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Edythe Goodridge, seen in 1977, emphasized the complex, necessary place of artists in society. (Memorial University of Newfoundland Collection)
Edythe Goodridge, seen in 1977, emphasized the complex, necessary place of artists in society. (Memorial University of Newfoundland Collection)

Obituary

Art curator Edythe Goodridge was called ‘mother’ of Newfoundland Add to ...

Edythe Goodridge had such sway with Newfoundland and Labrador culture that Memorial University orator Shane O’Dea ranked her influence equal to that of long-time premier Joseph Smallwood. “The New Newfoundland has both a father and a mother,” said Mr. O’Dea when Ms. Goodridge received a doctor of laws (honoris causa) from MUN in 1998. “Our father: Joe Smallwood who made us a province, who made us Canadians. And our mother: Edythe Goodridge, who made us a people, who remade us as Newfoundlanders.”

Indeed, much of Newfoundland’s thriving theatre, literature, music and visual arts germinated in or from the 1970s “Newfoundland Renaissance” that she helped forge and name. The phrase comes from a seminal article the late Sandra Gywn wrote for Saturday Night magazine, describing a burst of creative activity that Ms. Goodridge played no small role in encouraging. As a cultural administrator, she was the third and most influential curator of the MUN Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador). “She introduced us, she gave us shows, she bragged about us,” said visual artist Gerald Squires. Later she was the first executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, founded in 1980.

She went on to extend her reach across the country, as a federal civil servant in Ottawa with the National Capital Commission and later director of visual arts with the Canada Council through the 1980s and into the 1990s. What she accomplished there was profoundly comprehensive, according to her colleague Sue Ditta, former head of the Media Arts Division.

“Edythe revolutionized the funding program for public art galleries and museums. What she did made a dramatic positive change to curators, artists and the smaller museums who were producing excellent publications and creating cutting-edge programming. It allowed an entire generation of practitioners funding to pursue their ideas. It opened doors to Canadian artists in areas previously dominated by British and American artists. A new generation of gallery directors across Canada was able to seriously pursue Canadian art and Canadian artists.”

Ms. Goodridge also pushed for greater cultural diversity at the Canada Council, Ms. Ditta said. “She developed a program to encourage aboriginal curators. It was a huge breakthrough that allowed people to get inside institutions, to build skill sets and reputations.”

Gerald McMaster, for one, went on to become curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “She was so supportive, a mentor and a guide, especially in the 1990s, when I pushed for aboriginal artists in the Venice Biennale. Her advice helped me through a stressful, exciting period.” She was also a strong backer of artist-run centres, fostering their ideologies and principles and promoting the spaces and opportunities that allowed artists to rise to international recognition, Mr. McMaster said.

Among the principles Ms. Goodridge deeply understood and fiercely defended were arms-length funding, anti-censorship, peer assessment and artistic autonomy. She emphasized the complex, necessary place of artists in society – and that art came from artists, not administrators or those who provided funding.

Again and again she was described as a significant mentor, one with a knack for persuading a person, or a people, to believe in themselves.

Gifted with prescience, she was quick to see the potential of media arts and that the emerging genre needed its own division separate from visual. Among the examples of her tenacity, she rode out a rough period when the Mulroney government wanted to merge the Canada Council with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Among her legacies is the Winterset Award and Festival, created in honour of her friend Ms. Gywn, who died in 2000, which includes an August literary festival and a $10,000 book award.

Incidentally she was no quiet, low-key civil servant, content to toil behind the scene. She made the scene. She was a force of nature, committed and generous and sophisticated and a riot.

“Buoyant, fearless, generous, kind, and hysterically funny, she was also very, very smart,” Ms. Ditta said.

Michael Enright, Winterset’s founding host, told CBC Radio’s On the Go,“There’s no one like her in the country.”

Ms. Goodridge died June 4 in Halifax after a short battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Edythe Elizabeth Ryan Good-ridge was born in St. John’s on March 3, 1937, the second youngest of eight children of Edythe and James Vincent Ryan, who was the last president of Newfoundland Railway. She attended Roslyn House College in Surrey, England, and St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. She also studied at the Ontario College of Art, the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the Reial Cercle Artistic de Barcelona.

Back in St. John’s, she worked as a freelance journalist and with the Daily News and the CBC. In 1968, she joined Memorial University’s Extension Community Development Division, developing programs in communication and visual and performing arts.

In 1972 she went to Ottawa, encountering her own kind of culture shock.

“You have to understand that when she went up to Ottawa, she was with the Canada Council. She was shocked by the kind of dismissive attitude people, particularly federal bureaucrats in Ottawa, had of Newfoundland,” Mr. Enright said. “There were people who made fun of the place and dismissed it, and had no idea of the vibrancy of the culture.”

Well, she wasn’t putting up with that. But she didn’t simply snap back with anger. She used wit and persuasion, and the wealth of cultural actors she had to hand – such as CODCO, whom she took to Ottawa to perform at an exhibition of Newfoundland prints. She knew she could show the mainland how vital Newfoundland culture was, because she had already done the same thing at home.

For instance, when she had taken the reins at MUN Gallery, “art wasn’t considered important in Newfoundland then,” Mr. Squires said. And none of her predecessors had given much attention to what was developing there in the 1970s.

“So, one of the things that was so special about her was, when she was asked what she wanted to do with the gallery, she said, ‘I want to work with what I’ve got,’” Mr. Squires said. “The artists who were working here meant something to her. There were only half a dozen or so of us. She saw all of that. She promoted us. She’d say, ‘I want an exhibition of yours, and I’ll give you six months.’ She whipped us into behaving ourselves. We believed in her.”

As well, she made her home a hub of culture and hospitality. Her dinner parties were open-hearted and legendary. Enjoying good food and great fun, her guests would make all manner of strong connections. Guests would be asked, “Who do you want to meet?”

She was an instrumental part of many festivals and celebrations, a member of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization, the Canadian Museums Association and the Atlantic Provinces Art Gallery Association, and the founding president of the Newfoundland Historic Trust. In 1990, she was inducted into the NLAC Hall of Honour. After retiring from the Canada Council, she made her home in Salvage, on the Eastport Peninsula.

When she received her degree from MUN she said, “Younger artists and younger scholars maintain the challenge set down by an earlier generation, confronting those among us who still insist on reducing our invention and art to entertainment and souvenir, producing cultural sentimentality and nostalgia for our amusement and the delight of our visitors. For artists do not amuse or entertain. Artists are engaged in a learned practice. They pose difficult questions.”

“She was alive and aware,” Mr. Squires said. “She would visit us at the [Ferryland] lighthouse [where Squires kept his studio in the 1970s] and she would always do the dishes before she left. She was that type of person. She wanted something beautiful to happen in Newfoundland. And I think it did.”

Predeceased by her husband Norman in 1973, she leaves her son, John, and daughter, Elizabeth.

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