From the aerie he shares with his wife Alison in Toronto's funky Kensington Market neighbourhood, Dennis Reid has a virtually unimpeded view of two of the three institutions that have shaped his 40-plus-year career as the country's pre-eminent authority on Canadian art.
To the northeast of their book-lined, art-filled loft, there's the University of Toronto, which Reid, who's now 67, attended through much of the 1960s and where he's been a teacher since the late 1970s. No more than four or five blocks to the southeast looms the Art Gallery of Ontario, its blue titanium-and-glass-clad tower shimmering in the helter-swelter of a Toronto summer. It was here in 1979 that the Hamilton-born son of Wally and Letty Reid came after a 12-year stint at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to be the AGO's curator of Canadian historical art, eventually serving as its chief curator.
These days, there's a certain poignancy to the vista from Reid's plant-bedecked balcony. This is because on Tuesday, Reid officially but involuntarily retires from the AGO where, since early 2009, he's been chief curator of research and where, as long-time friend, Coach House Press co-founder and president Stan Bevington, observes, he "intended to work for a very long time."
Reid nevertheless claims to be "feeling much better than I did a month ago," when the news broke that AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum had informed Reid he'd be heading for the "out" door almost at the same time as ex-Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Elizabeth Smith, 51, would be arriving as the new AGO executive director of curatorial affairs.
It's hard to overstate Reid's importance as curator, scholar and mentor
Citing confidentiality in personnel matters, Teitelbaum has limited his remarks about Reid's departure to the usual valedictory plaudits. However, it's known that early last year he and Reid signed a letter of agreement saying Reid could remain at the gallery until 2014, when Reid would be 71. The deal also contained what Reid calls "an escape clause" - "I could have walked at any time" while the gallery could end the arrangement "with a commensurate payout."
Reid won't speculate as to whether his leave-taking signals "a new theoretical direction" for the AGO. "Certainly one of the things Matthew has said frequently over the last year is that ... the 20th century was about collection-building; the 21st century will be about programming." However, Reid indicated Teitelbaum pitched his early retirement less as a vote of non-confidence in Reid's ability to "get with the program" than a belief that "it was time for a transition."
If this member of the Order of Canada seems more upbeat than he was, it's due largely to the "tremendous, overwhelming" support he's received in the wake of the announcement. "I've been taken out for dinner practically every night for the last three weeks," he said with a laugh. He's keeping busy writing the third edition of A Concise History of Canadian Painting, for publication next year. (First published in 1973, it's been "the touchstone for any historical overview of Canadian art," according to Canadian Art magazine editor Richard Rhodes. Reid is also preparing, now on a contract basis, a major AGO retrospective of the art and films of Jack Chambers (1931-78), for 2011. In the meantime, "much to [his]surprise, there have already been four serious approaches" for the use of his talents. He's also seeking additional teaching duties at U of T.
It's hard to overstate Reid's importance as curator, scholar and mentor. "I owe him a helluva lot; I learned a helluva lot," says National Gallery curator of Canadian art Charles Hill, who was Reid's assistant at the NGC in the early seventies. Reid's friendship with Canada's most famous art collector, the late billionaire Kenneth Thomson, was also instrumental in securing Thomson's donation of his collection to the AGO and Thomson's support for the expansion-renovation to house it. The friendship dated at least to the mid-1980s when Reid began taking U of T grad students to Thomson's office to see the collector's impressive cache of Cornelius Krieghoff pictures. These class visits occurred "pretty well every year [thereafter]rdquo; until around 2000, Reid recalled. "Ken loved the experience; he just soaked it all up." Thomson also would consult Reid on the merits of purchasing certain works.
Surprisingly, there was little or no art in the homes his parents made in Burlington and Oshawa. Enrolling in U of T, Reid intended to become an archeologist - an ambition sparked by a volunteer stint at a dig of aboriginal artifacts on the Niagara Escarpment. Admitted to the department of art and archeology, he discovered "archeology" in this instance meant Greek and Roman. And, "I can't draw . . . My favourite teacher in my studio course used to ridicule my life drawings in class. God, I was pathetic."
Nevertheless, blessed with what a friend calls a "prodigious memory and a huge curiosity," Reid hung in, so that "by the end of the first year, I had the art bug a bit." Earning an MA in art history in 1967, Reid, according to Bevington, "started to get a sense that there were no courses at U of T geared towards the history of Canadian art, and that got him more interested in the opportunities in the field." In 1965, with Bevington, an Edmonton native and Ontario College of Art student, he started Coach House Press, publishing as its debut Man in a Window, a poetry collection by Wayne Clifford, "an old high-school buddy" of Reid's. Production, type-setting and layout were done by Bevington; Reid shot the cover image. Later, Bevington and Reid published a monograph on Jack Chambers - a harbinger of what Bevington calls Reid's "knack for befriending living artists in a really strong way." Several well-known Canadian artists, including Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, David Bolduc and Greg Curnoe eventually numbered among his friends. Said Reid: "I believe strongly that the most effective way to understand historical art is through the lens of contemporary practice."
Curatorial work has also been a source of enormous satisfaction to Reid. "The one thing that's kept me in the curatorial field, rather than pursuing a purely academic career, is that when you're curating, you're positioning an art object for the moment, for the experience of it in all its power," Reid said. "But you're also bringing to that occasion a setting and information that's underpinning the experience of the viewer. That's excited me a great deal, the way the curator is uniquely positioned to direct both aspects."
In a statement July 27, Teitelbaum asserted that Reid's "knowledge and expertise will benefit the art world for many years to come." Bevington concurred: "Dennis looks at, say, a painting, and he knows the technique, the pigments available, the life history of the artist. He knows the provenance; he knows the genealogy of most of the people connected to the artist. ... He looks at something in a way that no one else can. This is a man capable of making connections at a huge and high level."
In a curatorial career spanning more than 40 years, Dennis Reid has organized numerous exhibitions, almost always with a team, his preferred way of working. Ask him to name some of his favourite or most significant shows and he balks somewhat. "It's sorta like asking, 'Which kid do you like best?' It's hard." He later amended the thought: "It's not just hard . . . it's impossible." Nevertheless, he did cite Lucius R. O'Brien, Visions of Victorian Canada, his 1989 survey of the great landscape painter (1832-1899). It was "the very first installation in which the AGO [Art Gallery of Ontario]really used [both]colour" on the walls rather than the neutral tones of the day and "period settings so that the viewer experience wasn't focused on just one piece of art but on the whole thing."
Other exhibitions in which he takes pride:
* Alberta Rhythm: The Later Work of A.Y. Jackson (AGO, 1982)
* Canadian Jungle: The Later Work of Arthur Lismer (AGO, 1985)
* Atma Buddhi Manas: The Later Work of Lawren Harris (AGO, 1985)
* From the Four Quarters: Native and European Art in Ontario 5000 B.C. to 1867 A.D. (AGO, 1984), generally regarded as first show "anywhere to display First Nations art alongside the art of the newcomers with the confidence that the two expressions were equally contemporary with their time."
* Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff (AGO, 2001)