Obituary of William J. Withrow
WILLIAM J. WITHROW
C.M., O. Ont., C.D., M.A., M. Ed., F.M.C.A., F.O.C.A.
Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, 1961-1991
Bill Withrow died peacefully, with family at his side, on Sunday, January 7, 2018 at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.
Bill was born in Toronto on September 30, 1926 to Wilfred and Evelyn Withrow. Showing early artistic promise, he was selected to attend Saturday classes at the Art Gallery of Toronto, where Arthur Lismer was among his teachers. At 18, following the example of his father and grandfather, who had both served in France during WWI, Bill enlisted in the army. Upon his discharge, Bill’s parents encouraged him to use his veterans’ allowance to attend university. He agreed on one condition – that he could first marry his high school sweetheart, the beautiful and vivacious June Van Ostrom. After graduation from the University of Toronto, Bill became an art teacher and then department head at Earl Haig Collegiate. He also taught evening art classes, served in the intelligence unit of the army reserves, and obtained two Master’s Degrees, one in Fine Art and another in Education.
In 1960, Bill joined the Art Gallery of Toronto as Associate Director and was appointed Director in 1961. Under his leadership, the AGT flourished. In 1966, he convinced the province that the institution should become the Art Gallery of Ontario, providing it with more prominence and funding. With the significant donation of European and Canadian modern art by Sam and Ayala Zacks, and the promise by Henry Moore of a major donation of his own works (the foundation of what is now the largest collection of Moore works in the world), Bill was able to obtain public and private funding to undertake an ambitious three-stage, twenty-year expansion of the AGO’s building and its collection.
Bill introduced the blockbuster exhibition to Toronto by bringing the international touring exhibition, Treasures of Tutankhamun, to the AGO in 1979. Outstanding touring shows organized by the AGO followed, such as Vincent Van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonnism and The Mystic North.
He was also active in the wider arts community, co-chairing an influential federal task force on policy-making for Canada’s museums, serving on the committee to choose a Canadian war memorial for Green Park in London and as a founding board member of the Varley Art Gallery of Markham.
Bill leaves behind his wife, June, to whom he would have been married 70 years on January 24. June was his great love, nurturing presence and charming companion at AGO events, and their home was the gathering place for family birthdays, holiday celebrations and countless backyard barbecues. Bill will be lovingly remembered by his children, John (Laurel Murdoch), Stephen (Christine), Anne (John Trimble) and David (Chloe McIntosh); by grandchildren, Jennifer (Craig Whiteside) and Diana Withrow; Stephanie Eadie (Wayne) and Ryan Trimble; Jacqueline Cavalier-Withrow; and by great-grandson, James Whiteside. Fondly remembered by step-grandson, Patrick Walsh. Predeceased by his youngest grandchild, Laura Withrow, on November 29, 2017.
The family wishes to acknowledge with deepest thanks his personal support workers, led over the past 5 years by the incomparable Mercy Flores. We are also most grateful to Dr. David Shergold and Dr. Maria Chang and the staff of the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, who showed Bill and the family much kindness.
A celebration of life will be held in Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1G4) on Sunday, April 8, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, making a donation or taking out a membership to the AGO would be most fitting. Donations in Bill’s name may be made at www.ago.ca or by calling 416-979-6660, ext. 816. Condolences, photographs and memories may be forwarded through www.humphreymilesnewbigging.com.