Canadian Art Database now housed in Faculty of Fine Arts

What started as a way for Bill Kirby to detail the wealth of information he’d garnered on hundreds of artists as the former head of the Canada Council Art Bank has since developed into a substantial and growing database of not only Canadian artists, but art writers, curators, designers and arts organizations. The Canadian Art Database project and its Web site, part of the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (CCCA), is now housed at York.

Kirby, a visiting professor in York’s in the Department of Visual Arts, co-founded the CCCA in 1995. One year later the Canadian Art Database was born and has remained the core project of the CCCA ever since, as a way to expand public awareness of contemporary Canadian art and to document the contemporary Canadian art scene with a focus on the careers of leading professional artists, writers, curators and designers.

The Canadian Art Database at York partnership will be celebrated at a launch reception, from 5:30 to 7pm, today at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto as part of the 2008 Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC) conference hosted by York’s Department of Visual Arts. The Canadian Art Database will launch a new chronology timeline feature at the event.

Above: Bill Kirby works on the Canadian Art Database now housed in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts

The Canadian Art Database started modestly with 60 artists and as many images. “It’s now become so much more,” says Kirby, director of the CCCA. Today, it has over 54,000 images, 40,000 of them documenting the work of Canadian artists from coast to coast. As the database grew, Kirby decided he wanted to provide a deeper context for the artists and their creations – what Kirby calls “a thorough, in-depth look at the environments within which the artists interact and create their work.”

To that end, the Canadian Art Database now includes over 3,000 texts, some 600 video and audio clips and a wide range of related archival materials that document the Canadian art scene since the 1960s. It details Canadian art institutions, organizations, artist groups and professional artists, designers, art writers and curators who have helped shape the art scene.

Kirby is determined to keep the database-driven Web site easy to navigate and has provided a multitude of ways to search for information, whether it’s an artist’s profile, an art event or an individual type of work. It is also bilingual (English and French) and in the Inuit artists section, trilingual (Inuktitut).

“What makes it unique is that the artists’ history is online. I think the artists feel quite strongly about the thorough context in which they are represented,” Kirby says. “It is the most in-depth look at the Canadian art scene that’s out there.”

It’s a project that is close to Kirby’s heart. It is what injects excitement and anticipation into his day and, at the same time, causes some frustration in that he would like to develop it much more quickly. By its very nature, the Canadian Art Database will continually expand, change and grow in importance, but will never be complete.

Kirby is constantly forming new partnerships in his drive for content. "I really see that the history of Canadian artists exists in shoeboxes and envelopes across the country," Kirby says. "I want to gather it up, archive it and make it available to the public before it’s lost or thrown out."

Right: The Canadian Art Database, an online research resource

With the help of York students and faculty at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Kirby can see the database growing exponentially. “The thing I like about getting students involved – it’s good practical experience for them,” he says. Kirby wants those students involved in helping to add and develop content to learn more about Canadian art and artists as part of the process. It is a resource that is already being used by students from a variety of disciplines in high schools and universities around the globe.

It’s been a long road though. Kirby has secured a few grants over the years to help build the site from Canada’s Digital Collections, an Industry Canada program no longer in existence, and after that from the Canadian Culture Online program of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts, but for the most part he has struggled to do the work himself.

Since January 2008, the CCCA has been in partnership with York, where the Canadian Art Database and Web site are housed and supported technically.

Kirby was director of the Edmonton Art Gallery from 1967 to1971, curator of Contemporary Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 1974 to 1978 and visual arts officer for the Canada Council from 1978 to 1981. He was professor of contemporary Canadian art at the School of Art, University of Manitoba from 1973 to 1978. At York, Kirby is assisting the Department of Visual Arts in setting up a Visual Resources Centre to assemble and digitize archival materials and is working with faculty and students in developing new content for the project. He received the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal in 2005 for his distinguished contributions to the visual arts in Canada.