At the end of the 1960s, Canada had talented artists and a growing art market, but few links between the two. It was Suzanne Rivard Le Moyne’s genius to see a creative solution to the problem, in the formation of the Canada Council Art Bank.
Le Moyne, who died Oct. 29 at 84, founded the Art Bank in 1972, during her tenure as the Canada Council’s head of visual arts. Her idea was that the Bank would inject cash and credibility into the contemporary Canadian art market by buying significant works by living artists. It would then display the works, and cover some of its own budget, by renting them to federal government departments in need of office decor.
According to Montreal art dealer René Blouin, Le Moyne’s creation was key to fostering the market and contemporary gallery scene that exists today.
“When artists know that their work is desired, purchased and collected, that gives them tremendous courage to pursue this mad project of devoting themselves to the creative process,” Blouin says. “The impact of this has been tremendous, on the creators themselves, on the community and on Canadian culture.”
Le Moyne knew the visual arts from several angles – as a painter, teacher and administrator, both at the Council and as head of the visual arts department of the University of Ottawa from 1974 to 1986. She was a passionate advocate for visual culture, and had the skill and personal authority to put her ideas into practice.
“She was an imposing, luminous woman,” Blouin recalls. “She had an incredible presence.”
She also had intimate knowledge of the inner workings and the personalities of the government and the cultural elite. Her husband, the author and journalist Jean Le Moyne, was a speechwriter for Pierre Trudeau, who appointed him to the Senate in 1982. The Le Moynes knew many of the intellectual leaders of the time, some of whom, such as Gérard Pelletier, had come to Ottawa with Trudeau.
But her effectiveness as a cultural leader was rooted in her personal knowledge of art practice and the artist’s life. She began her career as a painter, who showed successfully in Montreal and Paris after graduating with a fine arts degree from the École des beaux-arts in her native Quebec City.
“She was a very accomplished painter in the first years of her practice,” said Blouin. “Her early work was absolutely delicious.”
She was well established as an artist and teacher at Montreal’s École des beaux-arts when her husband received the call to join Trudeau, the new Prime Minister, in Ottawa in 1969. A year after moving to the capital, Rivard Le Moyne was appointed to the Canada Council, with no prior experience in cultural administration.
She later said her lack of history in the bureaucracy, and her studio experience, may have helped her to see problems with fresh eyes. The Council had gathered a small Canadian collection of visual art before she arrived, but it was her vision – and a bit of luck – that made art purchases an important part of the Council’s work in the visual arts community.
“She had the Art Bank costed out for $250,000 for the first year,” recalls art historian and president of Sotheby’s Canada David Silcox, who preceded Rivard Le Moyne at the Council, and whom she asked to chair the first Art Bank selection jury.
Pelletier, who as Secretary of State was responsible for the Council, loved the idea, Silcox says. The proposal was sent for funding approval to the Treasury Board, where Board secretary Al Johnson, future CBC president and a sympathetic backer of the Council, sent the request back.
“Al said, ‘No, what you need to do is reconstruct this and make it $1-million a year for five years, or you won’t have the time you need to get it going,’” Silcox recalls. “That’s how the Art Bank started, and it would have failed without that. It would never have had the presence or scale to fulfill an energetic mandate.”
Rivard Le Moyne promoted Council’s expanding support of photography, video and film, and its Explorations program, which funded work that couldn’t be slotted into the usual categories. She also nurtured the system of artist-run galleries that remain important hubs for visual arts activity and exhibition. Blouin recalled going to visit her when he was involved with one of Montreal’s first artist-run spaces.
“She was very receptive to our ideas,” Blouin says. “But the grant officer whom we should have addressed with our request for money was not that receptive. And Suzanne scolded him in front of us!”
After four very productive years at the Council, and with her husband in recovery from serious illness, Rivard Le Moyne became the first head of visual arts at the University of Ottawa. She hired top-drawer Canadian artists as studio faculty, including Charles Gagnon and Kenneth Lochhead, and quickly made her department one of the country’s leading art schools.
“She was very demanding and tough,” says artist Leslie Reid, who taught at the school and became a life-long friend. “She had a very particular vision of how she wanted things to go, and could be very stubborn. But she was also a very warm and supportive person, with a strong intuitive sensibility.”
Reid recalls how, the day before her wedding, Rivard Le Moyne came to her house “with a huge pot of wedding potage she had made that morning from her family recipe, to ensure good health for the big day and after.” Reid also remembers the Le Moynes going off on “slow adventures” – meandering exploratory road trips. For all their acquaintance with public figures, they were a very private couple, she said.
Rivard Le Moyne left the university, and teaching, in 1986, and resumed painting. In 1996 her husband died, and her work was shown at a solo exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery. She decided that Montreal might be a more congenial site for her next phase, and moved there the following year. But although she had initiated a new series of semi-abstract phoenix paintings, she was unable to reclaim a place in the city’s premier galleries.
“That was quite hard on her,” Blouin says. “She would have loved to get back in and be with her peers. Art was the centre of her life.”
A couple of bad falls, one of which fractured her hip in 2008, “really slowed her down,” Reid says. “A lot of her time was spent learning to walk again, and managing pain.” The anxiety that had always been part of her character became focused on the risk of another fall. She became afraid to go out, stopped leaving her apartment, and grew increasingly isolated from the city and its art community.
But the scene has never forgotten Rivard Le Moyne’s influence. As a teacher, innovative administrator, and tireless advocate for all the visual arts, her efforts are still being felt.