It’s a commonly held notion that a Canadian can be easily identified by the end-of-sentence “eh?” However, true connoisseurs of all things Canadian know that what separates citizens of the north from the south, the true identifier, is that when naming someone notable, the name is followed by a knowing nod and the enthusiastic comment “Canadian!”—as in, Peter Jennings (Canadian!), Brendan Frazier (Canadian!), or Eugene Levy (Canadian!). The impulse to not only include Canadian cultural contributions in the broader American context, but to distinguish them, is deeply ingrained.
For this reason I thought it important, when planning Mining Modern Museum Education, an upcoming panel discussion on four seminal figures in early- to mid-twentieth-century museum education, to consider the significant contributions of my fellow Canadian Arthur Lismer. An iconic Canadian artist of the modern era (Group of Seven), Lismer was also an influential museum educator whose work in this field merits investigation.
For those in need of a brush-up on culture north of the 49th parallel, here is a brief synopsis by Kelly McKinley, the Richard and Elizabeth Currie Director of Education and Public Programming at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who will discuss Lismer at MoMA (along with presentations about educators Victor D’Amico, Katharine Kuh and Hilla Rebay), on Friday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m.
A Thoroughly Modern Art Educator: Arthur Lismer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 1927–38
Arthur Lismer is best known as one of the founding members of the Group of Seven—the group mythologized as Canada’s first national school of art. Outside of Canada, he is more likely known, if at all, as a pioneering art educator—the work to which, ironically, he devoted the majority of his professional life.
Lismer wrote that the purpose of art was not the decoration of life, but life itself. He decried the state of art education as not serving the needs of modern society by being too technical and skills-based, focusing on training the hand and the eye to the exclusion of the mind and of a more holistic view of art as a form of vision and understanding. In his lectures and writings, he explored the role of art in human development and growth and its importance in adapting to change. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Lismer made the case for artists as interpreters of change, and for art as an antidote to a materialistic world. His views on art and art education are also echoed in his democratic social agenda for the public art museum—which he envisioned as a community center, open and at the service of people of all ages and from all walks of life.
In 1927 Arthur Lismer was hired to establish art education programs at the Art Gallery of Toronto (today the Art Gallery of Ontario). His philosophy and approach cannot be attributed to one particular individual or school of thought; rather he borrowed liberally and creatively from across many (Dewey, American Progressive Education, Dana, D’Amico, Ruskin). His work was also informed by a rich and varied professional life as an artist, art instructor, lecturer, graphic artist, and teacher trainer. The result of his eleven-year tenure in Toronto was a groundbreaking program and pioneering vision, not just for the city and the country, but for the world—a program and vision that brought invitations to speak, consult, and work from across Canada, and from the U.S., South Africa, Italy, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
The June 25 presentation will look specifically at Arthur Lismer’s tenure at the Art Gallery of Ontario to make the case for his place in the history of art museum education as a thoroughly modern art educator.