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The incredible life of Jeanne Parkin

July 22nd, 2019


Jeanne Parkin (née Wormith) as a University of Toronto student in the early 1940s, photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Jeanne Parkin.

You can never look at too much art. The more you look, the more you understand.” – Jeanne Parkin

Small in stature but big in personality, Jeanne Parkin is a dynamic force to be reckoned with. A steadfast advocate of contemporary art, Parkin has long been established as one of Canada’s most important art ambassadors and art consultants.  She’s an avid collector and donor – recently gifting an important Francis Alÿs to the AGO and her video collection to the National Gallery of Canada.

Parkin was born in Toronto in 1922. In 1947 (not long after receiving a M.A. in Art History) she began working at the Art Gallery of Toronto as head of Circulating Exhibitions and Adult Education. During this time she began establishing herself as an educator and essential advocate for contemporary art in particular. Along with curating a number of exhibitions, she co-founded the Art Rental department as an educational tool, creating access to art for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.

In 1975 Parkin founded her own firm, Jeanne Parkin Arts Management Ltd., to advise private, corporate and public art collectors. Her endless work in the art world spread into the streets of Toronto, where, in the 1970s, she commissioned work by Joyce Wieland, Louis de Niverville and others to be incorporated into the construction of nine stations on the new TTC Spadina subway line. This experience encouraged her to write a groundbreaking “how to” book on the subject of Art In Architecture…not an easy task before the age of computers. And she’s not done yet! She’s currently working on her memoirs, which will inevitably be a fascinating read.

We sat down with Jeanne to learn more about her fascinating life at the Art Gallery of Toronto and later the AGO, and what advice she’d give to budding collectors.

AGO: You were among the first employees at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Can you tell us about your experience?

Parkin: When I first started working at the Gallery, we were a staff of ten; all multi-taskers; everyone stepped up to the plate wherever needed. We were like a little family. We worked in The Grange and broke for tea at 4:00. There were no offices and I sat in the corridor. It was all quite rudimentary, but very civilized. My official job was Head of Circulating Exhibitions with Adult Education thrown in. As such, most of my time was spent in the basement in Shipping and Receiving where I produced the exhibitions, or upstairs personally running the film projector.

Later on, when I retired to have a family, I joined the Women’s Committee, a very savvy group of knowledgeable volunteers. We were an essential adjunct to the Gallery. We worked our butts off and we loved it. Fundraising, via the Gallery Shop plus endless imaginative special projects, was a top priority. We also mounted a number of exhibitions, like Five Lyrical Colour-Field Painters and Plastics, which was an experimental exhibition. A large chunk of our money-raising went towards purchasing major art of the New York School, led by a small group of trained Women’s Committee members. Of course, everything we bought had the blessing of the Gallery’s curator. That core collection has since become legendary.

AGO: You’ve been a consultant for many corporations and private collectors. What advice would you offer to someone looking to get started in building a collection?

Parkin: My advice would be to see as much art as possible. Be curious; don’t just go for “candy”- you’ll outgrow it. Push yourself, educate yourself, and never be satisfied. Don’t expect to build a collection quickly – it takes time. And always have fun.

AGO: You have such an incredible contemporary art collection. Do you have a favourite artwork?

Parkin: Right now, I would say one of my favourite, most important works is ANTICHRIST 1980 by the collaborative duo Gilbert and George. I bought it in 1981. I actually went to the location where this image is from – in Spitalfields, East London, UK. It’s a black and white image of a church, reflected upside down in water on the street.

Jeanne Parkin continues to champion contemporary art, bringing a passion for art to family, friends, colleagues and aspiring collectors.

Our thanks to Jeanne Parkin for participating in this story. Keep an eye out for her memoirs and, in the meantime, come and see the great contemporary art in the AGO Collection. You never know – you might be looking at an artwork that she had a hand in bringing to the Gallery.

Admission to the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions is always free for AGO membersAGO annual pass holders, and visitors 25 and under. For more information, visit the website.

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