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Pierre Théberge at The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, March, 1998.TONY FOUHSE/The Globe and Mail

In May 2002, National Gallery of Canada director Pierre Théberge was on his way to see artist and collector Ydessa Hendeles one evening when he fell on a flat stretch of sidewalk outside Mies van der Rohe’s TD Towers, in downtown Toronto.

Trousers torn and leg bleeding, the usually fastidious and Ferragamo-clad Mr. Théberge made it to see Ms. Hendeles. The real blow, however, came later when he saw his doctor: The reason for the fall was Parkinson’s, a disease destined to take him away from the intense work with art and exhibitions that he’d been engaged in for 40 years.

Mr. Théberge, who died this month at the age of 76, continued making big moves after he received his diagnosis. With his curators, he secured some of the National Gallery’s most remarkable acquisitions yet, such as Louise Bourgeois’s huge spider Maman. He created a series of big summertime exhibitions in an old aluminum factory in Shawinigan, Que. – including 2004’s Noah’s Ark, which highlighted Ms. Hendeles’s massive Teddy Bear Project. And he secured a donation from Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain that, in 2007, saw the creation of a dedicated position for an Indigenous curator at the National Gallery of Canada.

From beginning to end, Mr. Théberge’s passion for art connected him to significant people and international recognition, even as his own outward bearing was often regarded as austere, private and aloof. Born in a small Quebec town, and raised in a time when religious censorship of film and other cultural realms was ever-present in the province, Mr. Théberge spent decades pushing back, in his own way, against dominant ideas of what art should be, and of who should partake in it.

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Mr. Théberge in his office at the MBAM with his dog Bobinette during the exhibition on Roy Lichtenstein, May, 1994.Christine Guest/MMFA

“Art really gave me permission to live,” Mr. Théberge told critic Nicolas Mavrikakis in 2014, “and I believe that’s true for a lot of people.”

Mr. Théberge was born the seventh of nine children on Aug. 9, 1942, in Saint-Éleuthère, Que., near the New Brunswick border. “We were lost in the depths of the forest, on the edge of a lake surrounded by mountains,” Mr. Théberge once said. “I often looked at those mountains and wondered what lay beyond them, thinking the rest of the world must be out there somewhere.”

His grandfather ran the general store, but his parents favoured reading and ideas. His father, Robert Théberge, was a politician. His mother, Pauline (née Talbot), had been an orphan raised by the Ursulines in Quebec City, and she encouraged Pierre to follow his own path.

Some of his earliest exposure to art came through his mother’s subscription to the French periodical L’Illustration, which showed images from the Louvre. Yet young Pierre was also struck by an image on a neighbour’s house, created by a local painter and labourer, that showed the house within a house within a house – a Lower St.-Lawrence mise-en-abyme.

When Pierre was a child, the Théberges moved to the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce area of Montreal, where he installed Calder-esque mobiles in his bedroom. In 1953, his older sister Denise took him to the exhibition Five Centuries of Drawing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Even though I was just 11 years old, that exhibition blew me away,” Mr. Théberge recalled. He hung onto the exhibition’s catalogue for more than 60 years.

Mr. Théberge’s love for art was coupled with a tendency to high achievement – and personal liberty. “From his first month of his first year of grade school, he came in first [in his class],” his brother André says. When Pierre was 18, his father gave him a white 1961 Ford Anglia to drive to school. Soon the two brothers were driving to New York to see films censored in Quebec.

“[We’d] stay in a cheap hotel, $5 a day, on West 70th Street,” André recalls. “We’d go see three, four, five films a day: Bergman films, Godard films. MoMA, the Met, art galleries too. [We’d] take the subway for an hour to Astoria to see a movie [and] eat soup and crackers the whole time in cheap restaurants.”

In university, Mr. Théberge was part of a club organizing silent-film screenings: Friedrich Murnau, Fritz Lang, Man Ray. When he organized a showing of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou in 1963, tickets sold out, with lineups out the door – his first blockbuster show.

In 1966, after writing his master’s thesis on op art at the University of Montreal, Mr. Théberge joined the National Gallery of Canada as assistant curator. There, supported by director Jean Boggs, he helped launch the careers of young, experimental artists. Joyce Wieland’s 1971 exhibition was the National Gallery’s first solo show featuring a woman, and it had quilting, lipstick and cake as materials. In 1969, N.E. Thing Co. turned the National Gallery into a corporate office with desks, secretaries and typewriters, with an execution so realistic that artist Iain Baxter& says, “a real estate agent came in an asked me how I got to put my business in the building.” Mr. Théberge organized a major tour of Michael Snow’s art in Europe, making him the first Canadian artist to have a solo show at the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris.

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Mr. Théberge pictured in Michael Snow's art Shade, 1979.Courtesy of the Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank

In 1979, Mr. Théberge went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as chief curator, becoming director in 1986. Again, he challenged what was possible. He mounted exhibitions on Tintin in 1980, Snoopy in 1992 and car design in 1995. There were long lineups and big protests. (During the same period, he also supported more traditional art exhibitions, such as a Paul Klee masterworks show and a sprawling 700-object survey of the 1920s era.)

“Pierre wanted to expand what art history could be,” says critic Mr. Mavrikakis, who remembers debating Mr. Théberge’s approach during university classes in the early 1980s. “Ninety-nine per cent of the critics did not understand [at that time] that cartoons could be art, and make us think about society and values.”

In 1998, Mr. Théberge returned to the National Gallery of Canada as director. He persuaded the federal government to boost the gallery’s annual acquisitions budget to $8-million, where it still stands. And he set to work buying art. But Mr. Théberge insisted curators bring artwork in to view in person – no matter how big or complicated it might be. “No matter what I do with language, the work has to be convincing in the first place,” was the message, says Kitty Scott, who worked as an NGC curator during that era and is now curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

At work, Mr. Théberge had some very public disputes with his curators – disputes that were often eventually resolved, but that sharpened his tough reputation. “Pierre demanded the best, but not the impossible,” says Paul Hunter, an artist who worked with Mr. Théberge on exhibition design. For the 1995 automobile show Mr. Théberge curated, Mr. Hunter and his team hand-painted the gallery walls with metal powder used in the auto industry. With that attention to detail comes excellence – and conflict. Observes Mr. Hunter: “You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.”

Even those who were close to Mr. Théberge felt distant from him at times. “One day I called him ‘l’ami inconnu’ ” (meaning: unknown friend), says Paris curator and critic Jean Clair. “He is certainly one of the most singular men I have ever known.” Usually serious and reserved, Mr. Théberge was ardent about his Airedale terriers, Bobinette and Pistache, whom he brought to the National Gallery offices and had ID cards made for. Though he pushed museums to acquire works from top artists, he bought items at flea markets and roadside stands for himself and for friends. (Michael Snow still has a painted rock that Mr. Théberge gave him, purchased from a farmer, and a pistachio-green birdhouse as well.) Though prickly, Mr. Théberge could inspire loyalty. Mayo Graham, a curator who followed him from Ottawa to Montreal and back again, writes, “He was very liberal, but very private, had a wonderful sense of humour (especially if one knew him well), was honest, true and scholarly.”

What remains undeniable is the fact that Mr. Théberge helped make Canadian art better known to Canadians and to the world. Museums in London, Paris, Berlin, Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles all collaborated with him. Mr. Clair asserts: “Through his actions, his acquisitions, and his exhibitions, [Mr. Théberge] brought Canada into the contemporary era and brought it into the circuit of the big international museums.”

In 2009, Mr. Théberge retired from the National Gallery, but he did not retire completely from art. He joined the acquisitions committee of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. With help, he travelled again to New York. He collaborated with Mr. Mavrikakis on two books: one a biography penned by Mr. Mavrikakis, the other an anthology of his own writings. Both were released in 2017. In one of these books Mr. Théberge describes an imaginary exhibition he will never manifest: 15 works of art, installed in a loop, that have personal meaning in his life, beginning with Virgin and Child (circa 1500s) by Bernard van Orley and ending with Ron Mueck’s Old Woman in Bed (2000).

On Oct. 5, Mr. Théberge died at a Montreal hospice where he’d lived since June 2017. He leaves his sisters Esther, Denise and Lise; brothers Paul and André; 11 nephews and nieces; and seven grand-nephews and grand-nieces.

In one of his final gestures, Mr. Théberge left items from his personal art collection to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: a 1961 monochrome by Guido Molinari that he kept behind a curtain for years for fear of light damage, as well as some pieces by Ron Martin, Greg Curnoe and Betty Goodwin, three Canadian artists he had championed early in his career.

“Sometimes I’ve fallen flat on my face,” Mr. Théberge once said of his work in the arts, “but I sincerely believe that I’ve contributed to the improvement of museum collections, and that I’ve expanded our collective view on the art of this place and of this world.”

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