Isaacs Seen: Closet Collector

By Megan Bice, 2005

The Textile Museum of Canada is partnering with three fellow public institutions to present Isaacs Seen - four interconnected exhibitions illustrating the career of pioneer art dealer and avid collector, Avrom Isaacs, and his impact on the Canadian art scene.

For five decades, The Isaacs Gallery showcased textiles and folk art and hosted poetry readings and performance art. Experimental and avant-garde film screenings were regular events, and Isaacs oversaw the production of a multitude of fine-art catalogues, artists' prints, poetry books and albums. In 1970, Isaacs opened the Innuit Gallery of Eskimo Art, the first venue in Canada devoted exclusively to Inuit art. It became the Isaacs/Innuit Gallery in 1991, and featured early North American aboriginal art until it closed in 2001.

In post-World War II decades, in which The Isaacs Gallery and The Innuit Gallery flourished, fresh artistic attitudes were formed. Sometimes these attitudes arose in reaction to the well-established traditions of Canadian landscape painting; sometimes in an embrace of international approaches such as abstraction, and; sometimes in exploration of new and non-traditional media such as modern fiberglass, or the age-old genres of folk art and fibre work. Isaacs centred his galleries on Canadian art, but he has also described himself as a “wanderer, just going in directions that present themselves.”

His wanderings have taken him physically and imaginatively to both nearby and far-off places, leaving him open to the new and the diverse. He supported artists' experiments with untried media and championed the images and craftsmanship of cultures previously unknown to him. He acknowledges a moment of self-discovery while visiting New York's Museum of the American Indian in 1962, when he recognized that “Art can appear in many guises.”

Over the years his gallery programs incorporated exhibitions of textiles from around the world. The programs emerged in a number of ways; by happenstance, when a stranger offered a group of exquisitely embroidered women's tunics purchased in Baluchistan; by intent, when artists such as Joyce Wieland and Jessie Oonark chose the medium of thread and fabric, and; by a simple love of what people make, exemplified by the delicate workmanship of a woman's beaded headdress from Siberia. On closing out his Yonge Street gallery in 1990, Isaacs recognized, somewhat to his surprise, that he had become a “closet collector of textiles.”

The works in this exhibition are drawn from Isaacs's personal collection; items he has donated to the Textile Museum and memorable pieces that passed through his gallery to private hands. The exhibition presents an overview of Isaacs's enduring passion for textile arts. Closet Collector's variety is wide-ranging in purpose, technique, place and time. Its commonality rests in Isaacs's personal, appreciative eye, and in the individualism of the hand of the maker.

Isaacs Seen is accompanied by a 176-page illustrated publication edited by Donnalu Wigmore, titled Isaacs Seen: 50 Years on the Art Front, which includes contributions by Megan Bice, Sarah Milroy and Dennis Reid, as well as reminiscences by Dennis Burton, Martha Black, Robert Fulford, David Silcox, Donnalu Wigmore and many others. Entries by Avrom Isaacs are found throughout the scrapbook.


“What is this all about? It's funny how you can arrive with these preconditioned premises, but it slowly came to me that anything can be an art form.”
- Avrom Isaacs (on seeing traditional First Nations clothing at New York's Museum of the American Indian in 1962)

“I learned that the term 'primitive,' when used to describe a people, should only apply to comparative technological development.”
- Avrom Isaacs

“Of their many qualities, what has captivated me the most about textiles is the personal connection - the singular human touch in the handmade object.”
- Avrom Isaacs

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada