In the Canadian art scene, where the top players often move from job to job and city to city to forge their careers, Jeffrey Spalding took the paradigm to the extreme. By the time Mr. Spalding died this month at the age of 67, he had worked and gained renown from coast to coast and internationally as an artist, curator, collector, historian, educator and critic – becoming a star in every field.
“I think of it all as the same thing,” Mr. Spalding once said of these nominally different roles in the art world. “I couldn’t be the artist I am, or the curator I am, or the writer I am, without all components of it.”
“Jeffrey cut a seismic swath across the country and through the art world,” says Terry Graff, an artist and the former director of Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery. “He developed this extensive network of artists, collectors, dealers and supporters, not just here but also in the States, Europe and Asia. Through his connections and friendships and paying attention, he was able to dramatically and indelibly shape and expand art collections at the many institutions where he has worked.”
Jeffrey John Spalding was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Nov. 5, 1951, to John and Dolores (née Laidlaw) Spalding. The family moved to Toronto six years later. According to family members, a high-school visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., ignited his lifelong passion for art.
After studying fine art as an undergraduate at the University of Guelph, he headed to Ohio State University for a graduate degree in art education and then to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) for his masters of fine art. Mr. Spalding’s own art made a significant impression when he was still a student, experimenting with colour theory while at NSCAD. Later on, he experimented with video installations; the Art Gallery of Ontario honoured him with a solo exhibition of his video art in 1997.
Mr. Spalding’s exalted career as a curator began in Calgary, where he took on a curatorial position at the Glenbow Museum in 1978. From there, he continued an upward progression of increasingly powerful positions. From 1981 to 1999, Mr. Spalding was director of the University of Lethbridge Gallery while continuing to create art. Among other works, his mid-1980s series of sublime panoramic paintings of Niagara Falls confirmed his status as a significant artist, independent of his other roles.
In 1985, he married artist Marianne Gerlinger, with whom he raised five daughters.
After leaving Lethbridge, Mr. Spalding became director of the Appleton Art Museum in Florida until 2002, and from there moved to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, which he headed for the next five years. He relocated to Calgary in 2007 to assume the presidency of the Glenbow, also serving as an adjunct professor at University of Calgary. Two years later, he became artistic director and chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary and stayed there until 2014.
Mr. Spalding’s own artworks now feature in the Glenbow and several other important collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Edmonton Art Gallery, Mendel Art Gallery, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Beaverbrook Art Gallery and other public art museums in Canada.
He also greatly expanded those institutions’ collections of other artists, particularly at the Glenbow Museum and the University of Lethbridge. “He vibrated with his boundless passion for art and left us energized and inspired,” recalls Donna Livingstone, the former Glenbow president and CEO and current director of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Although many of the acquisitions he stick-handled were donated, the cost in maintenance and wall space sometimes were too onerous for the taste of certain museum board members. “His high-octane creative energy and visionary sensibility didn’t always sit well with everybody,” Mr. Graff recalls. “He exasperated a lot of people.” Not all board members appreciated his rarefied choices, nor appreciated the logistics and expenditures required to procure and maintain them. Mr. Spalding made it his mission to convince the more conservative board members of the long-term value of certain acquisitions, spending whatever time and effort he felt was needed to enlighten them.
Mr. Spalding harnessed his encyclopedic knowledge of visual art and art history to deliver insightful lectures, critiques and essays. He wrote influential pieces for several publications and exhibition catalogues, and was a regular contributor and consulting editor for the Calgary-based art journal Galleries West. “One of Jeffrey’s challenges was that he was excellent at so many different things in the art world, including working behind the scenes,” says Tom Tait, publisher of Galleries West. “So he would work seemingly ungodly hours, and he’d just shrug and say: ‘Well, that’s what I do.’ He was working far too hard, but he found it a joy.”
Mr. Graff hired Mr. Spalding as senior curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2014. He later became chief curator but left the Beaverbrook in 2017, after enriching the gallery’s permanent collection with more than 1,000 significant works of contemporary art. “That was quite a challenge, especially in conservative New Brunswick, where you have the old guard still thinking it’s 1950-something and clinging on to the old favourites,” Mr. Graff says. “But in fact Jeffrey was fulfilling Lord Beaverbrook’s dream of a gallery that is thriving and pertinent.”
It was both symbolic and logical that Mr. Spalding would often attend formal receptions dressed in a suit and running shoes – the better to dash to the next room and connect to the next group of people.
Throughout it all, he maintained his hands-on art practice. From 2012 to 2015, he collaborated with printmaker Gordan Novak, a long-time close personal friend, on the Ghosts and Angels series of prints, in which they gleaned off-cast printmaking materials and colours from other artists to create a series of new abstract works. The series, which exhibited at the Art Gallery of Swift Current in 2015 and the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery last year, drew national acclaim.
His association with Mr. Novak occasionally brought him to the hamlet of Admiral, Sask., where he worked with Mr. Novak in his studio, a decommissioned school building. Most recently, Mr. Novak invited Mr. Spalding to work in China at the Tao Hua Tan Creative Co., where he had begun a new position as a resident artist and art consultant. Mr. Spalding had recently returned to Canada to deal with his visa renewal and other personal business. He succumbed to a massive stroke on Oct. 14, while travelling to Toronto from Fredericton.
Mr. Spalding was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2007 for his long-standing work as an advocate, curator, educator and practitioner of the visual arts. “He was an artist first, and believed strongly in the transformative power of art,” Mr. Graff says. “From there, he wanted to share his love and passion for art and make our cultural heritage accessible to everyone.”
Along with many friends, colleagues and extended family members, Mr. Spalding leaves his daughters, Jennifer Lake, Yvonne Smith, Raila Duda, Isa Spalding, Lauren Spalding; wife, Marianne Gerlinger; and six grandchildren.