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Celebrating an arts champion

August 31st, 2018

Image of woman in white shirt

Eleanor Shen, arts advocate, philanthropist and AGO Trustee.

A dynamic force in the Canadian art world, Eleanor Shen has championed contemporary art and artists for over 15 years.

Eleanor’s devotion to the AGO runs deep. In addition to serving as an AGO trustee since 2015, she and her husband Francis Shen are generous supporters. Together, they are helping the AGO acquire important works by contemporary Asian artists.

Evidence of that generosity and engagement is currently on view in the Signy Eaton Gallery, where Jack and the Jack Paintings: Jack Goldstein and Ron Terada features 14 large-scale paintings by Canadian artist Ron Terada. Shown for the first time, these works were recently acquired with the support of Eleanor and Francis.

Having previously served on the boards of the Canadian Art Foundation, and the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Eleanor is also a past co-chair of Partners in Art, a Canadian charity that funds contemporary art projects.

We caught up with Eleanor to learn more about her love of art, and how she is helping the AGO thoughtfully build our Collection.

AGO: What was your first experience with contemporary art? What inspired you to become a collector?
Eleanor: I’ve always been interested in art even though my background was in finance. However, I really became interested in contemporary art when I joined Partners in Art. But I’m not sure I would call my husband and I collectors. We certainly buy art, but we decided early on never to buy anything that would just go into storage. That is partly what inspired us to get involved in supporting acquisitions at the AGO.

Image of paintings with text

Ron Terada, Jack, 2016-2017. Acrylic on canvas, Overall: 203.2 × 162.6 cm. Purchased with the assistance of Eleanor and Francis Shen, 2017. © Ron Terada. Work shown in centre: Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1983. Acrylic on canvas, Overall: 243.7 x 427 cm. Gift of Sandra Simpson, 1993. © The Estate of Jack Goldstein

AGO: You’ve generously helped the AGO build its collection of Asian contemporary art, through gifts of work by Ron Terada, Haegue Yang and Paul Chan among many others. What do you look for when considering works for acquisition?
Eleanor: When we first approached the AGO about starting a multi-year program to help build the collection of contemporary art by Asian artists, our aim was to acquire artworks that are relevant to people in Toronto. Our city is so multicultural and diverse – something my husband and I, both being Canadians of Asian descent, having emigrated from Hong Kong – are familiar with and proud of.

The first piece of work we bought for the AGO was Gustav’s Wing by Danh Vō. Vō is a Vietnamese-born Danish artist who lives and works in Berlin and Mexico City. His works explore issues of identity and belonging, a common thread in many of the works we consider for acquisition.

Image of a bronze sculpture made up of several body parts

Danh Vo, Gustav’s Wing, 2013. Bronze; Head: 20 x 27 x 16 cm, Torso: 57 x 42 x 23 cm, Right arm: 40 x 23 x 18 cm, Left arm: 42 x 51 x 13 cm, Right leg/lower body: 64 x 51 x 27 cm, Left leg: 70 x 18 x 13 cm. Long-term loan of Eleanor and Francis Shen. © Danh Vo

AGO: How do you work with the AGO’s department of Modern and Contemporary Art?
Eleanor: I work very closely with Kitty Scott, the AGO’s Carol & Morton Rapp Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art. Typically, Kitty identifies several artists for consideration. We then look deeply into their works and practices. I tremendously enjoy this process because I learn so much from Kitty’s knowledge and experience.

AGO: Tell us a bit about Partners in Art (PIA), a charity which has sponsored exhibitions and commissioned works by Rebecca Belmore and Mickalene Thomas, among many others.
Eleanor: PIA is an amazing organization. Not only is the organization entirely volunteer-led, it’s a leading collaborator between the city’s and the country’s art organizations, artists and curators, enabling art projects that otherwise would not happen.

Several recent gifts by Eleanor and Francis are now on view at the AGO. The works in Jack and the Jack Paintings: Jack Goldstein and Ron Terada are on view until September 16 in the Signy Eaton Gallery on Level 2. Gustav’s Wing by Danh Vō is on view in the exhibition, Turn Off Social Media., on the 4th floor of the contemporary tower. Both are included in General Admission.

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