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Shirley Thomson, pictured when she was announced as one of the Governor-General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts recipients, announced at a news conference on March 25, 2008.

Mark Lipman/The Canadian Press

Years after the public tangle between the Tory hog farmer and the cultural bureaucrat made headlines in recession-weary 1990s Canada, Shirley Thomson admitted that she must have been "pretty naive" to think there wouldn't be a "ruckus" about buying a painting for the National Gallery of Canada by an acknowledged American master of abstract expressionism.

The work was Voice of Fire, a huge blue canvas bisected with a slash of red, painted by Barnett Newman in the midst of the Vietnam War, especially for the American pavilion at Expo 67 - Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. More than 20 years later, Newman's widow offered the painting to the National Gallery at what was then a reasonable price - $1.8-million - for a painting of that size by that artist. The canvas is now worth more than 10 times that amount, according to art historian John O'Brian of the University of British Columbia.

The purchase outraged Manitoba MP Felix Holtmann, then head of the culture committee in the House of Commons, who insisted he could do just as good a job on the side of his barn in about 10 minutes with a roller and a couple of cans of paint. He even showed up for his public grilling of Thomson wearing a tie modelled on the five-metre painting - dark blue with a red vertical strip.

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Thomson defended her curator, Brydon Smith, and the purchase, insisting that "Art is provocative as well as pleasurable." Her aplomb while holding the line against political interference in an aesthetic decision, was the first public glimpse most Canadians had of the feisty director of the National Gallery, but it wouldn't be the last.

Shirley Thomson appeared redoubtable, with her regal bearing and her flowing robes made from richly coloured and textured fabrics, but she was really a small town girl with a greedy mind, an insatiable curiosity, and a voracious appetite for travel and knowledge, especially about the history of art - classical, indigenous, contemporary and avant-garde. She worked hard, and she was an extremely able administrator, but she was also lucky in that jobs opened up at times when she was ready to seek them out.

Thomson who died of a heart attack, aged 80, in Ottawa on Aug. 10, successively held three of the most significant cultural positions in Canada: heading up The National Gallery, The Canada Council, and the Cultural Property Export Review Board. In each role, she set a formidable bar as an administrator, an innovator and a supporter of arts and culture, not only in this country, but around the world.

"She was so vigorous and vibrant that you thought she would go on forever," said Sheila Copps, the politician who appointed Thomson as director of the Canada Council in 1998 and then as chair of the Export Review Board in 2003.

Besides Thomson's knowledge of art, Copps was impressed by her enthusiasm for fostering creativity, her engagement with the larger community and her innate political skills. Describing her "bigger than life" presence, Copps said she didn't think of Thomson as a cultural bureaucrat in the "bureaucratic" sense. "She was probably more political than most politicians. but at the same time highly principled and just a very dominant force for creativity in Canada. That is her legacy," said Copps.

"Shirley had a personality that made her likeable to just about everybody," said visual arts maven David Silcox. "She had a great sense of humour, a curiosity about what other people did and a transparent sense of integrity. She was a big, warm, remarkable presence and a lot of people are devastated that she will no longer be in their lives."

Shirley Lavinia Cull was the eldest of four children of Walter and Mae (nee McKenzie) Cull. Her father had served as a farrier for the British Army in the First World War and then worked as the chief blacksmith for the Hiram Walker Estates in Walkerville, near Windsor, Ont. That's where Shirley was born on Feb. 19, 1930. When she was still a baby, the family moved to St. Mary's, where she eventually attended Central School and then St. Mary's Collegiate.

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Her brother John Cull, 10 years her junior, and now a retired high school teacher, still relishes memories of sitting around a camp fire with his big sister as she taught him how to make banana boats - slice the fruit in half, insert chunks of chocolate, reseal the peel and heat the banana over the flames until it smelled done. Although the Culls were Methodists, and practised due respect for the Sabbath, reading was a family addiction, and it wasn't uncommon for Shirley to be curled up with a book at one end of a chesterfield while her father was similarly occupied at the other end.

After high school she went on scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she earned a bachelor's degree in honours history, the first member of her family to attend, let alone graduate from a post-secondary institution. After acquiring her degree in 1952, she taught school for a year before, miraculously, securing her escape from small town Ontario. A French family, who lived in St. Mary's, invited her to go with them as governess to their two children when they returned to Paris.

She stayed in Paris after her governess job ended "and really started to understand the French language and culture and to build the background that became so important to her," her brother said. She worked as an editor in the NATO secretariat (from 1956-60), an administrator for the World University Service (1960-63) and then the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (1964-67), a job that brought her back to Canada and to work in Ottawa for the first, but far from the last time.

About this time she met and married political scientist Dale Thomson, who was then teaching at the University of Montreal. Together they moved to Washington area, where he headed up a Canadian Studies Centre at Johns Hopkins University and she went back to school, earning a master's degree from the University of Maryland in 1974, a dozen years after receiving her first degree. Although, she probably didn't realize it at the time, Thomson was building the credentials for her second career as an art historian and museum director.

Back in Montreal, she began work on a PhD in art history at McGill, where her husband was a professor in the political science department and vice-principal (planning). The marriage foundered and she, as she later allowed, completed her dissertation on the 18th century French artist François Boucher, in "a sublimation of pain," after her husband left her for another woman.

Many people in her situation - single, 51 and on the job market with a newly minted PhD - would have hidden themselves in the academic shrubbery, eking out a living as a peripatetic lecturer. Instead, she turned her academic credentials, her language skills, her international connections and experience as an administrator into a polished skill set that netted her a short- term contract at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and then, in 1982, the directorship of the McCord Museum, a jewel of a gallery that includes the Notman photographic archives - a huge leap for somebody who had never initiated an exhibition.

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After three years, her friend David Silcox, now president of Sotheby's Canada, persuaded her to return to Ottawa and take a job as the secretary-general for the Canadian Commission to UNESCO. Silcox argued that if she were in Ottawa, she would be on the ground if something were to open up.

And something did, in the form of the directorship of the National Gallery of Canada, which included overseeing the move into the Moshe Safdie-designed glass and granite cathedral-like premises on Sussex Drive and shepherding the gallery into a new administrative structure as it morphed into a Crown corporation.

The choice surprised many in the visual arts community, but as then communications minister Flora MacDonald said, in announcing the appointment, Thomson brings "a breadth of administrative experience in Canada and in the international sphere that will enable her to provide leadership so crucial at this pivotal point in the National Gallery's development."

Outwardly, Thomson's decade-long tenure, from 1987 to 1997, may have seemed controversial because of the brouhaha about the purchase of Voice of Fire, and the exhibition of Jana Sterbak's Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, a sculpture made primarily out of cured flank steak. But inside the gallery, she brought order and respect for curators and their expertise and gave prominence to neglected areas, such as first nations art and artists.

"Those were the golden years. They only got acrimonious after Shirley left," said Diana Nemiroff, now director of the art gallery at Carleton University, describing her former boss as a person with "a tremendous respect for curators" and a "marvellous diplomat for the gallery."

The only doubt Thomson herself expressed about her leadership of the NGC, involved her contentious decision to cancel an exhibition of paintings of words and images related to the October Crisis by Ottawa artist Dennis Tourbin. Scheduled for the gallery in 1995, the exhibition was going to open in what turned out to be the run up to the frighteningly close 1995 Quebec referendum.

Seven years later, she admitted, in an interview with Paul Gessell of The Ottawa Citizen, that her decision was political rather than artistic. "I will never know if I made the right decision," she said, indicating that she was still troubled about overriding curatorial privilege and freedom of expression. "That would have been very difficult," she said, "if the artist's career had been hampered by a difficult decision I had to make."

She loved being director of the National Gallery, but after two terms, it was time for "fresh blood" in the view of the late Jean-Claude Delorme, then chair of the NGC board. Again, the confluence of opportunity, readiness to accept a challenge, and her own track record, favoured Thomson's candidacy as the incoming director of The Canada Council.

After a highly successful term, from 1998-2002, in which she oversaw an annual budget injection of $25-million from Parliament, introduced prizes for the visual arts, founded an international association of national arts councils, as well as serving as the group's inaugural chair, she again reluctantly made her adieus from a job she loved.

Most people her age, 72, would have been ready for a graceful retirement. Not Thomson. After a trip to Mysore - "I always go to India when I am in a period of transition," she declared at the time, she returned to Ottawa and a new job as head of the Export Review Board from 2003 to 2007. At the same time she was an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, served on the boards of several organizations, read stacks of books on the Charles Taylor Prize jury, and accepted numerous honours in the form of honorary degrees, appointments to the Order of Canada and similar awards from other countries, including France.

Energetic as ever, Thomson had celebrated her 80th birthday in February in high and extended style including going on a jaunt last month from Ottawa, to New York, to Chicago, with a group of old friends who called themselves the Octos because they were all on the cusp of their ninth decade.

Although she didn't make a fuss about it, she was scheduled to have her aortic valve replaced on Aug. 12. Instead, she had a massive heart attack two days before the operation and died in her own bed, surrounded by books, as she prepared for sleep.

Shirley Thomson leaves two siblings, six nieces and nephews, her extended family and many friends. There will be a private family gathering followed by a public memorial at the National Gallery in Ottawa on Sept. 16.

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