In 2020, the City of Owen Sound welcomed Aidan Ware as Director and Chief Curator of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery. For well over a year, the pandemic prevented a proper celebration.  Finally, at a sold-out gala last week, Ms. Ware was able to make her "welcoming remarks", which are excerpted here.

"It’s important that we pause for a moment. To consider how the pandemic has affected us. I have found, probably like many of you, that it’s been both a communal and yet a divisive experience. In some ways it has compelled us towards a set of extremes where we feel obliged to choose between ideologic sides, to classify what is necessary and not necessary, to define what is essential verses what is desired. I would be doing a disservice to say that art has not been caught in this liminal philosophical state before. Perhaps to some degree it has always existed there, but it seems to me, that this time period in our history has put a magnifying glass over the issue. I am here today to say that I have spent my entire working career in art and over that time, I have seen every spectrum of emotion. I’ve seen people cry, witnessed others angry, I’ve heard laughter, seen fear, felt hope. Art matters. It matters because it takes on the biggest conversations of our lifetimes – whether that’s oppression, genocide, racism, sexism, the environment, aging, or the pandemic. Art is personal. It’s social. It’s political. It’s human. And most of all, it’s essential.

Let’s take a little journey through art history. 17,000 years ago the first narrative paintings were rendered on the wall of the Lascaux caves in the French countryside. The caves contain approximately 6,000 figures including animals, human figures, and abstract signs. It’s believed that these paintings represent rituals and knowledge to support prosperous hunting endeavors. It’s hard to imagine a time that long ago in human history, but what this tells us is that for almost as long as humans have been in the world, so has art. Art was and continues to be the most complex and enduring expression of culture that humans have. Without art, human civilization would not have developed. The wheel would never have been invented.

We journey forward in time to about 1510 when some guy named in Italy named Leonardo DaVinci started making anatomical drawings. His study of a foetus curled up in a womb arguably made a bigger impact on the world than the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper combined. These drawings - modelled from real life dissections, were an illegal practice for non-physicians at the time but Leonardo chose to challenge that moral code and indeed the artistic conventions. His discoveries and methods, made through commitment to his artistic practice, went on to change the way that scientists, physicians, and artists studied the human body forever.

Fast forward in time again – it’s 1937 and Pablo Picasso has just been asked by the Spanish Republican government to create a large mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World's Fair. He’s tinkering around with his usual subject matter (the artist’s studio) when he hears the terrible news. Following the 26 April 1937 bombing of Guernica, a town in northern Spain which was bombed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists, he became so outraged and disgusted by the atrocity that he chose to render it as his subject matter. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and then at other venues around the world. This unprecedentedly popular artwork toured as part of the exhibition and was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief and ultimately attracted critical international attention to the Spanish Civil War. Today it is regarded as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history.

Then there’s another artist I have to mention. A Canadian guy who grew up in Leith, not far from Owen Sound, in family of farmers. Farming life didn’t suit him so he went on to live in Toronto, work in a few places, and meet and befriend fellows by the names of J. E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer. On advice from MacDonald he began sketching nature scenes in Algonquin Park. Enraptured with the act, he began visiting frequently and painting. Soon his painting started to become radicalized with thicker pledges of paint and sweeping lines as though his paint brush was moved by the same west wind that bent the pines and turned so painterly across his panels. It was unlike anything else, this distillation of the essence of Canadian landscape. It was breathtaking, spiritual, and a yet shock all at once. The way he broke traditions, letting go of tight symmetries and aging aesthetics. He died before he could ever see the impact of his art. But we know it. The artist in question, you have no doubt, was Tom Thomson. And his work went on to help define Canadian identity and forever change the course of Canadian art history. There is no greater giant in our national catalogue, no bigger mystery, no bigger loss when he elusively slipped away from us forever. It’s captivated generations, and it continues to prove, that art matters because it defines us, it defines our culture, and it shows us that thinking and seeing differently is what enables humans to adapt and survive.

So, my point in taking this little, albeit brief, journey through art history, is to remind us all that artworks throughout time have revolutionised the way we think about politics, social issues, and even art itself.

The Tom Thomson Art Gallery has an important role to play in the life of our community, province, and nation. We curate exhibitions and house an incredible collection of art works that help to tell the story of our times. The pandemic may have presented challenge, but I believe that within challenge there is always opportunity. For our team, it was an unexpected opportunity to reflect on where the organization had been and where we wanted to go. Using the time to our advantage, we developed a new Strategic Plan and a new Vision – to be an open landscape for exploring art. Moving forward, we are fundamentally committed to being open, accessible, welcoming, and innovative. We are prioritizing regional artists, the work of Truth and Reconciliation, and the environment. As we look towards our 55th anniversary next year, we are more than ready to write the next chapter for the TOM.

I want to share some final reflections. At a recent artist talk by Mark Crofton Bell, whose work is featured in the Facing It exhibition, a visitor remarked that it was “brave” for us to show those images of his mother especially in a society that dwells on youth and idealized imagery. They made the observation that while we witness his mother disappearing in both devastating physical and psychological ways, we also come to see how important it was that she was actually yet made visible, and that the topic of aging and long term care, was also made visible. I have been thinking on this for a while and it’s really settled within me - that’s what I believe art does, it makes things visible. Brings them to the surface where we can talk about them. In the big scheme of life, we all just swimming together. Look around this room - you see in Kristine Moran’s exhibition, we are here, struggling to overcome the waves, and to stay ahead of the unknown we are going to need to work together if we are going to reach a better place.

I know we will get there for the TOM."




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