works in Toronto’s Spadina line. She also had a hand in organizing the 10th International Sculpture Conference, hosted by York University in 1978, and orchestrated an onsite installation demonstration in which the American sculptor Mark di Suvero (b. 1933) used a crane to assemble Sticky Wicket, 1978, a massive construction of girders and steel beams.

 

Art Canada Institute, Jeanne Parkin presenting General idea with the City of Toronto Lifetime Achievement Award

In 1993 Parkin smiles with her friends General Idea–(clockwise) Felix Partz, AA Bronson, and Jorge Zontal–on the night she presented the artist collective with a City of Toronto Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

By 1978 Parkin had parted ways with Arts & Communications Counselors to establish her own company, Jeanne Parkin Arts Management Ltd. For the next several decades, she would work with law firms, multinational conglomerates, and other corporations to develop in-house collections and other art-based initiatives. These partnerships were tremendously gratifying; here, she had the ear of some of the country’s most powerful people, and they relied upon her savviness and taste to determine which pieces and artists were worthy of their investment. She placed works by Ron Terada (b. 1969) and General Idea (1969–1994) in the offices of McCarthy Tétrault, and she helped the chair of Polysar Ltd., the Sarnia-based rubber-manufacturing firm, acquire an important black painting by Ron Martin (b. 1943).

 

Even as she worked with corporate and individual collectors, Parkin remained a public ambassador of Canadian art. In 1993 she presented her friends in General Idea with a City of Toronto Lifetime Achievement Award. Nearly a decade later she helped coordinate with Lonti Ebers the installation of The Windows Suite, 2006, a major work by her long-time friend Michael Snow, at the Pantages Hotel and Condominium complex on Victoria Street, Toronto. In that same year, the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts awarded Parkin a lifetime Achievement Award for her exceptional contribution, over a span of sixty years, to the visual arts community in Toronto. In 2013 she shared more of her gifts with the world, allowing the Scrap Metal and Birch Libralato galleries to mount exhibitions of work from her personal collection—a stunning document of a lifetime spent immersed in contemporary art. A year after that, Parkin would be named an ambassador of Toronto’s Feature Art Fair, but even then she wasn’t content to rest on her laurels. Now in her nineties, Parkin has broadened her focus to ensure that the work of avant-garde and emerging artists are recognized for their talents.

 

 

 

 

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