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The National Gallery is renaming one gallery after its former director Shirley Thomson.Handout

An anonymous donor is giving the National Gallery of Canada $3-million to keep the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in good repair. The donation will establish a fund to ensure that the small building where a leading Canadian artist is showcased every other year is maintained for the next 50 years. The pavilion, a small building of wood and glass designed by the Milan architecture firm Studio BBPR and opened in 1958, underwent a major renovation in 2018.

The Venice Biennale is considered the most prestigious art show in the world and is one of few where artists represent their nation, with many countries maintaining permanent pavilions on the exhibition grounds. Vancouver artist Stan Douglas will be the next Canadian to show there, in 2022. (The pavilion is currently showing an exhibition devoted to Canadian cities’ appearance in film for the architecture biennale that is held in alternating years.)

To recognize the anonymous gift, the National Gallery is renaming one gallery after its former director Shirley Thomson. In an era where most arts spaces are named for wealthy donors rather than actual practitioners, it’s an unusual move made possible by the unnamed sponsor.

“The donor wanted the focus to be on Dr. Thomson and Dr. Thomson’s time at the gallery,” said Barbara Stead-Coyle, director of the National Gallery Foundation, which brokered the gift. “They felt if their name was released the story might become about them.”

Thomson, who died in 2010, led the gallery from 1987 to 1997. She oversaw the move from an office building on Ottawa’s Elgin Street to the glass and stone structure on Sussex Drive that the gallery has occupied since 1988. She presented several popular exhibitions during her tenure, including ones devoted to Renoir, Degas and Emily Carr, but is probably best remembered for a single purchase.

Soon after the move, Thomson made the highly controversial $1.8-million acquisition of Voice of Fire, an abstract painting by the American artist Barnett Newman, which had been created for Expo 67 and was already on loan to the gallery. In 1990, Progressive Conservative MP Felix Holtmann mounted a vociferous attack on the painting, suggesting he could himself recreate its three bands of colour on the side of a barn in 10 minutes, but Voice of Fire was already considered by art experts to be a stellar example of American post-war abstraction. Today, auction records suggest it would be worth at least 20 times its purchase price.

The room where Voice of Fire hangs alongside other paintings of the period will now be named the Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery.