Sara Angel launched the Art Canada Institute in 2013 with the support of Partners in Art. Today ACI is the country’s leading resource on Canadian art education. In addition to being its founder and executive director, Sara continues to work as a journalist and is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University and Western University, teaching at both institutions.
Can you describe what Art Canada Institute does?
The Art Canada Institute (ACI) is the only national organization whose mandate is to promote the study of an inclusive multi-vocal Canadian art history to as broad an audience as possible, in both English and French, within Canada and internationally. The ACI does this by working with more than 50 of Canada’s leading art historians, curators, and visual culture experts who are dedicated to the creation of authoritative original content and programing on the people, themes, and topics that have defined Canadian art history.
The inaugural program of the ACI is The Canadian Online Art Book Project. To date, it has published 33 online books available in English and French on Canadian artists via ACI’s website. The books bring the lives and stories of figures who have defined the country’s cultural landscape to over one million readers.
Our next major program will be the ACI Secondary School Art Education Resource. The program will provide easy-to-use teacher resources for secondary school educators. Each resource is based on a book published by the Art Canada Institute, allowing educators to draw upon a depth of resources that are already available on the Art Canada Institute website. Our audience is the 1.8 million active high school students in Canada in any given year.
Before the ACI, accessible and authoritative information on the lives and work of Canadian visual artists was hard to find. We have created a central digital resource to tell the world about Canada’s most important works of art and where they are located. By functioning as an online art museum, a digital library, and an interactive Canadian art resource, the ACI is an indispensable tool for learning about Canada’s visual arts heritage.
Why did you start the Art Canada Institute?
When I started teaching art history at the University of Toronto in 2012, I quickly discovered that no series existed in either print or digital format on Canadian artists. I couldn’t believe it and I thought that I had to do something about it.
Cultural expression is a human right—one so essential that the United Nations General Assembly enshrined it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Yet when it comes to access to Canadian culture, the majority of this country’s citizens are separated from this fundamental necessity. As Simon Brault, CEO of the Canada Council of the Arts, writes in No Culture, No Future (2009), only 30 per cent of Canadians are actively “interested in or reached by” their culture. To date less than three per cent of museum holdings of Canadian art have been digitized, restricting visual culture to those who are able to physically travel to where it is housed. This situation keeps the very symbols of Canada’s identity and societal values out of most citizens’ reach, and limits the body of research that students might investigate.
I wanted to change this situation. While new communication technologies have radically transformed how Canadians make art, our museums, galleries, and art historians haven’t kept pace. Founding the ACI has been about filling a cultural void.
Today, The Canadian Online Art Book Project is the only authoritative and comprehensive online resource on Canadian art and its history. Our books allow millions of people in Canada and abroad to understand the country’s visual culture in a way that is fundamentally changing art education, awareness, and interest. They allow all to participate in the conversation about Canadian art regardless of their access or proximity to a bricks-and-mortar museum. All ACI publications are peer reviewed, reflecting current scholarship, yet they are also accessible to a general audience. The ACI brings the story of Canadian art and its history to audiences and classrooms everywhere.
Currently there is no program available nationally and in both of the country’s official languages to train teachers about Canadian art history. The ACI’s next major initiative: The Secondary School Art Education Resource will change this situation as well.
Who was the first artist ACI published and how did you choose that artist?
ACI’s first publication was Jack Chambers: Life & Work by Mark A. Cheetham. The London-Ontario based realist painter and filmmaker worked during the 1960s and 1970s before his untimely death in 1978.
ACI’s publication selection is led by Dr. Anna Hudson (a former curator at the AGO who is now a professor at York University) and her editorial committee which makes its publication decisions based on proposals that are sent to ACI from art historians and museum professionals across the country. The committee looks for proposals on artists that meet the following criteria: the artist has to have made an historical impact on Canadian art and art history; its author has to be an expert on the subject.
What was your PhD thesis topic?
My PhD dissertation was on the famed Canadian art dealer Max Stern who in 1937 was forced by the Nazis to auction off over 300 works of art because as a Jew the National Socialist government forbade him to sell art. In 2002 Stern’s estate began a process of restitution to recover the art that Stern lost. I documented the story of 12 works it recovered between 2003-2012.
When did you know you’d have a career in art?
Much of my life has been tied to the world of visual arts. My parents had bookstores called Edwards Books & Art, where I worked from the age of 12 through university, giving me lots of exposure in the art world. As an undergraduate I studied art history at McGill University. I then went into arts journalism and arts publishing, writing about visual arts as well as working at Bruce Mau Design and with the London-based art book publisher, Phaidon Press. In 2012, after deciding that I wanted to teach, I started a PhD at the University of Toronto in art history and founded the Art Canada Institute a year later in 2013.
Which artists do you admire most?
There are too many to name and the range is vast! But some of my favourites include Canadians Gershon Iskowitz, Joyce Wieland, Greg Curnoe, Jeff Wall, Rebecca Belmore, and Shary Boyle; international artists Sophie Calle, Edmund de Waal, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, and David Hockney.
Is there an artist that you like that would surprise people?
My all-time favourite is the 17th century Baroque artist Caravaggio.
What is your favourite course to teach and why?
I recently started to teach a course called “Art Crime and its History” which has quickly become my favourite course because it ties together so many subjects that I am interested in—art history in Canada and internationally, art making, art dealing, the working of art museums, the international art trade, and the psychology of why people covet art.
What have been your top three art experiences?
My three most transformative art experiences have been:
- Visiting Rome in 1987 and seeing the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the city’s extensive number of Berninis and The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria. It was my first visit to Europe and understanding of art’s power.
- Working with Bruce Mau from 1996-1997; it was an opportunity to collaborate with an enormous range of ground-breaking thinkers including Rem Koolahaas, Claes Oldenburg, and Frank Gehry who were doing projects with the studio.
- Seeing Sensation (featuring the Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection) at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. It captured the zeitgeist of what was going on in Britain and led me to move to London to work at Phaidon Press.
How do you begin your day and what are your habits?
I wake up at 5 a.m. to do two hours of work before getting my kids up; breakfast with my kids from 7-7:30 before getting them to school; 9 a.m. meeting with the Art Canada Institute team.
What is your favourite colour? Your least favourite colour?
Favourite colour: Caravaggio red; least favourite colour: brown.
Who would you want to create your portrait?
If an historical artist could paint my portrait, there would be three contenders: John Singer Sargent, Frida Kahlo, and the great Canadian portrait artist (and Beaver Hall member) Lilias Torrance Newton.
The Canadian artist Leanne Shapton painted my portrait a few years ago; I love it.
What do you do if you need inspiration?
Visit an art gallery.
What do you like to do when not teaching or working on the next ACI publication?
I am either writing arts journalism or I am driving my kids to a sports competition—they are more athletically active than art active.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My family: Marrying my husband Michael in 2003 and the birth of our three kids: Charles (14), Jack (12), and Isabella (9).
What is your greatest fear?
Any harm or hurt to my family.
What advice do you have for aspiring art professionals?
Follow your heart, instinct and beliefs. Have confidence in your convictions and taste.
How did you hear about Partners in Art?
I was introduced to PIA by Robin Young who invited me to meet with PIA’s members before the ACI launched. In fall 2013, PIA gave ACI critical financial support to the ACI in two forms: It became a Founding Partner Patron, making a commitment to give the ACI $5,000 per year over a four-year period; and PIA sponsored a book (Michael Snow: Life & Work) in ACI’s inaugural program, The Canadian Online Art Book Project in ACI’s first season (2013-2014) for an amount of $10,000.
In 2017, PIA renewed its support to ACI as a Lead Benefactor, making a three-year pledge to help ACI move into its next stage of development.