THE KATERINA FACTOR
Katerina Atanassova is the fresh new face of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. A Bulgarian immigrant with a background in medieval studies, Atanassova possesses a blend of knowledge and fearlessness that is bound to impress critics and aud
Katerina Atanassova is the new curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. With knowledge, passion, and bravery, she is bound to impress critics and audiences alike
Toronto artist Kim Dorland was initially apprehensive — and so were the critics. In 2013, the Kleinburg, Ont., gallery known as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection was organizing an exhibition of Dorland paintings, some of them psychedelically coloured landscapes. When Katerina Atanassova, McMichael’s chief curator at the time, announced her plan to hang Dorland’s work alongside that of Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven, a collective gasp of shock could be heard in some segments of the art world.
“I think,” Dorland recalls in an interview, “there was definitely a sense, when we first announced the show, of ‘Who do they think they are?’ from certain circles. Here was this young contemporary guy coming into the hallowed halls of this very Canadian institution to put his work alongside some of the most revered art heroes of our culture.” But Atanassova pulled it off. “The show could easily have come off as brash or disjointed in the wrong hands,” Dorland says. “But I think Katerina’s knowledge and fearlessness allowed us to make connections and create dialogues that really resonated with people and opened their eyes to the lineage of Canadian painting rather than challenging anything they held sacred.”
The exhibition, You Are Here: Kim Dorland and the Return to Painting, was a triumph. “An exciting, powerful show,” trumpeted The Globe and Mail. A gamble that worked, echoed the Toronto Star. Dorland switched from apprehensive to ecstatic. “The show turned out better than I could ever have imagined,” he now says. “A lot of credit for that goes to Katerina’s fearlessness about how we would be received.”
Atanassova has now brought that fearlessness to Ottawa, where she is curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery. This past December, she replaced Charlie Hill, who retired after four decades of nurturing our relationship with Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, and other iconic Canadian artists. Hill’s exhibitions were as patriotically stirring as Vimy Ridge — but they were not the last word on historical Canadian art.
Atanassova was a self-described Charlie Hill “groupie” for years. But clearly, her approach will be different. She wants her exhibitions to emphasize the links between the old and new in Canadian art and between the art of Canada and the rest of the world. She once described Dorland as “Tom Thomson on acid” to Maclean’s magazine. And she vows to fill the big shoes of the rumpled Hill with her own stylish stilettos. Maybe she can even reverse the National Gallery’s shrinking attendance figures.
Sounds intriguing. But will the opera-loving, poetrywriting Atanassova be too fearless for the National Gallery? Will she rock the boat too much? She is gregarious and flamboyant and loves to laugh. (She also loves to dance flamenco and, within days of arriving in Ottawa, found a ByWard Market studio where she can practise her passion.) How will this vivacious, workaholic Bulgarian immigrant fit with an institution overwhelmingly WASP or francophone and far more staid than the artists exhibited? Is the gallery ready for “Tom Thomson on acid?”
The 133-year-old gallery is a child of old Canada. It focuses on art rooted in the traditions of western Europe. Canadian-made art referencing Africa, Asia, Latin America, or eastern Europe is largely ignored. There are no visible minorities among the gallery’s senior curators, except for Greg Hill, who handles Indigenous art. Security guards are about the only non-white faces to be seen at the gallery, on or off the walls. The late Hsio-Yen Shih brought her Chinese ancestry to the post of gallery director from 1976 to 1981, but she has been all but written out of gallery history. Her three-line biography is the shortest of all former directors listed on the National Gallery website. The current director, Marc Mayer, gets 11 lines.
But the National Gallery just might be changing with the appointment of a Bulgarian immigrant as the chief guardian of Canadian historical art. Says Atanassova: “I think that’s the marvellous way to see it, that the leadership is really embracing that idea that a large sector of the Canadian mosaic needs to be brought into that dialogue.”
While a child in Bulgaria, Atanassova was steeped in cultural activities. She often visited museums. Her movie-director father would take her on location for shoots. Her maternal grandfather, an archbishop in the Orthodox Church, ignited her interest in medieval art and iconography, the subject of her undergraduate studies in Bulgaria and, after coming to Canada in 1990, her master’s degree from the University of Toronto.
Art was actually her second career choice. She stud- ied ballet for 12 years in Bulgaria. “It didn’t go well,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist. I put very high standards for myself. I’ve always approached it that way. If you’re not the best, then you don’t try it.”
The love affair with Canadian art blossomed soon after Atanassova landed in Toronto. A friend took her to the Thomson Collection near the Eaton Centre. “It was a vivid experience,” she recalls. The Group of Seven paintings were particularly enchanting. “They spoke to me on a different level from what I was used to seeing in European museums. They had that sense of freshness and uniqueness that were making them stand out from experiences I had had before. Maybe as a newcomer, I was looking for this unified language to describe the new land I was coming to.”
Among her favourite paintings that day in Toronto was Fred Varley’s The Immigrants, depicting a crowd of new Canadians disembarking from a ship. Obviously, the painting had resonance for a new arrival like her. She included that painting in her 2008 critically acclaimed debut performance in Ottawa, an exhibition of Varley portraits at the Canadian Museum of Nature. That exhibition produced a new storyline about one of Canada’s most celebrated painters, one that revealed that his passion for portraits was perhaps even greater than his love of the wilderness.
At the time, Lilly Koltun was director general of the Portrait Gallery, which sponsored the Ottawa presentation of the Varley show. Koltun was dazzled by Atanassova’s flamboyance, style, spontaneity, and scholarship. “I think she will be a real breath of fresh air in Ottawa,” says Koltun. “One of the wonderful things that I liked about her is she was a person who was incredibly committed to what she was doing, and she was doing it with great imagination, verve, and thoroughness.”
Catherine Sinclair, senior curator at the Ottawa Art Gallery, is another Atanassova fan. They meet regularly as members of an organization called Curators of Canadian Historical Art. “She’s totally dynamic and smart and does really interesting things with historical art,” says Sinclair. “She will do very big things for the National Gallery.”
At the time of the Ottawa portrait show, Atanassova
“ONE OF THE WONDERFUL THINGS THAT I LIKED ABOUT HER IS SHE WAS A PERSON WHO WAS INCREDIBLY COMMITTED
TO WHAT SHE WAS DOING, AND SHE WAS DOING IT WITH GREAT IMAGINATION, VERVE, AND THOROUGHNESS.”
LILLY KOLTUN, FORMER DIRECTOR GENERAL, PORTRAIT GALLERY OF CANADA
was a curator at the Varley Art Gallery in Markham, Ont., a job she landed after working as an assistant curator for the art collection of the University of Toronto. Atanassova’s exhibitions put the Varley Gallery on the map. Then she moved to the Group of Seven’s holy of holies, the McMichael, and a series of headline-grabbing exhibitions.
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the
Group of Seven was an international success in 2012-13. “I tried to position Canadian art in a global context,” says Atanassova. More than 100,000 people saw the show in London and 50,000 in the Netherlands. Before that, in 2011, there was Marilyn
Monroe. Atanassova lured a touring exhibition on the iconic movie star to the McMichael. The exhibition was Canadianized by adding a sideshow of Canadian-made art referencing Monroe. “We had a 200 percent increase in attendance and membership in the winter,” Atanassova boasts. An estimated 80 percent of those visitors were first-timers to the McMichael. Those are the kinds of statistics the National Gallery needs. The same year as the Monroe show,
Walrus magazine sponsored a formal debate at the National Gallery asking whether the Group of Seven is relevant today. Atanassova was not there, but she definitely would have supported the “yes” side. “It’s our job to make it relevant,” she says. “I don’t think in Italy or France people spend time in debates to see whether 15th-century art is relevant. Yes, it is relevant. The museums are full. Tourists are travelling from around the world to see it because they have been making it relevant. That’s their heritage.”
The Group of Seven is part of Canada’s heritage, and Dorland definitely thinks Atanassova is the right person to make that art relevant today. “Her passion for their work rivals anyone I’ve ever seen. And her knowledge. She can tell from a brushstroke the time period a Tom Thomson painting was made.” Adds Dorland, “This is a person who did not grow up in Canada, so she wasn’t immersed in the hero-making of the Group of Seven or other Canadian artists — many of whom are mostly unknown outside this country.”
Atanassova is excited about the future, about further nurturing our relationship with the likes of Tom Thomson. She sees her new job in Ottawa as that of a trustee of the country’s historical art. “I’m a kind of conduit,” she says. “If I succeed, we all succeed.”