For the first time in its 51 years as a public institution, the famed McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., has chosen a non-North American as its executive director.
He's Ian Dejardin, 61 later this month, a self-described "genuine fan" of Canadian art who's planning to assume the McMichael's top job next April after more than 11 years as CEO of the 199-year-old Dulwich Picture Gallery in southeast London.
The McMichael's provincially appointed board of trustees announced the bold move Tuesday morning, having begun a search last fall, concentrating, initially at least, mostly on possible Canadian and expatriate Canadian talent. According to Andrew Dunn, chair of both the McMichael board and the search committee, nine candidates were short-listed for the directorship, of which Mr. Dejardin was the sole non-Canadian (and eventually the search team's unanimous choice).
It's the third time in the last eight months a major Ontario cultural institution has gone outside Canada to fill its top job. Last November, the Royal Ontario Museum said it would be hiring U.S. museum administrator Joshua Basseches as its new CEO. A couple of months later, the Art Gallery of Ontario said Stephan Jost, then-head of the Honolulu Museum of Art, had been picked as the successor to Toronto-born Matthew Teitelbaum.
Mr. Dejardin's term at the McMichael is for five years. "[But] from where I sit right now," Mr. Dunn said, "I'd love to have Ian in that chair as long as he'd like to be there."
The McMichael, known for its trove of works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, was started in the early 1950s by private collectors Robert and Signe McMichael on a four-hectare parcel of subsequently wooded land near the village of Kleinburg, 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto. In 1965, the McMichaels donated their home, collection and land – it now encompasses 40 hectares – to the province. After several months of renovations, the gallery opened to the public July 8, 1966. It now houses more than 6,000 works.
Mr. Dejardin, who was born in Edinburgh and studied art at the Universities of Edinburgh,Warwick and Manchester, will be replacing Nathalie Mercure, a former corporate lawyer named McMichael interim director last September. Ms. Mercure's appointment followed the McMichael board's decision not to renew the contract of veteran Canadian museum professional Victoria Dickenson, named McMichael director in the spring of 2011.
Mr. Dejardin, by his own admission, only made his first visit to Canada in 2007. But he's been keen on Canadian historical art since at least the mid-1980s when, as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, he accidentally came across a book on the Group of Seven that whetted his interest.
After being named Dulwich director in 2005, he began to act in earnest on that interest. In 2011-12, he curated at Dulwich a critically acclaimed, well-attended, 12-week exhibition titled Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. It subsequently toured to great success in Norway and the Netherlands before an iteration was mounted at the McMichael in November, 2012.
Two years later, again at Dulwich, Mr. Dejardin co-curated with independent Canadian curator Sarah Milroy a four-month exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, later presented at the AGO. More recently, he and Ms. Milroy have been working on a retrospective of the paintings of Canadian master David Milne, scheduled for Dulwich in 2018.
All this has led to many trans-Atlantic flights to and from Canada, resulting in Mr. Dejardin gaining considerable familiarity not just with Canadian art but with the country's cultural institutions, administrators, curators and collectors. In 2010, he was instrumental in forming the Canadian Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery to increase public understanding of Canadian art abroad and international art in Canada.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Mr. Dejardin said he wasn't looking for a new job when the McMichael's search firm came calling this spring. Indeed, the McMichael originally sought his advice on what it should look for in a new leader. "Later the search committee contacted me and asked: 'Have you considered applying for it?'" Talking it over with his long-time partner, Royal Academy exhibition designer Ian Pearson, in April, "I just suddenly felt, 'This is wonderful'… and I flung myself in there."
Mr. Dejardin said he feels "comfortable" in Toronto and "loves" the McMichael in part because "it's this completely magical place.In many ways it feels like the Toronto equivalent of Dulwich. It has a very special atmosphere … with a special and wonderful collection."
Asked if he feels his appointment marks a determination by the McMichael to gain a larger international profile both for itself and Canadian art, Mr. Dejardin replied: "I think that's right. The useful experience I hope I can bring to the whole Canadian art thing is really what I feel I brought to the two Canadian shows that I've done. Which is this business of the outsider eye looking at Canadian art in ways that might surprise an audience that's already particularly familiar with it and reflecting it back to that audience." At the same time, he believes the success he had with Painting Canada, for example, in the U.K., then Europe, then Canada demonstrates "there's a real international audience out there for Canadian art."
Mr. Dejardin won the post, Mr. Dunn said, mostly based on his "sense of creativity," a knack for "creating a sense of excitement," his "leadership style," fund-raising smarts and "a great academic upbringing" that isn't force-fed to his audiences as "medicine."
Still to be completed by the McMichael is the labour-market impact assessment required by the federal government. Here the gallery will have to demonstrate that it could not find a sufficiently qualified Canadian candidate to fulfill its ambitions.
Mr. Dunn said, "We feel very strongly we have a good understanding of the contribution Ian can make." But will we have people who ask the question, 'Why him?'Absolutely." However, Mr. Dunn noted that the McMichael, while still essentially devoted to Canadian art, has a much more diverse exhibition policy than even five or six years ago. Further, "Canada is a country built on immigration and to be able to attract the best and brightest in the world … well, that's a good thing."