Saturday, December 29, 2012
Suzzane Rivard Le Moyne, the Passing of an Art Visionary
When an institution becomes fundamental to a culture's creative well-being, we easily forget the vision and determination needed to create it. The people responsible for the extraordinary support the arts enjoy today often remain hidden from view, and many prefer to let their achievements speak for themselves. Especially if, like Suzanne Rivard Le Moyne, you deeply believe this should be so.
Our present art world owes much of its vitality and strength to this singular individual – a rare combination of artist and administrator, visionary and pragmatist. The achievements of Suzanne Rivard Le Moyne stretch from coast to coast and cover more than 50 years. From the creation of the Canada Council's Art Bank, to new programs for emerging art forms, to innovative university programs, Rivard Le Moyne has touched all of our visual culture. As Victoria Henry, current Art Bank Director, says, “everything she did made a difference.”
All of these remarkable accomplishments have a very particular source: Rivard Le Moyne is first and foremost an artist. Her strength and conviction, which have guided her as teacher, innovator and administrator, spring from the understanding and intelligence of the artist.
Suzanne Rivard was born in Quebec City. She received her fine arts diploma from the École des beaux-arts in Quebec. In many ways she was going against the grain of her milieu. She was a very young artist when she began teaching there and, a few years later, at the École des beaux-arts in Montreal. During that period she spent summers in Europe and a very productive two years in Paris, unusual for a young single woman at that time. Her painting career took off, and she exhibited regularly in Montreal and Paris, winning prizes and awards. She was a passionate teacher, and in her 25 years of teaching she enriched the lives of more than one generation of artists: “I have always lived and worked with, and among, artists. As a studio professor, I had the privilege to have young students such as Yves Gaucher, Jacques Hurtubise, Roland Poulin, Pierre Ayot and several others who later became very well-known.”1 Roland Poulin would later comment: “She stood out from the other teachers. She was the first woman I met who engaged with me intellectually.… It was very exciting to be in her class; she was strong, articulate and well-informed, and always ready to debate ideas.”
Rivard Le Moyne might have comfortably remained an artist and professor, but a different path presented itself. In 1969, her husband, the late writer Jean Le Moyne, was asked by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to join him as adviser and speechwriter. Rivard Le Moyne left her productive studio in Montreal for a new, unknown life in Ottawa. She was soon asked to bring her experience of the arts to the Department of the Secretary of State, where, under André Fortier, she worked on cultural policy and special projects. Shortly after, she moved to the Canada Council to become head of visual arts.
She says of this precipitous move: “Coming to the Council … I had no experience in administration, except for a few months at Secretary of State. I had never sat behind a desk. I was an ‘apprentice administrator.' ”2 But, as Dale McConathy has noted: “She was an artist, and she had a way of asking questions.”3
Rivard Le Moyne says: “That ignorance was both a handicap and an advantage. A handicap because I had to learn quickly…. It was also an advantage: ‘Innocence is bliss,' as Pierre Théberge said with humour when I invented the Art Bank. At best, innocence can give someone a fresh, non-conventional outlook that sometimes experts tend to lose with time. A capacity to analyze and evaluate the ‘usual way of doing things,' to upset them, or propose new, unexpected ones.”4
When she began at the Canada Council, the arts were in a period of expansion and flux. The Council had become the catalyst for this exciting scene, and in her action-packed four years there, Rivard Le Moyne would revolutionize the visual arts section, expanding its role for both artists and public alike.
Rivard Le Moyne knew how diverse the arts had become through the turbulent and stimulating 1960s. Aware of the needs of new practices, she instigated new programs for film, video and photography, which until then had been obliged to compete with the more established disciplines. This was to nourish flourishing, internationally-acclaimed activity in these media. Having come through the system as a young artist, she also knew that there were few venues for younger artists to exhibit work, especially for the rapidly growing areas of installation and performance art. Her ingenious solution was the establishment of a system of artist-run centres, the parallel galleries so familiar to us now. Her own experiences as an artist in France led her to seek recognition abroad for Canadian artists: she conceived and organized Canada Trajectories 73, a major exhibition of Canadian artists in Paris.
“But the best was yet to come,” according to Tibor Egervari, current Chair of the Visual Arts Department at the University of Ottawa.5 And that was the Canada Council Art Bank, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on February 5, 2002. This extraordinary institution was the invention of Rivard Le Moyne. Timothy Porteous, Associate Director of the Council at the time, says it was “first of all, a feat of imagination, since no model for it existed. It was a test of ingenuity, since it required the approval of the Treasury Board, not usually known as patrons of the arts. It also called on Rivard Le Moyne's determination in overcoming an array of skeptics, diplomacy in finding allies in the public service, and sound judgment in resolving sensitive policy issues.”6 Quite a feat for an ‘apprentice administrator.'
Rivard Le Moyne called her idea “un reservoir” for art. She had been intrigued by the enthusiasm among Council staff for its own collection (put together by her predecessor, David Silcox), and saw the possibility of expanding this experience throughout the government, as well as other public places. She conceived a system built on purchases from Canadian artists and financed from rentals to government offices across the country. With her characteristic directness and enthusiasm, she “quickly learned that you had to take bureaucrats by surprise.” She asked for a few hundred thousand dollars. Al Johnson, then Secretary of the Treasury Board and a long-time collector of Canadian art, was convinced. The money was granted – an astonishing $5 million over five years – and the Art Bank was born.
The Art Bank would become the country's largest collection of contemporary Canadian art – some 18,000 works in various disciplines by almost 3,000 artists, with over a third currently on loan. The Art Bank would change the relationship of art and artist to the public and to government. It has sparked much interest. Rivard Le Moyne was invited to address a U.S. Senate Committee on the idea, and today various versions exist in countries as far-flung as Australia, Norway, Singapore and Japan. And despite attempts to close it in a period of government cutbacks, the Art Bank has refused to die. The attempt raised such opposition that the Art Bank was reinstated – testimony to its enduring importance and to the vision of its inventor.
Rivard Le Moyne had always shied away from “the distortion that comes with the power thing. I wasn't interested in having such a high profile.” She was concerned also about the effect of her frequent travel on the uneven health of her husband. Together, these factors were enough to make her accept another challenge: the chairmanship of the emerging art department at the University of Ottawa.
The Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa was evolving from a mix of music, theatre and visual arts when Rivard Le Moyne took over in 1974. Soon she would head a single visual arts department, her ingenuity put to work creating a new model for arts education. She would attract the same high caliber of people as at Council, including such fine artists and art historians as Charles Gagnon, Kenneth Lochhead and Philip Fry, among many others, as well as a stellar array of visitors. With them she developed an innovative, interdisciplinary program, creating “an environment where we can foster searching, creative, questioning minds.” It became one of the most highly regarded programs in the country.
Throughout her entire career, Rivard Le Moyne served with great effectiveness on numerous boards, committees and juries, and was invited to speak at many cultural conferences. As an artist, she received many honours and awards. As a teacher, she gained the life-long respect and affection of a generation of artists. As an administrator, she brought the same passion and talent to the creation of new institutions. In all of her successes, notes Tibor Egervari, we see “her boundless love of the discipline, and a rare intelligence in action.”7
Rivard Le Moyne retired from teaching in 1986 to return to her origins, the studio. She approached this return, after a long absence, with the same creative spirit that marked all her endeavours. It is a remarkable circle. The artist was never far away, a guiding presence in all she would undertake. “My experience at the Canada Council and the University of Ottawa was fantastic, at times difficult, often at the cost of my own work as a painter, but always very enriching. Teamwork with wonderful people: artists, students, colleagues and staff, people from every part of our country. I owe them a lot.”8
Characteristically modest, and revealing words from the visionary who so influenced how we live with the arts today: “The artists came first.”
Leslie Reid is an artist and Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa, where she has also served as Chair.
Text from: Canada Council for the Arts
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