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(DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail)
(DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Shirley Thomson lived a life in and of the arts Add to ...

Back when Canada had a serious public broadcaster, the CBC offered a nightly public-affairs program, The Journal, with the redoubtable Barbara Frum doing the interviews.

Ms. Frum could be tough, and one night she was interviewing Shirley Thomson, then head of the National Art Gallery.

A ruckus had erupted in Parliament because some leather-lunged Progressive Conservatives were outraged Ms. Thomson had spent $1.8-million, more than half the gallery's acquisition budget, to buy Barnett Newman's modernist painting, Voice of Fire.

After a series of questions about the kerfuffle, Ms. Frum posed the closer: Ms. Thomson, knowing what you now do about the controversy, would you hesitate before making the purchase?

To which, Shirley replied without a pause: "One never hesitates before a masterpiece."

That was Shirley: direct, passionate about the arts, never at a loss for words. Speaking of loss, however, we lost Shirley late Tuesday, when she died in her sleep a day before she was to undergo a heart operation. She was 80 and looked like she was ready to carry on for years.

If she seemed to have been around the arts world forever, it was because she almost had been, from her time running the McCord Museum in Montreal in the early 1980s, to being head of the National Art Gallery and then the Canada Council, to being chair of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board.

Those were Shirley's titles, responsibilities and duties, and they were all impressive. In her long career, she arguably did as much as anyone to shape arts policy in Canada, especially the visual arts.

So, yes, she spent her life in the public domain, with all the bureaucratic requirements such a life entails. But beyond the titles and duties lay a passion that infected everyone she met for art; for the creative force that gives life to art in all its forms.

It wasn't just that she appreciated, and could critique, the final product of a painting or sculpture or piece of music - she respected deeply the effort and sensitivity that entered into the act of creation. And she reckoned, therefore, that a society should be judged, in part, by how it encouraged, respected and recognized those with this creative force.

That is perhaps why she seemed so curious, supportive and appreciative of art we might call out of the mainstream, or on the cutting edge - art that more conventional minds would wrestle to understand. Although not an artist herself, it was as if she could put herself into the skin of those doing the creating.

Voice of Fire was that kind of cutting-edge work: a large canvas with three coloured stripes, red and blue, resembling a national flag. She saw it for what it was; the yapping Conservatives saw it for what they deplored: something modern, dangerous and expensive.

Shirley was a delight to argue with, because she defended her corner (see Frum interview) with vigour and aplomb but never took offence or lost her sense of humour.

Two of us were privileged to be with her as jurors awarding the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. One hundred and thirty-seven books were submitted. They would thump into our homes in packed boxes every month or so. Shirley got behind with the reading, in part because she took such copious notes about many of the books. She was going to be thorough, but at the rate she was going, she wouldn't get through.

When she finally caught up and we met to compile the short list, the contenders dropped from 10 to six to three. As each of those worthy contenders dropped by the wayside, Shirley literally winced and sighed, as if a terrible wrong were being done to a creator who deserved a better fate. As indeed some of them did.

She sometimes despaired that Canadian governments, reflecting their citizens after all, cared little for the act of artistic creation. She had nothing against private money being donated to the arts, but she believed that art was essentially for the public and should therefore be supported publicly.

She was a generous, caring person whom it was impossible to dislike. She gave compliments shamelessly, but when she did not like something or someone, she let you know. Hers was a life in and of the arts, for which we are all indebted.

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