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

Ottawa Magazine - - Volume 18| Number 1 - BY PAUL GESSELL PHOTOGRAPHY BY TONY FOUHSE

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




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.”

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