Drake One Fifty Lunch & Learn: AGO's Christy Thompson

Posted by Jen McNeely, July 28, 2016

Christy Thompson 1

Christy Thompson is an artist and disrupter; she doesn't care to please you. She also holds the prestigious title as the Chief of Exhibitions and Collections at the Art Gallery of Ontario, meaning she's responsible for the well-being of over 90,000 pieces of art. (Big job, B-I-G!)

Overseeing a team of approximately sixty employees, Christy is the one to make the curator's vision a reality. "We're the doers. We take the ideas from the curators and we make it so," she says. "We have to serve our artists and curators at the highest level." It's a job that requires not only big vision, but also an ability to manage incredibly detailed logistics. (How would you move a multimillion-dollar artwork across the ocean? Ask Christy.)

I had the pleasure of meeting this powerhouse at Drake One Fifty for lunch. I recommended the Brussels sprouts; she trusted me. Although we had just met, she kindly offered to share her sprouts drizzled in maple Sriracha, but I was content with my Panzanella Salad. It was a refreshing dish for a scorching hot day, and our conversation was as juicy as the watermelons and tomatoes that decorated my plate.

While Christy has always worked in galleries (starting out as a lowly intern emptying the trash), she is also a practicing artist who enjoys pushing boundaries in her work. Last year, she did an installation at Simons in Vancouver where she installed 10,000 Ping Pong balls to hang from the ceiling of the lingerie department.

Christy Thompson 2

Her ballsy (heh) personality is an important trait when it comes to her work at the AGO: "If our goal is to get more people interested in art, then it cannot be a very precise white view; it's got to challenge the borders." Pushing the boundaries and challenging perspectives of what art is is very important to her, and she's a firm believer that the 21st century art museum is about being relevant to a larger group of people. "It's not a 1950s model. The institution isn't the only thing with authority. Art is subjective, and anyone's opinion or response to it is valid."

As the lunch continues, I'm increasingly wowed by her no-bull style. "I don't want everything to be, ‘Oh, it's great.’ If we're going to be relevant to more people, there should be broader interest and more debate. I don't want to be a pleaser – it's boring. It's dangerous if you're not true to yourself. I think you can be disrupting, challenging and open to debate while still being respectful to your audience."

Christy Thompson 3

In order to reach a broader audience, the AGO has taken several measures, including extending its hours and programming to attract different groups of people. AGO Free Wednesday nights continue to be extremely well-trafficked; AGO First is one of the coolest monthly things to do in Toronto; and this past spring, the gallery added Friday Nights to its programming to attract another crowd.

I would have guessed that the ROM or TIFF were viewed as AGO's major competitors, but Christy surprises me when she exclaims that when it comes to how people in this city use their time, the AGO's biggest competition are Toronto Eaton Centre and Blue Jays. How would you persuade the diehard sports fan to enter the art gallery? It's a fun and creative challenge that Christy is committed to.

Beyond introducing new programming to attracting audiences, Christy is now managing the overwhelming task of reinstalling the permanent collection, which holds over 90,000 objects. In eighteen months, expect to experience the space entirely differently. “Probably only 3% of our collection is on view. Getting that art up, and seeing how the walls look different...once we've achieved that, I'm going to feel great.”

Christy Thompson

While she gets a rush from working on a deadline and loves when the teams come together for major installations, she also relishes quiet moments alone in the gallery. When Christy gets the chance, she likes to wander quietly through Henry Moore sculptures. "They are some of the world's best, and we have the collection here." She also likes to descend into the vaults and flick on the lights. "To see all these artworks hanging on racks, lined up in shelves and boxes…it's amazing." But Christy believes that no matter where you are in the gallery, there are magic moments to be had. “Even if you have a drink at our restaurant, it’s a tribute to culture in general.”

Christy's career wasn't planned or designed. All she knew was that she loved art and didn’t want to work in a bank. When I ask her how it all started, she recalls a conversation she had in her final year at high school when a girl in her class suggested that she'd never make it in the arts. It lit a fire! What that girl didn't know is that Christy is her most creative and industrious when she's told something can't be done. Since then, she's learned that art is not only what she wants to do, but also the only thing she'll ever do: "I'm fully committed to it. It's the only job I will take in my life. Art is necessary for human existence. It’s another form of language. Culture is important to civil society. When things are breaking down, you need something else that will balance people." Considering the current state of politics and society, I'd say that Christy's job is more important now than ever.

All photos by Jessica Laforet

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Tags: AGO  Christy Thompson  Drake One Fifty  Lunch and Learn