After a year-long vacancy, the Art Gallery of Ontario has filled its top curatorial post. The British-born Julian Cox is to be the new chief curator, replacing Stephanie Smith, who left the gallery in October, 2016, after two years on the job.
"Julian is joining us at a pivotal moment in the AGO's history," said Stephan Jost, the AGO's director and CEO. "We face exciting opportunities as our audiences expand and we continue our evolution into a 21st-century museum."
Opportunities are plenty at a gallery with a recent history of hierarchical changeover. It was in 2016 that Mr. Jost, an American, replaced Matthew Teitelbaum, who served as director and CEO of the Toronto institution for 17 years.
Late last month, Andrew Hunter resigned as the AGO's curator of Canadian art; he publicly expressed disappointment with the gallery's direction and said he doubted the gallery's top curatorial position would be filled by a Canadian.
His suspicion proved to be prophetic. Mr. Cox, 51, arrives to the AGO with 25 years of museum experience, none of it in Canada. Most recently he served as the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco's chief curator, a responsibility he has held since 2010.
"Everything felt right about this move," Mr. Cox told The Globe and Mail. "I was impressed with the head curators at the AGO, and it's the right time in my professional life for fresh challenges."
Educated at the University College of Wales and the University of Manchester, Mr. Cox's specialty is photography. While working at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, he co-organized exhibitions of Man Ray and Julia Margaret Cameron at the AGO in the late 1990s.
"I have good collegial ties at the gallery," said Mr. Cox, a Londoner who, as a teenager, visited Ontario on a rugby tour of the province.
In Toronto, Mr. Cox will join an art scene populated by other recently arrived Brits. Ian Dejardin, the new director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, was recruited from the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in South London. November Paynter, educated at the Royal College of Art in London, was named earlier this year as the director of programs for Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Art.
"The reality is that Canadian institutions are competing for global talent," Mr. Jost told the Globe. "My priority for this hire was to find someone with a depth of experience internationally, and also someone who had a track record of managing curators."
Mr. Cox will head a curatorial team in transition. Last week, the AGO split its Canadian art department in two. The Department of Canadian and Indigenous art is now headed by Wanda Nanibush (curator of Indigenous art) and Georgiana Uhlyarik (curator of Canadian art).
"If you put Canadian and Indigenous together and try to create this depiction that it's a single culture, there's an inherent tension in it," Mr. Jost said. "The cultures have interacted with each other for 700 years, but they're distinct cultures as well."
In a published essay, outgoing Canadian art curator Mr. Hunter wrote that he believed some of the AGO curatorial staff lacked "true knowledge of this place." Mr. Jost took exception to that view.
"If he thinks our people lack Canadian knowledge, I think it shows an extraordinary arrogance on his part," Mr. Jost said.
At the AGO, Mr. Cox will also become one of two deputy directors. He is expected to begin his tenure in January, 2018, pending approval of authorization to work in Canada.