Ian Tripp (former Comptroller, Western University) and Nida Home Doherty (Centred.ca) speak with Maurice Stubbs (former Curator of Western University’s McIntosh Gallery) about his work as Curator at the McIntosh, touching on his life as an artist. The following is abstracted from a recorded interview done on October 12, 2019 at Maurice’s home in London, Ontario.
NHD: Maurice, can we start with your own interest in art. When did it all begin?
MS: Well, I grew up in a family of artists and it was really my oldest sister who opened my eyes to art. She was in her early twenties and I was in my preteens. She had been to art school in Perth and was an artist in the town. Sometimes she would go out sketching and ask me to come with her. She would say things like: “What colour is the sky?” “Is it really blue?” “What colour is blue?” “Is it the same blue as it was yesterday?” She taught me to really look at things and to think about how art presents itself.
My older sister became a commercial artist. When I was trying to decide what to do, she said: “Never, ever get involved with commercial art. It will kill your creativity.” She loved van Gogh and all the Impressionists, and Expressionists, but she couldn’t paint after becoming a commercial artist, and never left Australia. I felt I had to go away to see the art. I had to leave Australia. However, I did complete a three-year program with the National Art School in Sydney.
IT: But you also belonged to a group of artists called the Perth Group when you were there.
MS: Well, they wanted me to join the group. It was just starting up. But they asked me to join on the day that I was leaving. They went on to become quite a well-recognized group and we kept in contact through the years.
But when I left Australia the world of art opened up to me. It was all very interesting, what I saw at the Louvre, and other places. And I met a lot of people going around. I had some great experiences, because of my interest in art.
IT: Yes, I remember you told me about a trip you made to Scandinavia, to Sweden, I think it was.
MS: Yes, my brother was an air force pilot in the War and he was killed very early on. He was supposed to fly to Sweden. I wanted to see where he was ultimately going. I was travelling with a friend of mine and we were on a train in Sweden when I realized I was running out of money. So, we got off at the next train stop and were told there was a farmer who was hiring people to work on his farm. When we arrived at the farmer’s place, he gave us some food and some clean clothing. He was so friendly and kind. As soon as I got into the house, I painted one of his children. He saw what I did, and he told me not to do any farm work, and that I was just to paint. He took me around Sweden and showed me different places and encouraged me to paint landscapes and members of his family.
He had two daughters who would do some weaving and I would join them sometimes and learned weaving from them. When I got to Canada I bought a little loom and continued to weave.
NHD: How did it come about that you became curator of the McIntosh?
IT: Yes, Maurice, you just didn’t show up one day in London as Curator of the McIntosh, did you? You had been here in London before taking your position at the McIntosh. As I recall, you worked with Clare Bice, as his assistant at the Art Gallery, which was part of the old London Public Library.
MS: Yes. Clare Bice took me under his wing at the time and I became familiar with the London art scene through him. What I would have liked to have seen in London is something Clare Bice tried to do: get artists to think for themselves, join groups and support each other. It just didn’t happen, at least, not at that time.
IT: Shortly after working with Clare Bice you were hired by the National Gallery in Ottawa.
MS: Yes, I then went to the National Gallery as an educator. It was there that I organized some international exchange shows. Up until that time the National Gallery only had travelling shows within Canada. I had been involved in just sending small art to places, places that didn’t have any art. I was just showing people what real art looked like. This is real art, not a poster. But then I said to Bill Dale,* Director of the National Gallery, how about we do a swap between the National Gallery of Australia and our Gallery. He thought that was a good idea, but, he said, “You take responsibility for it.” I called the National Gallery in Sydney and they asked if they could share our exhibition with all the galleries in the State. And then lots of the galleries across Australia wanted the show. I was going from hotel to hotel. It spread out from there to schools and other small public galleries. And the next thing I knew other federal galleries in Australia wanted to be part of the exchange. It was very successful.
NHD: So, after the National Gallery you were hired by the McIntosh Gallery?
MS: Yes. In 1969 the University of Western Ontario hired me as the University’s first full-time curator. There was no mandate and no one knew what to do with me so I made my own rules, which were not always understood or welcomed by the administration and department officials at Western.
The first thing I did was take an inventory of all the art the University had at the time. That might seem like a simple task but it wasn’t. Some people, some departments thought the work belonged to them, just because it had been there for a long time.
IT: The collection was largely historical, wasn’t it?
MS: Many pieces were historical, some were local, but some were from Australia, and other countries, as well.
NHD: Were you given any mandate?
MS: I wasn’t told anything. I had to make the rules up myself. And then, if folks didn’t like them, they would tell me. But then, I would tell them, “No. This is what I am doing.”
IT: So, you pretty much had free rein as a full-time curator.
MS: Yes, in a sense, Ian. But there were people who thought they could do what they wanted with the campus art. Like, for example, paintings that had been given to the University by retired employees, and there were portraits of some who had worked in certain departments. It was a struggle sometimes to get the work away from some individuals, or a department. They would just say, “That’s my painting. You can’t take that. We have had that painting in our office for years and it’s our painting.” I said, “You can tell that to the marines or the president, but I am following orders.” My own orders, of course. It was tough for me to do anything. Finally, the President stepped in and said, “This man has authority to take all the paintings in the building and put names on them and give them some kind of documentation. If it is in an office, then that is too bad. It will be up to the curator to say where it belongs.”
IT: So that was the beginning of the Art Share program, a program you formally introduced, which is still in place today, some 50 years later – where the Gallery places works of art into offices of professors and administrators and keeps track of it all.
MS: Yes. That’s right, Ian. But that didn’t always go well either. Sometimes someone would want an expensive painting, or something of quality. I said “Yes, but you will have to be responsible for all the care of the painting including hanging, the correct lighting, and of course, the insurance. I would introduce them to the installations officer who worked for me and would do all that for them. Some pieces were actually purchased by the office or the department, if they wanted to buy a certain painting. Sometimes the students would have a residence fund and they would buy the art. Some were purchased by the McIntosh, with matching funds from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council.
MS: One thing I learned when I first came to the University was that the Physical Plant Department could move stuff around the campus as they thought best. There was a piece donated by the Ontario government to the University. It was an outdoor piece, bright red and made of heavy steel. It just disappeared one day, soon after acquiring it. I asked the Head of Engineering Science at the time, “Do you know anything about this sculpture’s disappearance?” He said, somewhat concerned, “Yes, I think I know where it is – follow me, and I can show you. Let’s go look in the garbage.” And there is was. An addition was under construction at the Engineering Science Building and there was scrap all over the place. Ed Zelenak’s sculpture got caught up in it. It looked like part of the junk. But Physical Plant and the engineers made things right. They arranged to clean the whole thing up, repainted it, did everything and put it in front of the McIntosh Gallery, where it rests today. That wonderful red sculpture, with its very own story.
NHD: Ian, how did the University support the art and the McIntosh Gallery financially?
IT: Well, it was really Maurice who made it possible for the University to purchase major works. Until then, there was only enough money to buy smaller works of art. For example, we purchased a group of five preliminary drawings – including an Alex Colville – for $750 from the original McIntosh Estate.**
However, there was a painting from what was known as the Hudson River School, upper New York State, that had been donated to the University, a work by Jasper Cropsey, an American who had done some travelling to England. It was a huge painting. Maurice felt that the painting didn’t really belong with the University’s collection. So you got permission from the President to sell the work at auction, didn’t you Maurice? But then a group from within the University didn’t want it sold, and put up a lot of opposition. Despite this, Maurice persevered and was able to sell the work at Sotheby’s for about a million dollars, and that made a huge difference to Western and the McIntosh. We are still seeing the fruit of those auction proceeds today. With the annual interest on this endowment the University is able to acquire important work by Canadian Artists.
MS: The Dean of the Business School had nicer, more expensive pieces because they had the financial resources – he said to me about five or six years after I was hired, “You have this place tied up. You are getting money from all the possible sources. I have been trying for years to get my students [in the business school] to do what you have done, including the delegation of duties.
IT: But it wasn’t just being able to purchase and finance the art that was a constant consideration. There often seemed to be controversy around the art that was bought or shown, and where it was shown.
MS: You are probably thinking about the Herb Ariss piece, that large mural the McIntosh bought. Yes, it was Medical Sciences who commissioned that. I said, “Well, if you take this, it doesn’t stop at just getting the work. There is money needed to present the work and all the things that go along with it.” In that case I also found the money to put that piece in place and said the Gallery would look after it. When it was finally installed, there was all this controversy. Herb Ariss did nudes, and it was attracting a lot of attention.
IT: And I think the Dean of the day, if I recall correctly, wanted it moved into a conference room, away from the general public view.
MS: It wasn’t really the Dean that wanted it changed, but actually it was the nurses. I said, “This is art, not pornography.” I wanted to insert a general clause in all of the contracts about the works, where the buyer had no right to change the location of art installations without permission from the artist. There was quite a set to over this. But the real shocker was that it turned out Herb didn’t give a damn about where it went. It could be in a little storage room for all he cared. But now, the mural is placed where it is not so visible to the public.
IT: Maurice, I seem to recall there were other controversial pieces purchased by the McIntosh during your time as curator. One purchased in 1970 was soon after you arrived: Walter Redinger’s Adhesion Wall. It was huge – twenty four feet long and eight feet high, designed as an outdoor installation, and you had it placed high up on the Steven Lawson Building wall. It was very graphic and quite anatomical. You couldn’t help but notice it. I knew it would be controversial. That piece ended up on the front page of the London Free Press with the caption: “What is this? You name it.” But it stayed on the outside of the Steven Lawson Building for ten years, and then was mounted on the Engineering Building until it was finally installed inside the Main Library.
IT: With controversial pieces you were very good about supporting the artists – buying a piece from solo exhibitions, and also informing the public about the art, why it was important, what it was about. I remember letters that you wrote in the Western News. There was usually an educational aspect about the process of choosing the work and why you chose it.
MS: My assistant and I would organize campus walking-tours and outdoor talks. Also, I had a lot of support from students. The Art Share program helped a lot. It helped with our storage problem, as well.
IT: You not only determined your own curating duties, but you literally left your mark on the McIntosh Gallery, as well – actually physically put your mark on the Gallery.
MS: You mean the red door incident. Yes, well, there was a policy that all the doors at Western were to be a uniform colour. I wanted something different for the Gallery, something that would stand out. So I turned around and had a meeting with the Dean, asking to paint the doors of the Gallery red. There was some resistance to this from the Administration and the Board. So, I had to come in at night and do the painting, with a student assistant. And it is still bright red.
IT: You were also interested in interdisciplinary exhibitions where you would involve various academic departments at the University. You engaged Engineering Sciences with the idea of connecting art and sculpture to engineering with a show, early on. You also coordinated one show with the Medical Science Department, and another with Plant Sciences.
MS: Yes, there was the Wind Tunnel show. Two of the artists were sculptors and I considered their art to be engineering work. My Engineering contact liked the idea, and got in touch with one of the sponsoring companies. Through him, the company gave the Gallery a big chunk of money just to do that show.
IT: I remember models of the Wind Tunnel. Wonderful models of the CN Tower, which they did studies on, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Those models were brought into the gallery and they all became part of the show.
MS: The engineers got together with artists who were trying to make art using engineering skills. So, I supported both of them, with a big dinner, funded by sponsorship from the companies. So they all turned up on the evening of the event and just filled the house. I couldn’t believe that they all supported the project, but they did; and, to this day they still talk about it. Engineers are still talking to academics in other departments, but they understand each other and there is now an ongoing relationship between Engineering and the Visual Arts.
IT: You also involved the Plant Sciences Department in an exhibition. There was a collection of Louis XIV prints of ancient plants circulating – from the Louvre. It was on tour, and I think you got it into the McIntosh, and Plant Sciences somehow heard about this.
MS: Well, that was an interesting show. A friend of mine was going to France that included a visit to the Louvre. So I asked if he would mind going to the Gallery’s administrative staff and ask them if they would support an exhibition of some work from their collection, here, in London, Ontario. It was quite a long shot. The Louvre is one of the most revered galleries and London, Ontario, is not very well-known. Anyway, it happened. The Louvre supported the idea, and sent us their Louis XIV prints. Plant Sciences somehow got a hold of this, and they put together a collection of present-day plants that were comparable to the plants represented in the prints. So the actual plants were part of the exhibition. But we had to be careful about the humidity; it had to be reasonably moist and gallery conditions are supposed to be dry. The exhibition attracted a huge audience, because it was from the Louvre.
IT: There were a number of exhibitions like that where you involved the academic community.
MS: I just kept my ears open and that’s all it was. It is all part of the education process. All that is needed is for someone to say, “Do you want to do this?”
NHD: When you joined the McIntosh in 1969, the London Regionalists had become quite active: Ron Martin, John Boyle, Jack Chambers, and of course Curnoe. What did you think of the work that the London artists were doing back then?
MS: Well, they were having their own shows. They didn’t seem too concerned about coming to me to help them organize a show or anything like that. They were on their own. There was certainly a lot going on, and it was an important scene. They wanted to do everything themselves, Greg especially. He did his own flyers, promoted himself in the newspapers. He also had his own artist’s studio.
NHD: Did you start the artist-in-residence program at Western?
MS: No, it was already going when I got there. But I carried it on. I was involved in deciding who was the Artist-in-Residence each year, and I would work with the artists to promote and support their work. It started with Tony Urquhart in the 1960s. He was the first artist-in-residence.
IT: And then you carried it on with Gino Lorcini, Claude Breeze, Greg Curnoe, each of whom became well-recognized artists.
MS: Actually, Gino and I came at the same time. We really got on well. He would help organize things. He was a great sculptor. So I helped with getting grants and the University purchased a major piece of his around that time, called Thames Dialogue. I knew we had to support him. He was doing wonderful art and no one else was doing what he was doing.
NHD: What about your own art, Maurice? Did you ever stop painting through your years at the McIntosh?
MS: No. I continued to paint. I have always painted, at first in watercolours, and later in acrylics and oils. I only gave up painting a little while ago.
IT: But when you retired in 1989 your work seemed to be more colourful, and you were certainly more productive.
NHD: What inspired you to paint: Other artworks? A particular style?
MS: I didn’t sit and plan out what I was going to do. I usually responded to something and it just happened. I am very pleased with this wonderful book [Maurice Stubbs: Intuitive Painter] published by the McIntosh Gallery, and co-ordinated and funded by my cousin, Henry Stubbs, in New Zealand.
IT: Yes, it is a wonderful book, which tells the story of Maurice’s personal and professional life – as educator, curator, arts administrator, and painter.
IT: So how are you feeling now, Maurice?
MS: I am fine – a little tired. Are you sure you wouldn’t want some more wine, or beer; or some nibbles.
* Bill Dale and Prof. Ross Woodman (English Dept.), recruited Maurice to Western as the McIntosh Gallery’s first, full-time Curator. Maurice was also appointed as a Lecturer in Visual Arts.
** Wilhelmina Gordon McIntosh ‘s bequest financed the construction of the McIntosh Gallery (1942); and provided a modest endowment for three programs, including a “Pictures Fund”.
Permission to use the image of Maurice Stubbs was granted by the family of Maurice Stubbs.
Permission to use all the images of artwork from the McIntosh Gallery and Western University was granted by the McIntosh Gallery.
Image for Horses in the Field was copied from artnet.com.
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Ian Tripp who generously and graciously gave a significant amount of time to facilitate the interview and to the editing process.