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Prior to being named the executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, historian Ian Dejardin was director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. (McMichael Gallery)
Prior to being named the executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, historian Ian Dejardin was director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. (McMichael Gallery)

McMichael Collection names British art historian as new director Add to ...

Ian A.C. Dejardin’s first experience with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection was a disaster.

A decade ago, the art historian had travelled to Toronto from England, “desperately keen” on seeing the works of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Speaking to someone with the tourist office here, he was told to rent a car if he wanted to visit the gallery, situated in a woodsy, transit-unfriendly plot in Kleinburg, Ont.

One hitch in that plan: Mr. Dejardin does not drive. He never did make it to the gallery’s great hoard of landscape Canadiana. He returned to England, where he was the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, deeply disappointed.

Next month, however, he’ll be back. On Friday it was announced that Mr. Dejardin would be the McMichael’s new executive director, replacing interim director Nathalie Mercure.

His first order of business? Transportation to Toronto’s outskirts – a real can-of-worms issue in this part of the world.

“There’s a problem there,” said Mr. Dejardin, 61, speaking with The Globe and Mail on Friday. “It’s difficult to get to the McMichael, and that’s something we need to deal with.”

When it comes to drawing people to a remote gallery, Mr. Dejardin has experience. The Dulwich, known for its permanent collection of Baroque masterpieces, is located in South London, not a central spot. In his dozen years as the gallery’s director, attendance numbers increased from 98,000 in 2004-05 to 220,000 in 2015-16. Recently, the Dulwich was ranked by The Times as the second-best small museum in Britain.

In a news statement from the McMichael, Mr. Dejardin’s “natural affinity for all things Canadian” was noted. “He shares his deep expertise in a casual, collaborative way, and his quirky, self-deprecating sense of humour and unassuming but enthusiastic style make him literally the perfect leader for the McMichael right now,” said Andrew Dunn, chair of the gallery’s board of trustees.

Natural affinities aside, what Mr. Dejardin brings to the McMichael is a deep appreciation for True North depictions. At the Dulwich in 2011, he launched Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an exhibition that set attendance records at the 200-year-old gallery before stops at Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. The tour landed at the McMichael in late 2012.

In 2014, he co-curated From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, a collection of wild landscapes and seascapes the marked the first major showing in England of Carr’s work. The exhibit came to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2015.

The walls of his office at the McMichael will be adorned by diplomas earned at the University of Edinburgh (master of arts) and Manchester University (art gallery and museum studies). Describing himself as a “visual arts person” with a background in the Old Masters, Mr. Dejardin’s obsession with Canadian art was instigated by a library book he stumbled upon in the 1980s. “I love landscapes, and the Group of Seven just seemed so much more dazzling and beautiful than I previously experienced,” he said. “It was a moment of revelation, really. It was like discovering a new planet.”

Currently he is collaborating with Toronto’s Sarah Milroy on an exhibition featuring the works of Canadian master David Milne, set to arrive at the McMichael in 2018.

Mr. Dejardin’s championing of Canadiana abroad corrected an oversight by British museums, which had historically neglected the works of this country’s cherished gang of landscape painters. The Painting Canada exhibit represented the first showing of works by the collective since 1925, when the artists were in their prime.

When it comes to the work of Thomson (whose death 100 years ago will be commemorated this summer at the McMichael), Mr. Dejardin becomes particularly animated. “He’s a genius,” he said. “He’s a genius on a world level, and very few people outside Canada know of him.”

And as celebrated as Thomson is in Canada, perhaps not enough people here have seen his work up close. It will be Dejardin’s job to change that.

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