Ted Harrison’s art deserves to be seen in national gallery: MP, premier

Both the Yukon's MP and premier are lobbying the National Gallery of Canada to acquire a painting by Ted Harrison.

Both the Yukon’s MP and premier are lobbying the National Gallery of Canada to acquire a painting by Ted Harrison.

Harrison, who died last week, is not represented at the gallery despite efforts in 2009 to convince the powers-that-be.

“As Yukon’s member of Parliament and on behalf of our territory, I respectfully petition the national gallery to consider re-visiting the decision in 2009 not to display his work,” MP Ryan Leef wrote in a letter yesterday to gallery director Marc Mayer.

“Whilst I understand that his brush strokes may seem simplistic, his unique art style creates a magical vibrancy felt by all who witness it.”

In the letter, and in an interview yesterday, Leef said the Yukon in general is underrepresented at the gallery.

The National Gallery’s collection consists of approximately 46,400 works of art, according to its 2013 acquisitions policy. Not all of those are by Canadian artists.

“Its collection of Canadian art is the most comprehensive and important in existence and includes over 2,000 works by contemporary Canadian artists and a growing collection of nearly 2,000 works of indigenous art,” the policy says.

There are also 161,000 images by contemporary Canadian photographers.

In an email, gallery spokesperson Josee-Britanie Mallet said the collection currently has 43 pieces “made by artists who were born, based in, or visiting the Yukon.”

There’s a multimedia piece by Teslin artist Doug Smarch Jr. that was purchased in 2010.

“In addition, three photographers in our collection, Mark Arneson, Joanne Jackson Johnson, and Robert Ridgen have worked in the Yukon, or continue to, in the case of Ridgen,” she said.

“More importantly, in terms of the collection, the Yukon has been a source of interest and inspiration for several artists, including A.Y. Jackson, whose sketches of Kluane Lake are in the collection, and photographer George Hunter, who repeatedly visited the territory beginning in the 1950s to take photographs of industry, workers and the landscape.”

Leef said he’s not interested in picking a fight with the gallery, but wants to start a conversation about representation there.

When Leef was elected in 2011 he toured the gallery and said he noticed a lack of Yukoners.

“Jim Robb, Ted Harrison, a group of other names came up at the time. I was walking around with staff saying ‘I’m just surprised that there isn’t anything from the Yukon here,’” he said.

Now, with Harrison’s death, the issue has come up again. Harrison absolutely deserves to be in the gallery, Leef said, and so do other Yukon artists.

“I think any reasoned Canadian, and certainly any reasoned Yukoner, would say the objective of the national art gallery should be to present a picture and expressions of artists and expressions of artistic talent that reflect all regions of our country in a fair and balanced manner,” he said.

“And my point of view, anyway, is that the Yukon is under-represented.”

Mallet said the gallery doesn’t consider things like regional representation when choosing what art to acquire.

“The national collection is built on the basis of outstanding achievement and merit. This is the primary concern of our curators when selecting works of art for acquisition. We exercise one national standard only, for all Canadian works of art, with no quotas or targets related to regional representation.”

The North inspired Harrison’s bright, bold paintings. He moved here with his wife in 1967. They lived in Carcross and later in Whitehorse before moving to Victoria in 1993.

In 1987 he received the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture. He was inducted into the Royal Conservatory of the Arts in 2005. He designed the Yukon Pavilion for Vancouver Expo ‘86 and a 1996 Canada Post Christmas Stamp.

Leef’s call to have Harrison acknowledged at the gallery was echoed by Premier Darrell Pasloski in his statement following Harrison’s death.

“He is an iconic figure in the Canadian art scene and Canadians deserve to have artwork from across our nation on display in our national collection.”

According to Harrison’s friend and biographer Katherine Gibson, back in 2009 the then-director of the national gallery didn’t have an interest.

“The director of the time responded by saying that Ted’s work wasn’t their focus at the time,” she said.

That “confounded” her. She called turning a blind eye to Harrison’s work “un-Canadian.”

“E.J. Hughes’s work is there, Emily Carr’s work is there, the Group of Seven’s work is there, Alex Colville’s work it there, Maud Lewis is there,” she said.

“Where’s Ted Harrison, who is the voice and the cultural icon of the Canadian North, not just the Yukon, but the Canadian North? Why have they decided to ignore him?”

She said she thinks Harrison’s work isn’t understood for what it is.

“When we look at Ted’s work we don’t see it as intellectual, we don’t see it as complex or we don’t see it as artistically complex. What we see is a vision of what life is like outside the front door living in the Yukon,” she said.

“What he did is he painted who we are as Canadians. He didn’t dress it up, he didn’t intellectualize it. He painted in a voice that all Canadians from three to 103 can understand and enjoy.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at