By: Sandra Paikowsky, June 2001
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Dr. Shirley Thomson, director of the Canada Council for the Arts, and a former director of the National Gallery of Canada.
Shirley Thomson's work has been dedicated lifelong to the advancement of the fine arts. Her deep, personal conviction is that our mutual knowledge and understanding of people is enhanced through an appreciation of their creative and intellectual cultural achievements. This conviction, she says, has been deepened by the privilege she has enjoyed of working with fine colleagues and staff and extraordinary artists throughout the course of her career.
In pursuit of this goal, Dr. Thomson has worked in a variety of cultural and international organizations. After earning her undergraduate degree in History from the University of Western Ontario, she began her professional career as an editor for the Conference Service of the International Secretariat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Then followed a position with the World University Service of Canada in the early 1960s.
She was Assistant Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization from 1965 to 1967, and the director of the UNESCO pavilion at Man and his World in Montreal.
She then returned to academic life, earning her Master's in Art History from the University of Maryland in 1974 and her PhD in Art History at McGill University in 1981. During this time, Dr. Thomson was also a part-time lecturer in the Art History Department at Concordia.
From 1982 to 1985, she served as director of the McCord Museum, guiding the museum through a crucial period, during which it evolved into one of the principal historical institutions in Montreal. Dr. Thomson was then appointed Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, from 1985 to 1987.
In 1987, Dr. Thomson became director of the National Gallery of Canada. Over the next 10 years, through the strength of her convictions and skillful diplomacy, Dr. Thomson made her own passion for art an experience shared by a wider community.
Under her guidance, the National Gallery developed diverse programs of acquisitions and exhibitions with landmark Canadian and international content. These initiatives provoked a high degree of public interest. A number of them provoked public debate and even outrage. The Gallery's purchase of Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire in 1989, and Mark Rothko's No. 16 in 1993, challenged conservative assumptions about the roles and responsibilities of a national art gallery dedicated to the presentation of modern art. And the exhibition of Jana Sterbak's Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic, a simple, sorrowful comment on the slow desiccation of flesh, which offended many, demonstrated Dr. Thomson's commitment to Canadian contemporary art.
Dr. Thomson confronted these and other challenges on behalf of the Gallery with fortitude, wisdom and wit. Her loyalty to the National Gallery curatorial staff in the tumult of controversy won her the respect and admiration of the Canadian art community. Her determined and knowledgeable advocacy of the rights of the artist and the Canadian art milieu served, and continues to serve, as a model of what is best in our culture.
During her tenure at the Gallery, Dr. Thomson demonstrated a democratic and pragmatic commitment to educational programs. The internship programs that she created have welcomed many Concordia students. Concordia students have also benefited from the Gallery's research fellowships for advanced scholarly study in historic and contemporary Canadian art and photography and in their cross-disciplinary associations.
Dr. Thomson was also responsible for initiating the Gallery's Cybermuse project and for making its entire Canadian collection available through the Internet. This has proven to be a superb tool, both as an educational resource for anyone interested in our visual heritage and as a device allowing interested Gallery visitors to overleap the limits of geography.
In 1998, the Canadian government appointed Dr. Thomson to the directorship of the Canada Council for the Arts. It was a fitting appointment for one whose name had become synonymous with dynamic and unflagging support for the contemporary arts.
Over the past three years, under Dr. Thomson's direction, the Council has significantly enhanced its support for Canada's artists, perhaps most notably for Canada's Aboriginal artists, and has redoubled its efforts to connect audiences with the best of new Canadian art in every community across Canada. With her support and leadership, major new prizes have been inaugurated or enhanced. Notable among these are: the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts, which are presented annually to six artists and an arts benefactor; the York Wilson Endowment Award, which annually provides $30,000 to a Canadian gallery for the purchase of a work by a living Canadian artist; and the recently announced annual $50,000 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
Dr. Thomson is the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates. The Government of France named her a Chevalier des arts et des lettres in 1990 and she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1994.
Her total enjoyment of art in all its forms and the vision she has displayed in encouraging knowledge of and participation in the arts in Canada are a continuing source of inspiration for Concordia's Faculty of Fine Arts. Her dedication to securing and enhancing the artist's place in Canada is an outstanding legacy that is emblematic of what has been and what must continue to be achieved as we enter the 21st century.
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you Shirley Thomson, so that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
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