25 Years of Canadian Art: The History Behind the Headlines
Online Sep 23 2009
POSTED: SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
When I was hired as the second editor of Canadian Art in 1988, I felt like a kid in a candy shop—a sentiment the fourth and current editor, Richard Rhodes, echoed when I ran into him just after he took over the reins in 1996.
I’d spent the previous decade working as a magazine editor, but this particular publication was different. I couldn’t believe I would be paid to think and learn about Canadian art and, as a pornographic sideline, lust after a drawing here, a photograph there, a massive painting that I yearned to bond with but had to admit wouldn’t fit through my living-room door.
To me, it wasn’t just a job; it was an invitation to be a part of what I’d loved since I was a teenager: the visual arts. In the ’60s, I lived in a minuscule English village where you had to walk half a mile to catch a bus that would take 25 minutes to transport you to the nearest town. Then it was 45 minutes by train to London. But at least once a month, I’d make my laborious way to the city and immerse myself in the Tate (no Tate Modern yet), private galleries and whatever big-box shows were on offer
My invitation to participate in Canada’s art world came from Michael de Pencier, chairman of Key Publishers, which at that time put out a number of successful consumer magazines including Canadian Business and Toronto Life, as well as the important book-world tabloid Quill & Quire.
It was Michael who spearheaded the launch of Canadian Art 25 years ago. In 1983, Canada lost its two national visual-arts magazines. artmagazine (edited by the late Pat Fleisher) folded. And Daniel Cooper, a lawyer on the board of artscanada (edited by Anne Brodzky), called Michael to let him know that the magazine, which had been around for about 40 years (as artscanada since 1967), had just been denied a grant by the Canada Council and had such a big deficit that it could no longer function. Cooper offered him artscanada’s subscription list, gratis, if Michael wanted to take up the challenge of starting a new visual-arts magazine.
He did. He felt strongly that Canada would be culturally poorer without such a publication. Fired up with his usual—and usually infectious—enthusiasm, he went to the board of Key Publishers with a proposal: the launch of Canadian Art. The board turned him down flat. Clearly, the economics of putting out a magazine about Canada’s visual arts was a no-brainer: it couldn’t survive.
But Michael never gives up on issues he’s passionate about. Media behemoth Maclean Hunter printed several of Key’s publications, so he approached his contacts there and asked for their support. History (and Michael’s memory) have lost precisely what he said, but it must have been persuasive. Maclean Hunter agreed to share its substantial subscription lists and help promote the magazine.
Michael went back to Key’s board. On September 26, 1983, the corporate minutes read: “New Canadian Art Magazine: The board agreed to proceed with this project in partnership with Maclean Hunter. Although it is not expected to make money, it was hoped that with Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council support, the investment could be kept to a minimum.” The directors of Key who approved moving forward with Canadian Art were Michael (its chairman), Michael Rea (its secretary), Peter Gzowski, Julian Porter, Ken Rodmell, Alexander Ross and Annabel Slaight.
On January 12, 1984, the minutes read: “Canadian Art magazine will have its first issue in September. Lucia Stephenson, Susan Walker and Ken Rodmell [longtime member of the Key board; art director extraordinaire who won numerous awards during his career] are masterminding, with help from Tom Hedley [Canadian boy wonder who had worked at Esquire and Toronto Life and who wrote the script for the 1983 movie hit Flashdance]. Maclean Hunter are gearing up to run lots of ads for us.”
A central supporter of Canadian Art was Lloyd M. Hodgkinson, then vice-president of magazines at Maclean Hunter. Even though the magazine lost money from the get-go, he remained optimistic and kept telling Michael things would improve. Meanwhile, another supporter, Donald G. Campbell, CEO of Maclean Hunter at the time of Canadian Art’s launch, gloomily told Michael, “Magazines are 10 percent of my profit and 90 percent of my headaches.” But he didn’t rescind Maclean Hunter’s commitment.
Michael, bless him, was willing to take on the headaches. There were many times, I’m sure, when he wanted to reach for a few ibuprofen. But there were many more amusing, life-enhancing, culture- and friendship-building times that more than justified his belief.
On my first day on the job, I walked into my new office to find a jolly voice mail from a friend of the family, a well-known lawyer who offered to sue a writer (at no cost to me) because the writer in question had just published a story about Canadian Art’s change of editor and had included some off-the-record remarks from me, with “off the record” being part of the quote. Wow! The art world was dramatic and emotional, just like I’d imagined.
I turned down his kind offer—there’s drama and then there’s long-term pain and no gain. And while I was definitely naïve about the community I was about to enter, I knew enough not to make enemies before I’d even taken off my coat.
Meanwhile, I was thrilled (cf. “naïve” above) to actually have an office with walls and a door. While Key Publishers had always welcomed new talent—I’d had the privilege of growing up professionally under Key’s umbrella—working conditions were, well, challenging. For years, I’d inhabited a small, cramped cubicle (Toronto Life’s then food editor, Joseph Hoare, loved the magazine dearly but used to call them veal pens). It was worth it, though. The tangled warren of offices that meandered from Toronto’s Front and Church streets to the Esplanade was full of smart, opinionated, sometimes eccentric, always interesting people.
The complex was not only full of clever people but also clever mice. So I was accustomed to the occasional small rodent running over my foot or, in one instance, popping out of a drawer—yoo-hoo! Surprise!
Turns out Sarah Milroy, who succeeded me as editor, had the same mouse/foot encounter during her interview with Susan Walker, Canadian Art’s first editor. Susan, who had been a denizen of the Front and Church maze for years and, like all of us, knew about the roaming rodents, felt apologetic that a stranger had to deal with them. As for Sarah, she took it in stride. She now says with a laugh, “I think Susan felt so badly about the mice that she thought she should do something for me.” Not so. Susan realized the breadth of Sarah’s abilities, and hired her as assistant editor and then associate editor.
This was just one of Susan’s many savvy moves in the lead-up to the first issue. But it’s never easy to start a new magazine. “None of us had any idea how to create a magazine from scratch,” she says. “It took over a year to get the first issue out. It was a really steep learning curve. Starting a new magazine was exciting in theory but incredibly hard work.”
Susan’s background was book publishing, not visual arts—she had been publisher and editor of Quill & Quire, which tracks the course of the Canadian book trade, for 11 years, and she continued as its publisher when she accepted the editorship of Canadian Art.
After the first issue, she put together an advisory group from the visual-arts community. “We flew people in from all round the country. They were artists and critics of experience and reputation: Nancy Tousley, who was and still is the art critic at the Calgary Herald, was one; Robert Enright and Scott Watson were there almost from the beginning. We did a lot of visiting and called a lot of people. That first year was just networking.”
She remembers being helped enormously by respected visual-arts writers such as the late Peter Day, who had worked at Mira Godard Gallery and for the CBC: “He was a key advisor because he had all these connections.” Noted visual-arts writer Gary Michael Dault, writer/photographer Geoffrey James and gallerist René Blouin, to name just a few, also contributed their expertise and knowledge.
Susan started a Canadian Art editorial tradition that still continues: bringing in smart, strong writers who didn’t necessarily specialize in the visual arts but who knew how to use their eyes and their brains: the late Jay Scott, for example, who was writing about film for the Globe and Mail, architecture expert Adele Freedman and fiction writer Sean Virgo.
Susan also realized it was important to gain acceptance from the artists themselves. Gallerists had been supportive from the start; she says the magazine couldn’t have continued without them. But many artists felt that putting a picture of an artist on the cover was beside the point: it was only the work that mattered.
Susan, on the other hand, felt the magazine had to include images and information about artists themselves, not just their work. “We wanted to do for the Canadian art world what Canadian Business had done for the business world. They brought the best production standards and journalistic standards to bear. We wanted a magazine that would really show how wonderful the visual-arts world was, how it worked, and be able to go between the artist and the audience and explain one to the other. There were incredible Canadian artists who had international reputations but who weren’t well known to the general population in Canada: people like General Idea, Vera Frenkel, Jeff Wall.
“We were the first in the art world, in recent decades anyway, to go outside the tight circle of critics and artists who wrote in artspeak. We worked really hard to make what people were doing accessible to a wider audience. It wasn’t that we lacked respect for the artists. We just didn’t see the necessity for them and their work to be presented in such an inaccessible way. But in every issue we also talked about an older, established artist. It was Michael’s idea that there be continuity between historical Canadian art and contemporary Canadian art.”
Sarah Milroy and I, as subsequent editors, agreed with Susan’s approach and trod the same path, but Susan was the ground-breaker. Indeed, the cover of the first issue of Canadian Art (Fall 1984) has a photo of Wanda Koop, resplendent in a red cardigan and with her work blazing behind her.
One unfortunate result of artists worrying about Canadian Art being too populist was financial. As Susan says wryly, “Many of the artists [who distrusted us] were on granting juries, so Canadian Art didn’t get many grants.” In fact, Canadian Art never received any money from the Canada Council during her or my tenure.
Susan faced even more practical obstacles. The promised artscanada subscription list never materialized. When she finally got access to the magazine’s old offices, there was nothing there except a few dusty trays of index cards. No subscription list. No nothing. She says that one of the reasons the office was so bare was that David Mirvish had bought all the back issues of artscanada, which meant she had no physical or historical reference points.
And like any other magazine start-up, costs were higher than expected, though Maclean Hunter was helpful—ironically, almost too much so. The first direct-mail subscription notice Maclean Hunter sent out to seduce potential subscribers was so successful that Canadian Art ended up, as Susan says, “with more subscribers than we’d ever dreamed of. We suddenly had a starting subscription list that meant it was going to be very expensive to print the magazine.”
But print it they did. And under Susan’s guidance, the magazine not only celebrated established figures (Betty Goodwin, A.J. Casson, Christopher Pratt, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland) but promoted then up-and-comers Shirley Wiitasalo, John Scott, Wanda Koop, John McEwen and many more.
When I took over from Susan, the magazine was only four years old but it was a precocious child: walking and talking up a storm. I was also lucky enough to inherit Sarah Milroy, if only part-time. She and her husband had moved to New York but she had family and friends in Toronto and visited often. Her insights—and the stories she occasionally wrote—were invaluable.
Her peripatetic lifestyle resulted in some amusing moments. I remember having a story meeting with her and a researcher in a Toronto hotel suite while her first child, Lizzie, napped in the next room. In order not to wake up the sleeping baby, our conversation was conducted in urgent, passionate whispers. It felt as if we were planning a conspiracy, not the front section of a magazine.
And thinking of children, there was a running joke at the magazine in those days: Don’t sit in an office chair! You might get pregnant! Sarah had Lizzie in 1987. During the years I was there, my son was born; Betty Ann Jordan (who started as production manager, then became managing editor) gave birth to her son; Laurie Simmonds, the publisher during my tenure, had a son; and Ellen Vanstone, a seasoned journalist who was managing editor for a few issues, left the magazine only to become pregnant soon after. I guess Canadian Artwas fertile ground in more ways than one.
There were a number of highlights during my editorship that I particularly treasure, beginning with a complete redesign of the magazine. Acclaimed art director James Ireland followed on the heels of the first art director, equally acclaimed Ken Rodmell, and the second art director, Georges Haroutiun, founder of Applied Arts magazine, to create something completely new and fresh.
(The practice of visually revisiting the magazine continues; the current 25th anniversary issue has an elegant, eye-pleasing, art-respectful new design courtesy of multi-talented Barbara Solowan, who has been Canadian Art’s art director for the last 13 years.)
I also decided to feature a group of regular columns in the magazine that would help to broaden the definition of the visual arts. Artist John Scott wrote one of them (“The Screen”), alongside Gary Michael Dault (“The Object”), Susan Crean (“The Female Gaze”) and a fourth column (“The Revolver”), which was written by a different person each issue.
It was John’s first writing job, but having talked to him for years, I knew he had (and still has) an amazingly wide-ranging, inquiring mind, and his insights enriched the magazine immeasurably. Then gallerist and now curator/artist Ydessa Hendeles wrote a “Revolver” column (Summer 1990), a spirited, beautifully written and reasoned defence of the National Gallery of Canada’s acquisition of Barnett Newman’sVoice of Fire, which had caused a needless cultural kerfuffle. A year later, Sarah Milroy wrote an equally spirited piece about Jana Sterbak’s Flesh Dress (which, I recently learned, Sterbak’s gallerist, the inimitable René Blouin, had helped her sew together).
Since part of my editorial mandate from Michael and the Key board was to push the definition of art, we also occasionally included stories that focused on, say, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan or the up-and-coming theatrical designers Robert Lepage and Michael Levine, who all now have important international careers.
But the issue that makes me particularly proud was published in winter 1990. With the cover line “Water, Earth & Air: Visions of Our Endangered Planet,” it was devoted to work by Canadian artists who were in some way addressing ecological issues. There was basically no text apart from my editorial. I wanted the work to speak for itself. The issue won a gold National Magazine Award for art direction.
I recently reread what I wrote almost 20 years ago. One sentence stood out: “Saving the environment is the issue that will dominate the next decade. And it should.” Unfortunately it took a lot longer than that. Yes, there is finally an increasing awareness of our planet’s fragility, but it’s much later than I, and similarly minded people, would have wished.
One last note about my time at Canadian Art. I was lucky enough to know and even luckier to be able to hire Christina Hartling, first as a maternity-leave replacement for managing editor Betty Ann Jordan, then as a fact-checker and finally, in 1990, as full-time head of research, a position she still holds.
According to Christina, when she was asked to come on board as managing editor she said she didn’t know how to use a computer. Sarah, who happened to be around at the time, and I apparently rolled our eyes and said, “Puh-lease. You’re smart, you can do it.”
And of course she did. She quickly became the office’s anchor. I would natter on about what we had to do and she would write beautifully penned notes on lined yellow pads of paper and make it so. She gathered information for Fast Forward by calling galleries—in those pre-Columbian times, we didn’t have a fax, and the Internet was a complicated dream in computer geeks’ minds. (Though it should be noted that, the arrival of the Internet notwithstanding, the best way to find out what passes for the truth is to talk to real people in real time—a credo Christina has always adhered to and one that, in these days of accepting online sources as accurate, is increasingly important.)
Christina, Sarah and I, along with whoever was around, would gather round a table in a local resto and, over a long and happy lunch, study and discuss the contents of the huge binder she had filled with information. It was as if someone had presented us with an incredibly rich fruitcake and then asked which particular pieces we wanted.
Her intelligence, kindness and care—for colleagues, writers, artists—plus her scrupulous belief in going to the source for information have made her legendary. She is the longest-serving member of Canadian Art and still its presiding genius.
Meanwhile, Jim Ireland and I came up with the idea of doing a black-and-white issue that we promoted as “special.” It wasn’t false advertising—it was indeed special—but we did it primarily to lower printing costs. We were aware that finances were faltering and we all loved the magazine and desperately wanted it to live and grow.
But love is blind. Us editorial types had refused to accept the larger truth: the magazine had been hemorrhaging money since its inception. The provincial and federal grants mentioned in the 1984 Key Publishers board minutes never materialized. Maclean Hunter and Key Publishers—specifically Lloyd Hodgkinson and Michael de Pencier—had been beyond patient in their mutual desire to produce a quality Canadian visual-arts magazine that connected with a broadly based readership. Michael remembers talking to Lloyd a few years ago and Lloyd saying, “We weren’t only about making money, you know.” But patience, like money, is a well that eventually runs dry.
In 1991, publisher Laurie Simmonds and I bowed out, not because of shaky finances but because we both wanted to spend more time with our young children, and Sarah Milroy took over as publisher and editor.
She plunged in with her usual energy. She and the Canadian Art staff moved round the corner from the Key Publishers compound (bye-bye mice), where her glass-walled office was curiously perched above the main working area, making it look rather like a taxi dispatcher’s lair—were it not for the John Scott on the door.
Come to think of it, in some ways, editors are rather like taxi dispatchers, overseeing and coordinating a huge number of people. Yes, it’s rumored that Sarah would talk so loudly on the phone that no one in the office could hear themselves think. That’s what enthusiasm sounds like. Yes, she’d occasionally disappear, leaping into her car or onto a train or plane so she could see a show or talk to an artist or writer in person. That’s what commitment looks like.
Sarah was the first editor who knew the visual arts intimately. Her mother, in Sarah’s words, was “a collector who started to deal to sustain her habit, as is often the case. She was very fond of pop art in particular, which was very unusual in Vancouver at that time.” Elizabeth Nichol founded Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery and Sarah grew up imbued with a knowledge of both Canadian and international art.
Sarah believed Canadian Art should and could create an atmosphere of learning as pleasure: informative, friendly, unpretentious, energetic—rather like Sarah herself.
Seven years after Susan and I had run the art-critical gauntlet, Sarah too encountered ideas in the art community about “what kind of narrative was permissible.” In other words, artists continued to be skittish about how they and their work were presented to a general readership.
But Sarah had a vision and stuck to it. She believed the magazine should publish stories everyone would want to read. “We made the shift almost immediately to having people on the cover almost all the time, with a few exceptions,” she says. “By and large I wanted to move it more towards journalism. What I discovered over the years in the editor’s chair was that the people you’d think would be the most bent towards wanting a scholarly article wanted a good read as much as the next person.
“The problem is this can be misunderstood as lightening the level of discourse, or people would criticize it as being Vanity Fair–like. But these weren’t personality pieces. These were pieces about the imagination and the kind of intellectual palette that each artist had that the writers could decipher. The glamour was not in the lifestyle of the artist, the glamour was in the intelligence of the artist: we could bring that intelligence to life and try to describe it in a way the reader could understand.”
Like Susan and I, Sarah was also keen to use writers who weren’t necessarily, as she puts it, “conversant with critical theory,” such as fiction writer Katherine Govier, who wrote an astute and insightful take on Louise Bourgeois.
She also brought in writers new to the magazine but not to the arts-writing profession, including highly respected editors/writers/cultural critics Robert Fulford and Carol Off (why I failed to take advantage of their expertise, I no longer remember, but I still kick myself for the oversight), while continuing to call on writers who had earned their place (and then some) in the pages of Canadian Art: Robert Enright,Georges Bogardi, the late Stephen Godfrey, Scott Watson (who stepped outside the boundaries of curatorial writing to great effect),John Bentley Mays, Gerald Hannon and, of course, Nancy Tousley, who had contributed to the magazine from the beginning and still does. Sarah also commissioned a moving and brilliantly written story on Paterson Ewen from the experienced and talented writer Ron Graham.
Sarah’s vision worked. “In 1994, we won Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards. That was a total thrill for me. I was beside myself I was so excited for all of us—not just the writers but the extraordinary photographers who worked with us under the direction of John Ormsby, our art director.”
Meanwhile, Sarah must have sat in a lot of chairs in the old Canadian Art offices, because she had a second child in 1991 and a third in 1993 when she was editor of the magazine. During her maternity leave, she asked writer/editor Gillian MacKay to guest-edit the magazine. Gillian had a long and lauded career in magazines, had written for Canadian Art—“She wrote some of the most spectacular pieces that we produced during my tenure,” Sarah says—and was committed to and knowledgeable about the visual arts.
Everyone loved her. Sarah laughingly says that when she came back from having her baby, she was struck by the change in the office. No one was irritated or lurking moodily in their cubicle, which Sarah jokingly insists was the norm when she was at the helm. Instead everyone and everything was humming along happily. (As it turned out, Gillian edited the next issue as well, when Sarah left for Vancouver, and guest-edited again for the summer issue of 2000.)
For Sarah, Canadian Art’s 10th anniversary issue was more than simply marking the magazine’s survival for a decade. The magazine had just completed a readership study that showed readers’ average income as being very high. She and advertising sales manager Wendy Ingram put together a package for advertising agencies using this demographic and ad sales soared. “We used that issue as a battering ram,” Sarah says, “to get ourselves into the agencies to try to get new accounts with car and jewellery companies and all that.”
Along the way, Sarah discovered she loved selling, especially when the money that was coming in was keeping Canadian Art alive and kicking. Her biggest sales pitch, however, ended up being to Revenue Canada. Despite fairly healthy ad sales, “We were broke,” she says bluntly. “We had to try to get charitable status and create the foundation or we would not have survived.”
She insists the notion of starting the Canadian Art Foundation came from Michael de Pencier, though he in turn credits her. Whatever. Sarah definitely deserves acknowledgement for pursuing the idea right up to the moment in 1991 when she flew to Ottawa and made her pitch to Revenue Canada. “There were about four of them in the presentation, men and women. We all got sort of overwhelmed. When you’re sincere about caring about something, it’s unmistakable. I thought it would be the most horrifying waste if this opportunity that Key and Maclean Hunter had managed to sustain was going to be wasted because you knew it would be another 20 years before someone had the balls to try again. So we fought hard.”
After her presentation, one of the officials had tears in her eyes, and all of them vowed to do their best. Canadian Art was granted non-profit status soon thereafter. It was a major turning point.
As an educational, non-profit entity, the foundation was empowered to raise funds. Sarah, then publisher Debbie Gibson and the new director of development, Ann Webb, began by dreaming up the Gallery Hop, which took place in the fall of 1996. It was a money-maker from the get-go. Around 250 people attended in the first year, and these days the total is closer to 650.
“The trick,” Sarah says, “was to develop an event that delivered a fresh audience to the museums and dealers who were our advertising base. If you have an auction, people grumble that it’s taking sales away from the dealers but even the most curmudgeonly of them couldn’t deny that we were giving them potential purchasers by the trainload.”
In addition to co-leading the fundraiser, Ann Webb created and coordinated programs for the foundation, including her own idea to mount the Canadian Art Reel Artists Film Festival, which still continues. She is now indispensable as the executive director of the foundation, while Melony Ward does sterling work as Canadian Art’s publisher.
The foundation’s mandate is to foster and support the visual arts across Canada. Ann sees the foundation as “an institution without walls. There’s no bureaucracy and lots of flexibility. The foundation can make things happen even with limited resources.” It has acted as a catalyst within the structure of large institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vancouver Art Gallery, but Ann is equally proud of having worked with smaller groups like the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver, whose volunteers made the Vancouver Art Hop a success this year.
Bottom line: the foundation—the idea and, above all, its execution—not only saved Canadian Art but allowed it to blossom. (More foundation initiatives and achievements can be found elsewhere on this website.)
Meanwhile, the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council began to turn their attention and resources towards audience development and finally Canadian Art began to receive serious grants, which increased significantly over the years.
However, finances remained an issue as Richard Rhodes took over as editor in 1996. Yes, the foundation was a success and yes, there was more grant money, but nonetheless, he walked into an organization that still had a serious deficit. Over the next three years, he and publisher Wendy Ingram worked feverishly to reduce it. The Gallery Hop was invaluable, as was Ann and Melony’s subsequent work. In fact the magazine now breaks even—definitely another cause for celebration.
It was Sarah who recommended that Rick be hired and her judgment was impeccable. Rick had been immersed in both art and journalism for years. He attended the Ontario College of Art in the experimental years of Roy Ascott and then earned a journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University). He’d written widely about the visual arts since 1979, including for Canadian Art. He started C Magazine with partner Dyan Marie in 1983 and had curated the Canadian participation at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1985. He’d worked as a curator at Toronto’s Power Plant and as an adjunct curator for Oakville Galleries. Plus he was taking striking photographs for a column about urban experience and architecture written by John Bentley Mays for the Globe and Mail from 1994 to 2000 and in the years since has also been painting when he has time.
Rick remembers that, early in his career, he had been feeding education stories to the Toronto Star, but eventually had to choose between the art world and education. He chose art, but says now, “Being editor of Canadian Art brought me full circle—it offered me the chance to do both.”
When he took over, he already had a first-hand appreciation of Canadian Art as a visual-arts magazine that appealed to more than just the in-crowd of the art crowd. Years before he became the editor, he was picking up a coffee in an Oakville Tim Hortons and overheard one middle-aged businessman say to another, “Have you seen the show at the Art Gallery of Ontario?” “Nope,” said his companion. Nothing daunted, Businessman No. 1 plowed on: “It’s really interesting. It was put together by this really rich guy who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals.” Since neither of them were art nerds, it was inevitable that Businessman No. 2 asked, “How come you know about this?” The response: “My wife gets this magazine, Canadian Art.”
It took Rick a minute for the proverbial penny to drop: they were talking about the story he had written about the Barnes Collection.
As with previous editors, Rick welcomes the breadth of Canadian Art’s readership and hopes to increase the magazine’s reach. “The visual arts are still not a central part of culture in Canada,” he says, “in the same way that theatre, dance and books are. Canadian Art is a great vehicle to bring a broader visibility to artists and their work. One 64-page issue typically reproduces 100 works of art and writing from about 25 contributors from across Canada.”
Rick’s vision of the magazine shifted the editorial balance slightly. “I wanted to bring it a little closer to the art world than it was originally: to stay on top of the best in contemporary art but to make sure that when there are major historical shows, we find ways of including them.”
But it’s a subtle shift. Rick feels that while it’s important, as he puts it, to keep “contemporary scenesters” happy, in the end, “Art doesn’t mean much if you don’t get people looking at it. Canadian Art has a broad readership, and to some extent it can serve as a vehicle to put the visual arts back into the culture.”
His belief that the magazine and the foundation are all about education led him to produce special issues on art schools and, in 2001, to write a book about Canadian art aimed at kids. In A First Book of Canadian Art, he not only talked about various artists but also wrote about them as human beings. “The book became a great way of taking the opportunity to go back and look and understand the whole story of Canadian art, where there’s no big break between contemporary art and historical art. The art is ongoing and it’s made by people called artists. In many respects, the artist is the hero in this enterprise.”
Writers he values include many of the names listed previously, as well as respected Vancouver art critic Robin Laurence, who has contributed to Canadian Art since Susan Walker’s days on the magazine. In the spirit of all Canadian Art editors, Rick has also sought out other people who could bring an intelligent perspective to the visual arts, including artist Ken Lum, who has written regularly for the magazine and guest-edited a special Vancouver issue. Rick adds, “Isa Tousignant out of Montreal was a great discovery. Who would have guessed that Claude Tousignant’s daughter would have turned out to be an art writer—in English?”
His search for fresh, new writers has been helped by the Canadian Art Foundation, which this year announced the first Canadian Art Writing Prize. It attracted 56 applicants (for winners, see elsewhere on this website).
Ah yes, the website. It was launched in early 2008 and has proved to be a boon to the magazine, as well as to artists, gallerists and art-lovers generally. The site is a lively, lovely, rich resource. It also enables Rick to run timely reviews of artists’ shows online and let Canadian Art‘s quarterly schedule get back to what it does best: devoting space to individual artists and their work. “We’re basically cutting the magazine’s review section in half,” he says. “We’ve redesigned that section so it’s got a slightly bigger visual format and we’re putting other review material on the website to stay topical. Online, we can attach audio to slide sequences, so the medium itself is fun and interesting and active.”
As the current and longest-serving editor of Canadian Art, Rick deserves the last word:
“Canada has produced some amazing art magazines: artscanada and the raft of artist-run publications that came out of the 1970s such as File, Image Nation, Impulse, Impressions—and that’s just in Toronto. There were magazines all over the country. Vanguard out of Vancouver was important. Montreal’s Parachute was key. In the ’70s and ’80s, magazines were the bridge that helped take Canadian art into the international art world. In the ’80s, we would take C Magazine to the Basel art fair and Impulse and Parachute would be there and people would come by and say, ‘How does Canada produce such good art magazines?’
“I’m very aware of that tradition. Canadian Art needs to be part of it and at the same time exist in a world that includes people who are curious about art and want to stay informed but are not part and parcel of the professional art world.
“One thing is guaranteed in the art world and that’s change. It’s change that makes culture. But you also have to hang on to what’s been done. Unlike museums, which are bureaucratic and move slowly, Canadian Art can maneuver quickly and easily. So it provides the bridge from the past to the present.”
CANADIAN ART CHRONOLOGY
Editor: Susan Walker
Art director: Ken Rodmell, Georges Haroutiun
Publisher: Lucia Stephenson
Editor: Jocelyn Laurence
Art director: James Ireland
Publisher: Laurie Simmonds
Editor: Sarah Milroy
Art director: John Ormsby
Publisher: Sarah Milroy, Debbie Gibson
Editor: Richard Rhodes
Art director: Barbara Solowan
Publisher: Debbie Gibson, Wendy Ingram, Melony Ward
Executive director of the Canadian Art Foundation: Ann Webb