By Paul Gessell
One of Ottawa’s treasures, Diana Nemiroff, will be presented March 28 with the $25,000 Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award for her “enduring impact on the Canadian art landscape,” the Canada Council for the Arts has announced.
“This is a very big deal for me,” says Nemiroff. “In my field this is the most important award that I could win. And winning a specifically Canadian award that is considered to be the pinnacle of recognition makes it especially meaningful to me.”
Nemiroff is currently the director of the Carleton University Art Gallery and previously worked 20 years at the National Gallery of Canada as a curator, mainly in contemporary art, becoming one of the most influential figures in the contemporary art scene.
Despite working on a broad national canvas, Nemiroff never ignored her home community. She was and remains a familiar figure at local art exhibition openings. Unlike many other National Gallery curators, Nemiroff believed in maintaining strong ties to the local art community and championing the work of such important Ottawa artists as the late Dennis Tourbin.
Nemiroff was also a collector of contemporary art. She once showed me a cheeky light sculpture by former Ottawa artist Reuel Deschenes she had just purchased at Dale Smith Gallery for her husband as a Valentine’s Day present.
While at the National Gallery, Nemiroff organized such landmark exhibitions as Elusive Paradise, which starred Janet Cardiff’s spectacular sound-based art project 40-part Motet, and Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada. Indeed, Nemiroff laid the groundwork for contemporary aboriginal art in Canada to be accepted as mainstream art and not segregated in ethno-cultural museums as some kind of folk art.
Nemiroff left the National Gallery in 2005 to head the Carleton University Art Gallery, yet her name circulated for years as a potential successor to Pierre Theberge as National Gallery director. Instead, to the surprise of many, the gallery board chose Marc Mayer.
Among the artists Nemiroff brought to the National Gallery was Montreal’s Jana Sterbak, whose infamous meat dress riled many members of Parliament. (Sterbak, incidentally, will also be honoured this year with a Governor General’s Award.)
The other recipients of the Governor General’s Award are Margaret Dragu, Geoffrey James, Jan Peacock and Royden Rabinowitch. As well, the winner of the annual Saidye Bronfman Award for fine craft was announced, with Charles Lewton-Brain as winner.
Nemiroff plans to retire from Carleton this June but maintains she will remain active in the art community.