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Outgoing Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes reflects on community in arts

Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes is leaving the publication after 20 years.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Do I take my 20-year-old Ikea armchair home, or do I leave it for the new editor? I am packing up my office from a job I've held for 20 years at Canadian Art and it is raising a host of practical questions. Who gets the plant that an office manager left behind? I have been nursing it on a window ledge for five years. It has often been a pathetic excuse of a thing, sending up hopeful new leaves that wither at the stem time and again. The event planner put it in a bigger pot last year and it started to thrive. Around the office, it is affectionately known as "the metaphor" and lately it has started to thin out again. I am wondering if there is a message here.

When I announced last summer that I was leaving Canadian Art, the skies were high and blue. Now it is December and they are low and grey. There is an unmistakable sense of closure in the air: for the year, for me and for a job that deserves a love letter before I go. Numbers have always made Canadian Art a privilege to edit. It is by far the largest art magazine in Canada. People read it, leave it on their coffee tables and pass it along to friends. When Dyan Marie and I started C Magazine in the 1980s, it found its feet in the Canadian art community and in New York, which brought us a treasure house of Canadian and international contributors. Yet, at its height, C Magazine sold 2,500 copies – one-10th of what has been the usual press run for Canadian Art.

This was brought home to me when I started to write for Canadian Art in the 1990s, when Sarah Milroy edited the magazine. Sarah and I had a deal: She would give me a travel budget and I would go somewhere to write about art. One such trip got me to Philadelphia, where I had the run of the old Barnes Foundation before it launched the widely touring Barnes exhibit that would eventually make its way to the Art Gallery of Ontario (and before the Barnes Foundation moved downtown to new headquarters). The understaffed keepers at the Barnes mansion were busy that day, so they left me alone for an hour to wander Dr. Albert Barnes's house and art collection. The story for Sarah recounted that experience with thoughts about Barnes's missionary zeal for art.

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As any writer can tell you, we get used to launching stories into the void and learn to lower expectations for reception. This one was no different, so imagine my surprise a few months later when I am having a coffee and reading The Globe and Mail at a Tim Hortons in Oakville, Ont., when two men next to me start up a conversation about the Barnes exhibit at the AGO. One talks about the remarkable Dr. Barnes, who gave his pharmaceutical company staff long lunch hours to take art classes and who managed to collect some of the most famous modern art in the world. The other asks his friend how he knows so much about a downtown art show, and the first one answers: "My wife gets this art magazine and there is this story about him." They were talking about my story in Canadian Art.

That wide reach of readers is what defines Canadian Art. I came to the job respecting a magazine that could bridge the art world with an audience who wanted to learn about art and artists and come to an inside appreciation of the people who shape their lives around the making and looking and caring about art. Over 20 years, that core connection has never changed. The art world, however, has changed greatly since the first Fall 1996 issue I launched with the London, Ont., painter Paterson Ewen on its cover.

When the magazine marked its 30th anniversary last year, I wrote about some of those changes: the arrival of photography to the contemporary art world and Vancouver's important contribution; the concerted excellence of our country's First Nations artists; the entry of digital media in art and publishing; the increasing role of private-sector sponsorship of art and art institutions; and the globalization of art that puts great stress on how we value local or national art production.

Editing Canadian Art has given me an unendingly engaged overview of these issues and more. It has brought me close to writers and artists and curators and dealers who start their days looking at what is emerging on the horizons of where life and art meet culture. These are people with great belief in the sense that we can make of the visible world, even when there is not much apparent sense to be seen. It has been an unqualified pleasure working alongside them. I owe them 20 years, 20 years and counting.

The Winter 2016 issue of Canadian Art, Rhodes's last as editor, will be on newsstands next week.

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