National Gallery of Canada: The liberation of Ann Thomas

Ann Thomas stands beside a striking untitled Lynne Cohen photograph from 2007. Photo: Peter Robb

When the exhibition The Extended Moment: 50 years of collecting photographs closes on Sunday, it will mark an important milestone for Ann Thomas.

It will be her last exhibition for the Canadian Photography Institute. After some 40 years at the National Gallery of Canada, Thomas is “de-institutionalizing.” She loathes the word retirement. Not that term is really accurate in her case. Thomas has much more work to do including an exhibition of the work of the seminal 20th century Quebec artist Charles Gagnon which will be completed after she leaves the gallery.

Meanwhile, because of the departure of the former chief curator Paul Lang on April 1, last spring and the brief tenure and mysterious leave-taking of the first head of the CPI Luce Lebart, Thomas has a full plate having assumed their duties.

So, as she says with her usual grace, “I’m not done yet.”

Thomas started at the gallery in October 1978 before the current building opened a decade later.

“Before I came to the National Gallery, I was working for the Inventory of Canadian Buildings. It was part of Indian and Northern Affairs. When I did my Masters degree in Art History, I did a fairly extensive piece of research on urban town planning. It was a history of town planning in Kingston, Montreal and Toronto up until Confederation.

“All of that to say that I produced documentation for the Historic Sites board.”

One day a job posting crossed her line of sight. The National Gallery was looking for an assistant curator of photographs.

“I had done my thesis at Concordia in Canadian painting and photography and the relationship between them.” It was too good an opportunity and so she applied.

“I tried out and I was offered the job. It took me a week to decide.” She thought to herself that she would only be there five years.

Thomas was born in South Africa, but she emigrated to Canada at age 21 and taught school.

She brought a group of students to Expo 67 and that convinced her that Montreal “was my place. There was an energy there that I liked. I liked the international feeling of it.” The move to Ottawa in 1978 was a bit traumatic at the time, but she has certainly made the most of it.

When she joined the photography section, she worked with Jim Borcoman, who was head of the department and who had created the collection starting in 1967.

Borcoman was hard at work building a collection of photographs, an art form once described by the American curator Beaumont Newhall as “the bastard child of science, left on the doorstep of art.”

“It is that in a way,” Thomas said. “There is nothing ever so purist about it. It didn’t start as an art form and stay an art form. It always had another aspect, no matter how you looked at it.

“When I say this I could have been very happy working in painting. But I think one of the irresistible aspects of photography is that it touches on so many aspects of the world around us, not just personally but in terms of how we know the world. You become engaged and you are always learning.”

When she put together a powerful exhibition of First World War photographs that point was hammered home, she said, having heard the stories of war from her uncles. In the exhibition see saw the stories told in grainy and powerful images.

“When I joined, Jim was focusing not so much on the content of a photograph but on its formal qualities.”

The first exhibition he produced was, she said, an exhibition of the photograph as object.

“The idea was to centre attention on the photograph as an object (of importance) in itself not just as a purveyor of information” such as photographs from a war zone. “That was his credo.”

Since those early days, photography has evolved and moved in many different directions as The Extended Moment so ably demonstrates.

“Photography was evolving. What was permissable in photography was evolving. Sometimes it is harder to talk about images, including photographs, because we haven’t developed a sufficient vocabulary to address them. But that’s one of the things that Jim did. He started to provide a vocabulary that defined different styles or categories of photograph.

“The more we look at a photo the more we learn about it we see it as more than a simple photo.”

You find that with the work of Lynne Cohen, one of Thomas’s favourites, who became a good friend as well.

“She didn’t want viewers to think her pictures were of a place. She was extracting (something) and taking it outside of its particularity in terms of place.

“When she and I were working together we had to have a code word that would allow us to know which work we were talking about because there were so many untitled works.

“That’s why I like that talking about photographs as having their own grammar and vocabulary.”

Photographers “present you with a picture of the world, something they have seen. If you have seen it, you don’t know how to express what is there.” But photographers do, she said.

“They introduce you to a deeper understanding of reality and they do it with considerable thought and imagination and apply a mastery of the medium. If you have ever tried to be a visual artist bringing all those together is something.”

She described an illuminating experience with Cohen.

“I came across an apartment lobby here in Ottawa. I was just parking my car and walked past this lobby and saw what I thought was a perfect Lynne Cohen subject. I immediately got in touch with her.

“A couple of years later I asked her if she had photographed it and she said ‘I saw it,’ but she didn’t photograph it. She needed to connect with it, to see something that grabbed her attention. What I was seeing was an approximation of something that might have inspired her.

“That’s what I enjoy about working artists. I also enjoy the fact that they look so carefully at each other’s work and not just the work of their contemporaries, but also their precursors.”

Late in her career, the CPI opened and it offered an opportunity to bring young and rising photographers into view with a sponsored award. She sees there a passing of the torch. One of them, Meryl McMaster, “talked about influence of Lynne on her work. It’s a cycle.”

The opening of Moshe Safdie’s building was an exciting time for Thomas.

“Jean Sutherland Boggs was director of the construction of the Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery. She was bringing in on an almost weekly basis experts on art. She was well-connected to the American and European scenes. The foremdirector of the gallery brought in artists with experience in contemporary galleries. We talked about the proposed spaces.

“We had people coming from Library of Congress who could talk about works on paper. It was a time of tremendous excitement about how a museum should look. We were thinking about doing it right.”

In the prints, drawings and photographs department, though, ambitions were somewhat checked.

“We had shared space rather than had a dedicated space. It worked fairly well for awhile, but we didn’t anticipate the growth in contemporary photography.”

All in all, however, it was a positive time.

“I was an assistant curator. Jim was still here and he didn’t leave until 1994. It was a learning period.”

She wasn’t allowed to collect works from the very beginning. Still Borcoman would listen to her recommendations and benchmark them.

“We reflected quite intently on what we were proposing for acquisition and when you read the catalogue (for The Extended Moment) you will see his philosophical statement was that the collection should cover the entire history of photography.”

This meant major contributors needed to be represented in depth. He also wanted it to be a research collection.

“That has served us incredibly well. We can do shows (from the collection). We can circulate works by artists such as Diane Arbus. I think it was a good guiding principle.”

Her first show was in 1979 and it was a mini-history of architectural photos all drawn from the collection.

Within two years she proposing things for acquisition some of which made the grade. Others didn’t.

“I remember proposing one work that Jim said no to. It was by Hans Haacke. Photography turned it done but the contemporary curators wanted it so it made the gallery’s collection.”

Her next big show took four years to prepare. It featured Lisette Model. After that the gallery was able to acquire the artist’s collection. That acquisition also brought in enough funds to start an endowment of a fellowship; something that the market crash of 2008 wiped out, she said. These have started again under the CPI, Thomas is please to say. Other important exhibitions featured Lynne Cohen in 2001 and Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science in 1996.

There have been many other shows too with the creation of the CPI as sort of a recent touchstone for the gallery, she said,

“In 2012, Marc Mayer who is interested in photography and is a big supporter of the collection got us all together. He said we needed to do something more with the collection. We needed to expand it to include photo-journalism.”

That led to the acquiring of the Globe and Mail archives and other collections such as the History of Aviation photography.

That discussion started Thomas and others looking at how the collection could open up to the cultural history of photography and the overall culture of images.

“As we started to get press photography coming in, idea grew that we could be a research institution as well. The partnership with a sponsor such as Scotiabank … and donations have allowed us to broaden the scope of the collection and open up as a multi-disciplinary institution. I think (CPI) will grow from that. It is really just beginning.”

She really doesn’t have many regrets as she thinks about the past.

“Generally I found that the directors I have worked for were receptive, interested and open to persuasion.”

She recounted one time when Pierre Theberge supported her suggestion for acquisition of a photograph by Albert Langdon Coburn.

“I thought there was no way he’d go for it. But he agreed.

There have been controversies, of course such as the debate over Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire or the recent controversy over the de-accessioning of Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower.

“The discussions and controversies are a totally necessary part of museum life,” Thomas said.

Shirley Thomson used to say when she was asked about controversies (she was the director during the Voice of Fire uproar) that, ‘if there weren’t controversies I wouldn’t consider myself  to be doing my job properly’. I agree with her.”

The debate over de-accessioning is happening all over, not just National Gallery, she said. In some ways, Thomas believes, it reflects the need for a budget that will allow the gallery to buy works that are important.

The Extended Moment is on until Sunday at the National Gallery of Canada in the CPI galleries.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.