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Jean Sutherland Boggs, pictured in 1963, had ‘a brilliant career,’ directing the aquisitions for a bevy of institutions in Canada and the U.S.

People in the art world often speak of the legacy of Jean Boggs. And walking through some of the most influential art establishments here and in the U.S., you can actually see that legacy.

Ms. Boggs, who died in Ottawa on Aug. 22 at the age of 92, was director of the National Gallery of Canada at a key point in its history, during the 1960s and 70s, when she brought in important works from Degas, van Gogh, Pollock and the Group of Seven. "Her eye, it was piercing. She never acquired a mediocre piece of art for the gallery," says Gyde Shepherd, who worked as a curator with Ms. Boggs at the gallery.

During her decade at the National Gallery, Ms. Boggs utterly transformed it. In many ways, she finished the job in the 1980s when she returned to Ottawa to lead in the design and construction of a new National Gallery building, as well as one for the National Museum of Man (now called the Canadian Museum of History).

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In her long and varied career she had leadership roles at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While on staff and as a freelance curator, she put together large retrospectives of Degas and Picasso that travelled the world and are still considered the definitive showings for those artists.

She held positions at a number of U.S. universities, including Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis.

Canadians knew her name – and voice – during the 1960s, as she appeared on the CBC radio series Listening to Pictures, in which she talked about Michelangelo, Vermeer and de Kooning.

"She was a whirlwind," Mr. Shepherd recalls. "She drove us, and we followed her and supported her." She had a unique ability to jump between worlds: She charmed politicians (Pierre Trudeau, who knew her in passing while he was at Harvard and she at Radcliffe, treated her with deference), was a well-respected academic and both ran and built galleries. "She was very rare. Few can bridge academia and museum and gallery work as she did," Mr. Shepherd says.

"She had a brilliant career. Arguably perhaps the most brilliant career of anyone in our field," says Marc Mayer, the National Gallery's current director and chief executive.

A foodie who often hosted dinner parties for her staff and big name politicians and artists (her favourite delicacy was gravlax, a Nordic cured salmon dish), Ms. Boggs had a wicked sense of humour. But behind her high-profile career was a very private woman who was almost shy. She passed up chances to marry, to preserve her career and she even had a talent, secretly, as an artist herself.

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Grace Jean Sutherland Boggs was born in Negritos, Peru, on June 11, 1922. Her parents, Oliver Desmond and Humia Marguerite (née Sutherland), were both Canadians and met while working for International Petroleum – he as a geologist and she as a schoolteacher. Eldest child Jean moved back to Canada first to attend Alma College, as it was near her maternal grandparents' home in Sarnia. The entire family, including her brother James, the middle child, and Margaret, the youngest, ended up in Cobourg, Ont., where Jean finished high school. It was during those years that their mother – herself a lover of art – set up her eldest daughter in a studio in a building beside the barn on the family property and hired a private art teacher.

But after Ms. Boggs began studying fine art at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, she declared herself not good enough to be an artist. Around that time, she travelled to Europe with her sister, who saw Ms. Boggs's sketchbook from the trip. "They were good," recalls Margaret Ripley. (Some of Ms. Boggs's paintings still exist, but the artist made their owners swear never to show them.)

By 1953, she had completed her masters and PhD at Radcliffe College – doing her thesis on Degas – and worked in a series of jobs at U.S. universities. In 1962, she was hired as curator at the Art Gallery of Toronto. There, she worked on large shows on Delacroix, Picasso and Canaletto, many of which travelled. Wrote Mr. Shepherd in a piece outlining her accomplishments: "The quality and organizational complexity of this adventurous trio of successive retrospectives … represented a milestone in the development of Canadian museums and galleries, of their programmes and of their curatorship."

Ms. Boggs then left for Washington University in St. Louis, and was one of the few tenured female professors in the U.S. at the time. In 1966, she was named director of the National Gallery, charged with creating the fine arts pavilion, exhibition and catalogue for Expo 67, the world's fair in Montreal in 1967.

After that task was complete, she set to modernizing and growing the gallery. She expanded the gallery space in the Lorne Building, its home at the time, moving offices into nearby buildings. She hired staff and set about making acquisitions. She brought in top-notch Canadian and European works to expand the gallery's already strong collection.

Up to that point, the gallery did not show American art, the argument being that patrons could see such works just a few hours away in New York and Chicago. Ms. Boggs eloquently blew away that argument and set to acquiring works by rising stars Pollock, Rosenquist, Segal and others. The gallery had no photography, so she started a collection.

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"I can't imagine what it took to get some of this work into the collection," says Mr. Mayer, who not only suspects she was an extremely gifted negotiator, but notes that a lot of the American pop art she collected is now worth a fortune.

Meanwhile, she and her team began putting together exhibitions of a calibre not seen before in Canada. "They were scholarly. These shows broke new ground, made new contributions to knowledge, not just recycling of old information," recalls Charlie Hill, formerly the curator of Canadian art for the gallery, who started there in 1967 as a summer student.

But Ms. Boggs's autonomy in her role was limited, as she had to report to the National Museums Corporation of Canada. In 1977, she resigned her post. "A lot of decisions were out of her control. She was always fighting for autonomy. I think she felt she had to get out," Mr. Hill says.

She then spent three years at Harvard, followed by an appointment as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making her the first woman to head a major U.S. gallery.

But Ottawa called again, this time with a gig like no other: Pierre Trudeau announced the formation of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation and Ms. Boggs was offered the job of chair and CEO and charged with erecting two major buildings in the Ottawa area. "She was vindicated," Mr. Shepherd says of her return to Ottawa, finally in a position of true power.

Her mark on these two institutions remains today. As a curator herself, she knew instinctively what galleries really needed, and she consulted constantly with staff during the process. Most important, she expanded the conservation lab at the National Gallery.

Ms. Boggs left Ottawa in 1985 (the galleries finally opened in 1988 and 1989) and quickly moved on to other high-profile projects. Most notably, she put together highly lauded retrospectives on Degas and Picasso. She then moved to various universities around the world, including Carleton, in Ottawa, Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Ms. Boggs spent her later years in Montreal. By the end of her career, she had been awarded 17 honorary degrees, and had been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Companion of the Order of Canada. She never married. "It wasn't because she wasn't chased, my goodness," says Ms. Ripley, who recalls her sister nearly heading to the altar as many as three times, but "chickening out."

"She'd have had to give up too much of her liberty."

Instead, Ms. Boggs devoted her life to being a loyal sister (who offered to take in Ms. Ripley and her two children at a time when her brother-in-law was gravely ill), a generous leader and a visionary in her field. Says Mr. Mayer of her impact on art in North America: "She's a legend."

Jean Boggs leaves her sister and four nieces and nephews.

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