Pierre Théberge 1942-2018: Former National Gallery director hailed for work on behalf of art in Canada

Former director of the National Gallery of Canada Pierre Théberge died on Oct. 5.

The Canadian art world is marking the death of Pierre Théberge, the former director of the National Gallery of Canada. He died on Oct. 5 after a lengthy illness.

At the National Gallery from 1998 to 2009, Théberge was responsible for one of the most singular acquisitions in the gallery’s long history — the emblematic statue of the spider Maman by Louise Bourgeois, which has become a must-see for selfies by tourists and for regular patrons alike.

 The Gallery’s current director, Marc Mayer, praised Théberge in a statement released on Tuesday afternoon.

“Pierre Théberge left an indelible mark on the National Gallery of Canada, from his earlier role as Curator of Canadian Contemporary Art to his years as Director and CEO,” Mayer said.

“His best initiatives, such as integrating Indigenous art into the Canadian galleries and the many partnerships that he forged with a variety of institutions, were not only pursued but significantly expanded in the years since his retirement. Many of his acquisitions have been transformative for the national collection, from Joe Fafard’s Running Horses, to the acquisition of Janet Cardiff’s sound installation Forty-Part Motet (2001).”   

Théberge joined the National Gallery in 1966 as assistant curator of Canadian Art. He became curator of Contemporary Canadian Art in 1970 and curatorial administrator in 1972.

He organized exhibitions of such artists as Guido Molinari, Greg Curnoe, N.E. Thing Co., Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. He also was actively urging the purchase of works by Molinari, Curnoe, Snow, and Wieland, as well as by Ron Martin, Henry Saxe, Claude Tousignant, Charles Gagnon, Murray Favro and Gathie Falk. 

After his first stint in Ottawa, Théberge became the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1986, serving until 1997 when he then headed back to Ottawa.

He was appointed director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada in 1998. As director the Gallery hosted several major exhibitions including The 1930s: The Making of The New Man (June 2008) featuring more than 200 works by artists of the 20th century such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Alex Colville and Walker Evans. Under his watch, the Gallery acquired Ron Mueck’s massive sculpture of a new born baby titled A Girl ( 2006) and followed that with a show of the Australian artist’s startling’y real sculptures the following year.

The Gallery also increased its holdings of First Nations and Inuit art under Théberge’s directorship, acquiring Norval Morisseau’s Observations of the Astral World (c.1994) and Brian Jungen’s whale skeleton sculpture Vienna (2003).

Théberge was born in 1942, in Kamouraska, Québec. He graduated in art history from the Université de Montréal and he also studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

He is a Knight of the Ordre national du Québec and an Officer of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.. In 2001 he was named to the Order of Canada.

Share Post
Written by

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.