Lunch with Jon Tupper and Emily Carr

Story by Linda Rogers. Photo by Tony Bounsall. July 2010

Just into year number two on the job at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Jon Tupper discusses his challenges and the new Carr exhibit.

When I heard the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria was mounting On the Edge of Nowhere, a major Carr installation, I called Executive Director Jon Tupper and asked if we could have lunch at JJ’s Wonton House, a short walk from the gallery.

Enroute to lunch, I ask him how the Carr show fit his mandate for change at the Art Gallery. 

“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “How many cities in Canada have a woman as their highest profile individual? I can think of one other and that is Charlottetown. There are levels of Emily Carr that are rarely investigated or appreciated. She has tended to be a caricature and yet she had so much character. I want to see the deeper Emily revealed.” 

I think Emily has joined us on our walk to lunch, in this city famous for its hauntings. Does Jon hear a snort from the woman of spirit who, out of necessity, built defenses as impenetrable as her sister’s corsets? 

Tupper is well aware of the difficulties faced by a female artist in colonial Victoria. Carr dared to be different, a woman in a man’s world, but she was so much more than that. Outside the inner circle of Canadian art, she nevertheless managed to catch the wave of neo-romantic surrealism that would become our signature on the global canvas. If the Group of Seven were eight, Emily Carr would be a strong contender.

As we walk, we pass by a group of sailors. They might be heading up Fort Street toward the gallery. “Are you enjoying the artistic ambience in Victoria?” I ask the visitors; and it looks as though Jon, who recently survived a controversy about public art in a local newspaper, would like to join our transparent companion. “Do you talk to everybody?” he asks, and follows up with the observation that one quarter of the gallery patrons are in fact “from away.”

“The gallery is a big attraction for out-of-towners. Tourists aren’t benefactors but they are supporters. An identifiable artist like Emily Carr is a good draw,” he says as we are seated at a table for lunch.

Comfortable with praise, the invisible object of our affection picks up a menu. Surely Jon saw it move.

I ask Jon if he thinks the gallery would get even more visitors if it were moved downtown as once seemed the plan.

“The reality is that we are operating in a very precarious economic climate. The Art Gallery, like some other arts organizations, is fortunate to have endowments, but those investments diminished with the downturn. I have to be realistic and make the most with what we have. Frankly, the time I have been here has been mostly devoted to stabilizing the books,” says Tupper, who arrived here after increasingly responsible gigs at Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Banff Centre for the Arts.

The newish executive director is in his second year of gaining perspective on a job which has proven challenging for others (after Pierre Arpin left, the two subsequent EDs lasted six and 21 months, respectively).

“The gallery has had several directors over the past few years and I think some people are wondering how long it will be before I leave,” laughs Jon. “Don’t hold your breath, people.” Tupper has no immediate plans to fold his tent. He likes it here. He likes the job; and by all accounts he is worthy of the critical accolades that preceded him. “I can’t walk in anyone else’s shoes but the job feels like a good fit. I came to Victoria as a lifestyle move, not a career move, and I am happy.” He should be. His stir-fried prawns and vegetables smell delicious.

For now, Mr Tupper says he will be content with upgrading the current facilities and adding on 5,000 square feet of new gallery space. Because of space limitations, and in order to keep the show fresh for recurring visitors, the Carr exhibition will rotate paintings gleaned from its own archives and borrowed from other collections. Sadly, Victorians didn’t have the foresight to keep much of her work in our community.

“This is a small gallery for a city this size, but my goal is quality. I want our gallery to be known, as is, for example, Pacific Opera Victoria, for its jewel-quality productions.”

I note that Pacific Opera has worked hard at audience development with the school programs and dress rehearsal club for students. Does Mr Tupper see more outreach to bring young people in as part of the plan?

“I have a particular interest in contemporary art and innovative technology and I see development of our web space and shows that are responsive to the curiosity of young people as a priority.” 

The Carr show has an interesting interactive component. Gallery patrons will be challenged to match pullouts from Carr’s writing with the paintings in the exhibition, which should activate a more complex response to her work.

Carr, who painted as eloquently with words as she did with a paintbrush, is a role model for all time. She dared to confront cultural attitudes and social deficits, creating dialogue about human relationships with nature and with one another. It was Klee Wyck who challenged her audience to view First Nations not as a defeated people but as an exemplary culture, their art and life integrated with the spirit world. For that alone she is worthy of attention and respect. 

I have to ask because others have not stayed the course: “How difficult is it to convince your board to take programming risks in modulating the identity of the gallery?” The under-painting to this question is, I admit, how is Jon relating to the fuddy-duddies who often warm seats on boards and sometimes write big cheques with the expectation that their views will be reflected in policy? 

“Well, Linda,” Jon says, pointing his chopsticks at me, “We are the new fuddy-duddies [do I hear Emily laugh?]. They tend to think like you and me. In other words, no problem. I have a very supportive, very forward-thinking board.” The only problem is keeping the bottom line viable.

“Victoria is a great place to live with a healthy artistic community.” Tupper hopes to feed the gallery from that positive matrix.

So I ask: “If I were to have lunch with you in five years and all your dreams were realized, what would you tell me?”

“I would be proud to report that the gallery infrastructure had been tuned up to resonate all the nuances of a cosmopolitan city, that our educational outreach was exemplary, and that a kind benefactor had returned one or more Emily Carr paintings to the people of Victoria.”

“That seems doable,” I say, as we say our good-byes after lunch at the corner of Fort and Moss Streets. 

“I know it is,” Jon says as he returns to work on the edge of somewhere. “Emily will be with us for a long time.”

“She will,” I agree.

On The Edge of Nowhere, the Emily Carr show, opens at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on June 30.

Emily Carr is a character in Linda Rogers’ historical novel The Empress Letters. Its sequel, The Third Day Book, will be released this September.