by Julie Baldassi, Quill & Quire
“I am very hopeful that some day my art will be rediscovered,” wrote Canadian visual artist Kathleen Munn in her notebook in 1974, the year she died. But while art historians have since recognized Munn as an important modernist painter, she remains elusive for most Canadians.
As with many figures in Canadian art history, no authoritative, expansive body of information about Munn exists online. However, the newly established Art Canada Institute, a non-profit research organization based out of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, aims to address this omission with a comprehensive series of online art books. Over the next five years, the institute will publish 40 titles in English and French. The inaugural season, which kicks off in late November, includes peer-reviewed books on Munn, Jack Chambers, Michael Snow, William Notman, Paul-Émile Borduas, and Mungo Martin.
While the project is encyclopedic in nature, the authors (who include art historians and curators from across the country) are being asked to produce something more akin to original scholarship than rote fact. At 15,000 words apiece, the books are written in a lively tone for a general audience and address subjective topics such as an artist’s significance. Each title will include more than 40 images of artworks and archival objects, some of which have never before been made public.
Founded in 2012, the institute is the brainchild of Sara Angel, a Trudeau doctoral scholar at U of T and well-known arts journalist. When Angel began researching Ontario painter and filmmaker Jack Chambers, it became apparent that there was a scarcity of easily accessible material available on lesser-known Canadian artists.
Part of the trouble with searching for authoritative writing on artists like Chambers and Munn is that a Google search doesn’t turn up much of the scholarship published in (non-digitized) Canadian art history books, many of which are out of print or hard to find. “There was lots on Tom Thompson, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven,” says Angel. “Jack Chambers would be considered one of Canada’s most important painters, and yet, if you Google him, you’re going to find a very poor Wikipedia entry and hardly any of his works.”
The idea for an institute mandated to promote Canadian art history quickly gained traction. For the art-book series, Angel has amassed a team including commissioning editor Anna Hudson (a professor at York University and former Art Gallery of Ontario associate curator) and editorial director Meg Taylor (an academic coordinator at Ryerson University’s publishing program). The institute – funded by sponsors including the Bank of Montreal, the Hal Jackman Foundation, the McLean Foundation, and the investment firm Gluskin Sheff and Associates – will roll out several major projects in the coming years, including exhibitions, a lecture series, and new secondary school curriculum.
The books can be downloaded to mobile devices, tablets, and computers, but Angel also envisioned a “microsite” to host the content on the Web in a browsable format. While search-engine optimization can be useful for discovering content online, the tool does not apply to ebooks. Angel conceived of a digital infrastructure with that problem in mind.
“We wanted people to be able to enter into a search engine terms like ‘Canadian women artist 1920s’ and come up with an artist like Kathleen Munn,” she says. “Our intention was always to be born digital. We were thinking about how to make Canadian art history reach the broadest possible audience. In fact, now print publication is limiting.”
With any luck, that approach will help artists like Munn be rediscovered by a new generation of art lovers.