In 1992, within the glossy, highbrow pages of Canadian Art magazine, Dennis Reid, historian, author and a highly respected curator was reported to possess “a gracious eye.” Author of the phrase, Sarah Milroy, now chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., says it referred to Mr. Reid’s courtly manner of discussing art and weighing things. “There was always something so even-handed and respectful about the way he approached works of art. He met each piece on its own terms and always showed deep respect for what artists do,” Ms. Milroy said. Mr. Reid died of heart failure at age 80 on April 27 at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto.
Over a lifetime devoted to understanding and championing Canadian art, Mr. Reid was instrumental in bringing it to the forefront of the country’s collective consciousness. He amassed and arranged prestigious permanent collections and touring exhibitions for the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in Toronto, and the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. He was particularly delighted by the enthusiastic reaction of audiences in China to a one-month tour of Canadian paintings that he organized in 1975. During the tour he absorbed a lot of information about Chinese culture and became a diehard fan of the country’s cuisine. Back in Toronto he could be found dining daily, without fail, at a Chinese restaurant nearby the Kensington Market area, where he lived for many years with his wife, Alison Reid (a.k.a. Kog), and daughters, Jessica and Naomi. The couple eventually lived apart but remained friends.
Any living space occupied by Mr. Reid was guaranteed to be jammed floor-to-ceiling with books, including those written by him. He wrote A Concise History of Canadian Painting, which was published in 1973, and two subsequent updated editions that altogether sold more than 60,000 copies.
“Dennis had a steel-trap knowledge of Canadian art, of the comings and goings of artists, of their travels, their key dates, the ups and downs of their lives, who they were in contact with, that kind of old-fashioned scholarship,” Ms. Milroy said. “If the knowledge wasn’t at his fingertips he knew where to find it.”
With a vision that saw beyond brush strokes of oil on canvas and carvings of soapstone, Mr. Reid sought detailed stories of individuals within the larger context of their time in history. He was a man for whom art lived and breathed as surely as the person who created it. His passion for bringing recognition to Canadian artists led to his induction as a member of the Order of Canada in 1998. For the same efforts he was acknowledged with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. His career, however, was not without a dismissal that caused a ripple of shock in the art world.
Dennis Richard Reid was born on Jan. 3, 1943, in Hamilton. He and his younger sister, Gloria, were raised in a blue-collar environment in nearby Burlington, Ont., with a homemaker mother Letitia (Lettie), who was skilled in drawing with charcoal and painting with oil. Dennis’s father, Walter, supported the family with a paycheque from his job as a salesman at Westinghouse. Young Dennis was a dedicated Boy Scout, then Eagle Scout, who loved searching for arrowheads during the family’s many camping expeditions into the wilds of Algonquin Park. Many years later he would see happy memories of those days reflected back to him in valuable landscapes that he exhibited and took care of in his role as curator.
In 1958, the family moved to Oshawa, where Dennis, a tall, handsome, somewhat shy student finished high school. He was keen on becoming an archeologist, and intended to enroll in a University of Toronto program called art and archeology but the program changed its name and focus to fine art. Archeology’s loss became Canadian art’s gain. When he wasn’t studying, Dennis and another friend helped their classmate and buddy Stan Bevington to develop Coach House Press from an idea to a functioning independent publishing house.
Coach House still thrives today and is noteworthy for publishing the early works of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and others. Mr. Reid’s work there foreshadowed the role that he would later play in getting recognition for visual artists.
He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1967 with a master’s degree, the highest credential for art history then available.
Newly married to Alison, a classmate and one of the artsy gang he chummed around with, he was hired as an assistant curator at the National Gallery of Canada. At the time, the gallery was preparing for a 1970 exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Group of Seven. During a television interview, Mr. Reid said he was fortunate that Jean Boggs, the gallery’s director, was fed-up with hearing about the collective. She hired Mr. Reid, a newly minted scholar, to assume the burden of dealing with their works so she wouldn’t have to.
The catalogue he produced, with intense research and minute detail, remains an essential record of scholarship about the painters. Mr. Reid was subsequently appointed curator of Post-Confederation Canadian Art. He originated group and solo shows at the National Gallery until 1979 when he joined the AGO as curator of Canadian Art. One memorable exhibition he curated in 1984 was From the Four Quarters: Native and European Art in Ontario 5000 BC to 1867 AD. The show brought attention to Indigenous cultures that had been ignored in the settler story of Canadian art. Ms. Milroy called it “a real breakthrough. Today such juxtapositions are commonplace in museum installations but it was certainly the first show of its kind in Canada and possibly North America,” she said.
Mr. Reid’s last appointment at the AGO was chief curator of research, a task at which he excelled. “He spent a lot of time in our archives going through pieces of paper. He didn’t trust computers or the internet and preferred to write things out by hand,” said Jim Shedden, curator of special projects and director of publishing at the AGO. “He developed relationships with living artists like Michael Snow, and his wife, Joyce Wieland, [and] was particularly good at arguing for more gallery space for them.” The Michael Snow Project (1994) involved four curators each undertaking an aspect of Mr. Snow’s legacy. “Snow lived a long time [from 1928 to 2023] and was involved with so many creative endeavors, from music to experimental film, that the project was an enormous undertaking. Anyone else might’ve parked themself in one avenue of Snow’s work and stayed there but not Dennis. We certainly haven’t had such an ambitious show about a living artist before or since,” Mr. Sneddon said.
While still at the AGO, Mr. Reid continued to lecture on art history at the University of Toronto and supervise PhD students. It was a useful fallback position for him when, without warning, he was required to resign from the gallery. Many in the art scene were aghast. The reason for his departure was never made public.
After leaving the AGO, Mr. Reid returned quietly to teaching and writing; his place in the annals of Canadian art history assured.
“Something I absorbed from Dennis is that when you’re responsible for works of art as the curator, you want to give them a good life. You want to find them good roommates on the wall that will inspire conversations. You want them to go out when there are opportunities for them to travel and be on display with other paintings and sculptures in meaningful ways. You’re responsible for their well-being as much as any living thing. Dennis had that kind of relationship with the works of art in his care,” Ms. Milroy said. “He was such a remarkable person.”
Mr. Reid leaves his wife, Alison; daughters, Jessica and Naomi Reid; grandchildren, Sophie Montpellier-Reid and Alex Favro; and sister, Gloria Reid.