The Atlantic Canadian art world has welcomed a long-time supporter back into the community this year. Tom Smart, a curator and executive known for his modern views and inclusive, of-the-moment business style, has returned as CEO of Beaverbrook Art Gallery 21 years after leaving the gallery to follow opportunities as chief curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, director of the Frick in Pittsburgh, PA, CEO of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and, most recently, as chief curator at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives in Brampton, Ont. Robert Simmonds magazine spoke to Smart this summer about his return to New Brunswick and what he has in store for Beaverbrook and the art community at large.
The first 10 years of your career were spent at Beaverbrook. What is it about the gallery and community that drew you home again?
I like to say that in 1997 I left the gallery and I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for the last 20 years waiting to come back home. (Beaverbrook has) been very good to me in my career and I got a great start back in 1989 with a very dynamic team who wanted to expand the scope and programming of the gallery … We built the collection and soon the regional scope of the gallery started to expand and the gallery grew in different and broader ways. That was a really exciting time, so this definitely feels like a homecoming. I’m really happy to be back and looking forward to building the institution as much as I can in the time that I’ll be here.
Artists from the East Coast have long captivated you. You wrote critical biographies and books on artists like Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall, Mary Pratt and Fred Ross. What compels you most about their body of work?
Put simply, the quality of the work coming out of Atlantic Canada is just extraordinary. The creative expression of Mary Pratt, of Suzanne Hill and Alex Colville is stunning. In my work, I’ve tried to interpret these great artists who were working out here in ways that made their art more accessible to people who wanted to see it and understand it in a deeper way.
A welcome theme in modern discourse these days is the need for inclusion and diversity programming; you’ve been an outspoken advocate for diverse artists and galleries in the past, so what role do you expect Beaverbrook to play in this conversation?
One of the things I want to do is incorporate some of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (of Canada). I also want to present the work of the living artists and historical artists from the First Nations community and show the resonance, depth and the richness of meaning that can be gleaned from the work of the First Nations.
As a curator, how do you juggle local, regional and international audience demands while staying true to your mandate to be inclusive and representative of diverse communities?
I ask myself, ‘How do I make this institution relevant?’ It’s the role of curators and public educators and the art gallery staff to find out what that is through engaging with communities and working with them to determine the new model; how we can work with communities so they have a space to explore their own histories and the history of the region. One of the ways to do that is to work with First Nations who have been living on the beautiful banks of the Saint John River for thousands of years. And there are enormous insights that can be translated into partnerships and programs that resonate with the audience and still magnificently highlight the land, the river and history and all of its dimensions.
Drawing on your experiences in Winnipeg, Pittsburgh and Toronto, where do you see the gallery in 10 years?
Right at the moment, the gallery has had a period of rapid and trans-formative growth and that’s a great thing. Its new pavilion has just opened last fall and with it there are many more opportunities for programming, exhibitions, public engagement and for art education … That’s broadened our mandate and what we need underneath that is a robust foundation and business model. So, what I’d like to do in the short term is find that business model that respects the original mandate of the gallery as it was established in 1959 and to show how that original mandate is really vibrant and dynamic in the present. There’s a way the gallery can reflect the diversity of the community, the wide range of audiences and the various kinds of artistic production and creativity in the region that’s become so eclectic and multi-faceted. I want to create a healthy institution in which there’s extraordinary public engagement, diversity and inclusion is built right into the model and it becomes a real driver for creativity and tourism.
Is the role of galleries evolving or keeping pace with consumer expectations and the yearning for an experience?
There are a lot of challenges, but a way to meet the challenges head on is to create programming that is engaging to as broad a diverse audience as possible and to build inclusion right into it as you’re designing the programs. People come to art galleries to see art, but what they really want is something interesting — they want to have an experience that is intellectual, creative and personal and when they leave the art gallery they like to be different, they want to see the world differently. And so, as curators and educators and public programmers and communicators, we must be attuned to ways in which the art can live with all of our new audiences, particularly as society is changing in such dramatic ways.
How do curators find balance between exhibiting important works that speak to the gallery’s mission but also respond to audience appetite for perhaps, a less high-brow experience?
It means juggling different kinds of programs. For instance, Beaverbrook does musical programs and spoken word, dance programs, art programs. It means creating a space in which all forms of creativity can be presented and audiences can come together in different ways through works of art that are meaningful in this day and age.
What about being back in the community are you most looking forward to?
I got a bicycle for Father’s Day, so I’ll be riding my bike to the gallery every day. I used to have a two-hour commute each way to the gallery in Toronto, so the idea of being able to ride a bike on the bike path is really quite exotic and I’m looking forward to that a lot.
- The Beaverbrook Art Gallery was founded by Lord Beaverbrook in 1959.
- Today the gallery is known internationally for its collection of Atlantic Canadian, Canadian, British and international works of art.
- It is the largest art gallery in the Atlantic region.
- Beaverbrook collections are divided into four parts: British Collection, the Canadian Collection, the International Collection and the New Brunswick Collection
- The Frame-Up, a new young adult book by Fredericton author Wendy McLeod MacKnight, is centred around the gallery and imagines the works of art coming to life while visitors aren't looking.
- Season 1, Episode 7 of The Crown explores the making of a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. The original sketches, done by artist Graham Sutherland, are part of the Beaverbrook collection.