AGYU Director Philip Monk named Governor General’s Award Laureate

Philip Monk, head shot
Philip Monk
Philip Monk, head shot, courtesy Art Gallery of York University

Philip Monk, director of the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) since 2003, is among the eight winners of 2017 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, announced by the Canada Council for the Arts, Feb. 15.

The award recognizes outstanding career achievement in the visual arts and Monk is the recipient of the Outstanding Contribution Award for his 40 years as a writer, curator, and director. Monk was nominated by Toronto artist Greg Staats and AGYU Assistant Director/Curator Emelie Chhangur.

“Philip Monk is one of this country’s most rigorous, challenging, and accomplished writers and curators,” said Chhangur. “His critical voice and consistently exceptional curatorial work have made an inestimable impact on the history of art in Canada.”

Cover: Philip Monk, Stan Douglas, DuMont, 2006

He is the author (so far) of 12 books, 35 catalogues, 75 essays and articles, and more than 60 reviews, which makes Monk one of the most prolific art writers in Canada. Dedicated to setting in place the theoretical conditions for writing the history of contemporary Canadian Art, and Toronto in particular, Monk’s writing set the terms of debate on art in Canada for decades. He wrote the first books on international art stars Douglas Gordon and Fiona Tan and a landmark book on international Canadian art star Stan Douglas, that was published simultaneously in English and German editions. Recent books include  Glamour is Theft: A User’s Guide to General Idea (2012) and Is Toronto Burning? (2016), a history of the conflicted creation of Toronto’s downtown art scene in the late 1970s.

Among his achievements at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where he worked as a curator in 1985, were the first exhibitions ever at that institution of women artists, such as Liz Magor, Shirley Wiitasalo, and Joyce Wieland.

“Wherever he [Monk] worked he nurtured and empowered the careers of women curators, many of whom are now directors of national and international institutions,” said Chhangur.

Cover: Philip Monk, Is Toronto Burning?, Black Dog Publishing and AGYU, 2016

Monk took his role at the AGO to be the documentarian through exhibitions, publications and purchase of what was then excluded at the gallery – the history of contemporary art in Toronto. The AGO’s collection of the 1970s and 1980s is the result of this focus, including its large repository of General Idea’s work. While at the AGO he was also the commissioner of the Canadian Pavillion at the Venice Biennial in 1993, and he curated several exhibitions in Europe promoting Toronto art.

Transposing his experimentation in writing to curatorial innovation, Monk was a pioneer in a trend that is now an established methodology in the field – the restaging of important historical exhibitions precisely as they originally appeared, a practice he called in the 1980s “presenting events in retrospect.”

From 1994 to 2003, Monk focused his efforts on raising the international profile of The Power Plant in Toronto, which he did so with a stellar curatorial program committed to fostering a Canadian point of view. He established himself as an early expert in the new art of video projection. He began his innovative series of oblique views on the history of Toronto art, such as the prescient 1988 Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, while at The Power Plant.

As a director who values the perspectives of his entire team at AGYU, Monk created at York University an award-winning contemporary art gallery that is collaboratively focused and socially engaged. During his directorship, the AGYU began working in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood and then extended the gallery’s efforts to communities across Toronto and First Nations in southern Ontario. Today, the AGYU is now nationally recognized as the Canadian model for a socially engaged art institution.

General Idea installation Going Thru the Notions at Carmen Lamanna Gallery, 1975; courtesy Estate of Carmen Lamanna
General Idea installation Going Thru the Notions at Carmen Lamanna Gallery, 1975; courtesy Estate of Carmen Lamanna

“Philip is known for being open to new generations of practitioners, always enthusiastically fostering diverse forms of curatorial experimentation and generously welcoming new generations into the field,” said AGYU Assistant Curator Suzanne Carte. She noted that this is evident in his mentorship of young student curators and writers through programs such as the joint AGYU/Department of Visual Art and Art History’s “curatorial intensive” and at Y+ Contemporary, an artist-run space in Scarborough, where he acts as mentor-in-residence for emerging art writers.

Monk was the inaugural winner of Ontario Association of Art Galleries Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and won the Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award for Curatorial Excellence in Contemporary Art in 2010.

General Idea installation The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion at AGYU 2009, photo: Cheryl O’Brien

“I’m gratified to receive the award for my career as a writer, curator, and director, but, to tell the truth, I’ve always wanted to be recognized for my contributions as a writer and curating or directing were only other ways, by any means necessary, to continue being one,” said Monk.

Forty years of Monk’s writing can be found at

Pixie Cram’s short film on Monk, commissioned for the awards, can be viewed online as well as on Air Canada’s in-flight entertainment system.

The awards ceremony and a presentation of medallions by the Governor General David Johnston will take place at Rideau Hall on March 1 at 6pm. Award recipients also receive a $25,000 cash prize. Together with the other winners, he will be included in an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, opening April 8.