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Remembering William Withrow

January 9th, 2018

It is with great sorrow that the AGO community mourns the loss of William “Bill” Withrow, who passed away on January 7, 2018, at the age of 91. A beloved member of the AGO community, Bill was Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1961 to 1991.

“Bill Withrow was director for more years than the total tenure of all following directors combined. He left an indelible mark on the AGO. We are grateful for the many years Bill spent with the AGO and our hearts go out to Bill’s family and the art community about this tremendous loss,” said Stephan Jost, the AGO’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO.

William J. Withrow was born in Toronto on September 30, 1926, to Wilfred and Evelyn Gertrude Withrow. Bill’s relationship to the AGO began early. At age 7, he enrolled in a Saturday morning class at the Gallery, led by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer. Wilfred Withrow was a successful artist and Bill, following his father’s footsteps, won first prize at the Paris International Art Exhibition at age 10.

After serving in the Canadian Army, Bill attended the University of Toronto and worked as a Gallery tour guide at $1 a tour. Throughout the 1950s, he worked as a high school art teacher. On January 1, 1961, Bill succeeded Martin Baldwin as Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario (known then as the Art Gallery of Toronto.)

As Director, Bill led an extraordinary period of growth at the Gallery – both for the building and the Collection. When he started at the Gallery, he was just 35 years old and running an organization with 34 full-time staff, 3,400 works in the Collection, and an annual operating budget of $235,000. After 25 years, the AGO’s full-time staff grew to 206, the Collection to 10,700 pieces, and the budget to $12 million.

Bill spearheaded a $25 million expansion of the building (Stage I, which opened in 1974, and Stage II, which opened in 1977), during which the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavilion, the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre and the Canadian Wing were built – renovations to accommodate the Zacks and Moore collections, which the AGO acquired under his watch. In the early 1960s, working closely with the Women’s Committee, Bill was instrumental in acquiring American Abstract Expressionist works by artists such as Motherwell, Kline, Hofmann, Diebenkorn, and Rothko.

During his tenure, Bill also brought many important exhibitions to the Gallery, including Picasso and Man, Turner and the Sublime, Mondrian, The Mystic North, Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, Gauguin to Moore, and The Treasures of Tutankhamen.

“The AGO wouldn’t be what it is today without Bill’s remarkable commitment, evident ambition and love of art, expressed over many caring years. He drew beautiful lines between, art, artist, the built space and audience, and created an AGO of the spirit that changed the lives of many. Bill was a man of elegance, grace and good judgment and helped to create a generation of arts professionals in Canada through his example. I was honoured to benefit from his mentorship and, with so many others, salute with feeling his life of purpose,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, former Director, and CEO of the AGO.

“Bill Withrow was wise, astute and self-effacing. These qualities enabled him to lead the AGO through 30 years of unprecedented growth and change. He inherited a small municipal gallery, negotiated its transfer to the province, dramatically increased its collection and its footprint, and raised its profile from the regional to the international level. He encouraged me to follow in his footsteps, arranging an internship at The British Museum, encouraging me to do a PhD at The Courtauld, and sending me to the Getty’s Museum Management Institute. I owe much of my career success to Bill’s early nurturing. I remember him as one of the kindest, most thoughtful and charming directors I have ever known,” said Katharine Lochnan, Senior Curator Emeritus of the AGO.

“Mr. Withrow was a man of such elegant bearing that for 20 years I found it difficult to call him simply ‘Bill.’ To mark my 20th anniversary at the Gallery, he offered a choice: a luncheon at The University Club, or a Timex watch (knowing I already had a perfectly good one) – either way, I had to lose the ‘Mr.’ With his many perceptive and clever ways, he knew how to create win-win situations, not only with staff but for the expanding AGO. Naturally, I chose the lunch with the ever-elegant and memorable ‘Bill.’ His memory will continue to live on at the AGO, both through his remarkable contributions and in the hearts and minds of the community who benefited so much from him,” said Maia Sutnik, Curator Emeritus, Photography, AGO.

A celebration of life will be held in Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Sunday, April 8 at 6 pm. Open to the public. Please note that rest of the Gallery will be closed during that time.

Bill Withrow in front of the Art Gallery of Toronto, before becoming the Art Gallery of Ontario, November 1965.

Tree Planting Ceremony to launch construction for Stage II of the AGO’s expansion program, October 21, 1975. From  l to r: William F. McLean, President, Canada Packers; Robert Welch, Minister of Culture and Recreation; Marvin Gelber, President of the Board of Trustees, AGO; William J. Withrow, Director, AGO; George Ignatieff, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, National Museums of Canada. Ray Erickson Photography, copyright Bethesda productions Limited

Bill Withrow (left) with sculptor Henry Moore (middle) and Mr. S.J. Zacks (right) with work Warrior with Shield, December 4, 1967

Bill Withrow at his 25th anniversary party, May 10, 1985

Bill Withrow, unidentified woman and Mrs. W.R. Allen viewing Portrait of a Seated Woman with a Handkerchief, c. 1644.

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