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Saturday December 29, 2012

A teacher, supporter and friend of the arts

Her time as the Canada Council's head of visual arts was key to fostering today's arts market and gallery scenes

At the end of the 1960s, Canada had talented artists and a growing art market, but few links between the two. It was Suzanne Rivard Le Moyne's genius to see a creative solution to the problem, in the formation of the Canada Council Art Bank.

Rivard Le Moyne, who died Oct. 29 at 84, founded the Art Bank in 1972, during her tenure as the Canada Council's head of visual arts. Her idea was that the Bank would inject cash and credibility into the contemporary Canadian art market by buying significant works by living artists. It would then display the works, and cover some of its own budget, by renting them to federal government departments in need of office decor.

According to Montreal art dealer René Blouin, Rivard Le Moyne's creation was key to fostering the market and contemporary gallery scene that exists today.

"When artists know that their work is desired, purchased and collected, that gives them tremendous courage to pursue this mad project of devoting themselves to the creative process," Blouin says. "The impact of this has been tremendous, on the creators themselves, on the community and on Canadian culture."

Rivard Le Moyne knew the visual arts from several angles - as a painter, teacher and administrator, both at the council and as head of the visual arts department of the University of Ottawa from 1974 to 1986. She was a passionate advocate for visual culture, and had the skill and personal authority to put her ideas into practice.

"She was an imposing, luminous woman," Blouin recalls. "She had an incredible presence."

She also had intimate knowledge of the inner workings and the personalities of the government and the cultural elite. Her husband, the author and journalist Jean Le Moyne, was a speechwriter for Pierre Trudeau, who appointed him to the Senate in 1982. The Le Moynes knew many of the intellectual leaders of the time, some of whom, such as Gérard Pelletier, had come to Ottawa with Trudeau.

But her effectiveness as a cultural leader was rooted in her personal knowledge of art practice and the artist's life. She began her career as a painter, who showed successfully in Montreal and Paris after graduating with a fine arts degree from the School of Fine Arts in her native Quebec City.

"She was a very accomplished painter in the first years of her practice," said Blouin. "Her early work was absolutely delicious."

She was well established as an artist and teacher at Montreal's School of Fine Arts when her husband received the call to join Trudeau, the new Prime Minister, in Ottawa in 1969. A year after moving to the capital, Rivard Le Moyne was appointed to the Canada Council, with no prior experience in cultural administration.

She later said her lack of history in the bureaucracy, and her studio experience, may have helped her to see problems with fresh eyes. The council had gathered a small Canadian collection of visual art before she arrived, but it was her vision - and a bit of luck - that made art purchases an important part of the council's work in the visual arts community.

"She had the Art Bank costed out for $250,000 for the first year," recalls art historian and president of Sotheby's Canada David Silcox, who preceded Rivard Le Moyne at the Council, and whom she asked to chair the first Art Bank selection jury.

Pelletier, who as Secretary of State was responsible for the council, loved the idea, Silcox says. The proposal was sent for funding approval to the Treasury Board, where board secretary Al Johnson, future CBC president and a sympathetic backer of the council, sent the request back.

"Al said, 'No, what you need to do is reconstruct this and make it $1-million a year for five years, or you won't have the time you need to get it going,'" Silcox recalls. "That's how the Art Bank started, and it would have failed without that. It would never have had the presence or scale to fulfill an energetic mandate."

Rivard Le Moyne promoted the council's expanding support of photography, video and film, and its Explorations program, which funded work that couldn't be slotted into the usual categories. She also nurtured the system of artist-run galleries that remain important hubs for visual arts activity and exhibition. Blouin recalled going to visit her when he was involved with one of Montreal's first artist-run spaces.

"She was very receptive to our ideas," Blouin says. "But the grant officer whom we should have addressed with our request for money was not that receptive. And Suzanne scolded him in front of us!"

After four very productive years at the council, and with her husband in recovery from serious illness, Rivard Le Moyne became the first head of visual arts at the University of Ottawa. She hired top-drawer Canadian artists as studio faculty, including Charles Gagnon and Kenneth Lochhead, and quickly made her department one of the country's leading art schools.

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