Interview with Curator Jan Ross

Emily Carr House c. 2010; photo by Sian James

Jan Ross is a pioneer in the Province of British Columbia, taking on the development and management of an historic site as private entrepreneur. Her success at Emily Carr National and Provincial Historic Site as Resident Curator and Site Manager is now recognized nationally and beyond as an example of this innovative site-management approach. During the last 19 years, Ross has focused on making Emily Carr House a resource for visitors, and, most particularly, she has aimed to engage and support locals through specialty programming.

Ross is an advocate for Emily Carr’s legacy of inspiration through her work directly at Emily Carr House and elsewhere in the community; of particular note is the commissioning and installation of a statue of Emily Carr in the prominent Inner Harbour location and the  “Wild Lilies” Fundraiser Campaign for Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation inspired by a Carr painting. Currently, Ross is an advisory board member for the highly innovative arts/heritage tourism development project: The Economuse Network, where her influence and experience is proving a highly influential model for heritage artisan interpretation centres. Awards and honours have recognized Ross in her volunteer and professional roles with numerous organizations: The Red Cross, the Garth Homer Arts Studio, the Victoria College of Art, the University of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Ross is a recipient of the Greater Victoria Community Leader Award in Arts and Culture; A Woman of Distinction Award Winner for Arts and Culture; a Minerva Foundation Leader; a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Victoria; and an Honourary Citizen of the City of Victoria.

Interview with Jan Ross, Resident Curator, Emily Carr House

Stephanie McKenzie (SM): Jan, can you offer a brief summary of the history of Emily Carr House and your role in it? And can you describe for me some of the challenges that face the Emily Carr House? For example, what are your sources of funding for Emily Carr House, and is it enough? What is needed to ensure the Emily Carr House not only survives but also thrives and continues to draw attention to Carr and foster the arts?

Emily Carr c. 1876; photo from Royal BC Museum Archives

Jan Ross (JR): Emily Carr House, designated both as a B.C. Provincial and Canadian National Historic Site, is currently operated on behalf of its owners, the people of British Columbia, as an interpretive centre and museum dedicated to the art, writing and life of iconic Canadian Emily Carr. The house was built for her father and mother, Richard and Emily Carr, in 1862-63 and was home to her parents and their six surviving children. Emily Carr (named after her mother) was born in the house on December 13,1871. It was the year that B.C. joined confederation, and this held great significance to Carr.

After the death of her parents, one or more of the family lived in the house almost continuously until 1936, when the last of the sisters to live there, Elizabeth Carr, died. In 1938, the remaining two Carr family members, Alice and Emily, sold the house. It passed through a series of owners and was primarily a boarding house, falling further and further into disrepair, until the mid-1960s when it would have been destined to be torn down and a modern concrete apartment block put up in its stead–had it not been for Victoria’s Liberal M.P. of the day, David Groos.

Groos overheard the discussion between the developers at a luncheon and went out and bought it out from underneath them. Through his good auspices, a not-for-profit society, Friends of Emily Carr House, was formed and the restoration of the house begun. Through David Groos and under the official patronage of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the house and grounds were made a National Historic Site. The Victoria Junior Chamber of Commerce undertook much of the fundraising to help restore and maintain the house, and, also, federal funding for the restoration was forthcoming. In 1976, an agreement was put in place between the Federal Government and the Province of B.C. to have it made a Provincial Historic Site to be cared for and operated by the province as a historic site museum dedicated to Emily Carr.

It was further restored on the ground floor by the province and opened to the public as an arts centre and museum; various interpretive programming was presented on a somewhat limited scale until 1996. At that time, Clio Arts Associates Ltd. (principals are my husband and I–Michael and Jan Ross) took on the interpretive and day-to-day operations of Emily Carr House on a contractual basis to provide expanded public access, curatorial and site care, and interpretation. As a family of four with two very young daughters, we moved into the unrestored upstairs of the house and have lived here now coming up to 19 years.

At first, the province was responsible for core funding and maintenance, and Clio Arts Associates Ltd. cared for all other responsibilities through whatever means it could raise revenues (for e.g., admissions, gift shop sales, etc.). This is how we ‘paid’ ourselves after expenses. This joint stewardship of Emily Carr House continued until 2001, when the complete management of the site was devolved to Clio Arts Associates Ltd. with much reduced Provincial core funding and maintenance but greater autonomy. Various studies and consultations initiated by the Province have all led to the same conclusion by the consultants–that Emily Carr House requires greater and ongoing sustained core funding to fulfill its mandate as outlined in the federal-provincial agreement and as expected by the local community, the owners of the property–the people of B.C., visitors, scholars, tourists, artists, writers, musicians, actors, the pilgrims–in short, all those who recognize the importance of Emily Carr.

As her star continues to rise and what we call her ‘legacy of inspiration’ continues to grow, more resources and recognition of the role that Emily Carr House has and should continue to play in fostering this legacy need to be brought to bear upon sustaining, maintaining, restoring and curating. Emily Carr House provided Carr herself a wellspring for her art, writings and life; it can continue to be a wellspring for these same things if given support and respect.

SM: Are there other buildings or objects in Victoria and/or elsewhere that you feel should be restored or protected in addition to Emily Carr House?

emily carr
Emily Carr c. 1940; photo by Harold Mortimer Lamb (from Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Collection)

JR: Emily Carr’s reach is throughout Greater Victoria and, in fact, British Columbia. On the original parcel of land purchased by Richard Carr (nearly four acres), there are three additional Carr houses: Edith’s, Alice’s (the last house that Emily lived in with her sister), and Emily Carr’s own boarding house, which she called “The House of All Sorts.” All three are privately owned and have some form of designation, but all three add greatly to the story of Carr and her family. Most notably, the House of All Sorts and Alice’s house both held Carr’s studios. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), an important cultural institution in Victoria, has a significant Carr collection and exhibits Carr works on an ongoing basis with changing exhibitions. Clio Arts Associates Ltd. works collaboratively and in partnership with the AGGV to increase awareness of Carr and also the fine work of the AGGV in all its many invaluable cultural contributions. The Royal BC Museum (RBCM) has a large and important collection of Carr art and houses her equally important archival collection. Clio Arts Associates Ltd. advises and seeks advice also with the RBCM staff regarding many aspects of Carr scholarship and curation. The University of Victoria’s Legacy Gallery and Collections also has significant Carr works, and the University of Victoria’s McPherson Library has rich and important archival materials relating to Carr. The Departments of Anthropology and History at UVic have areas of study by faculty and students that also bring focus to Carr’s legacy and to Emily Carr house, specifically. Clio Arts works closely with all these UVic departments to enhance all that can be done to bring further scholarly focus and accessibility to Carr and to Emily Carr House. The Emily Carr University in Vancouver and the Vancouver Art Gallery (which houses many of the greatest of Carr’s masterpieces) must also be acknowledged and placed front and centre in the Carr pantheon. Clio Arts is fortunate to have good working relationships and friendships with those in both these prestigious institutions, along with virtually every other public gallery or museum in Canada that owns Carr works or exhibits them. This would also include Grenfell Campus, Memorial University Newfoundland, given the very important symposium it hosted in 2013: “From Atlantic to Pacific: An Introduction to Artist/Writer Emily Carr.”

In addition, I should mention Michael Audain-the largest private collector of Emily Carr’s paintings and a great supporter of the arts in general and all things Carr related. He and his wife, through the Audain Foundation, have done, and continue to do, so much to support the legacy of Carr and all  arts. He has now the Audain Gallery in Whistler, which highlights his private collection of many of the most important artists of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Carr, First Nations’ artists, like Bill Reid and Charles Edenshaw, and so many, many more. He is a great man, and he and his wife are so very highly respected.

SM: How do you feel Carr’s work and legacy can be adequately preserved and protected? For instance, I can’t help but think of the fact that there is no specific gallery or museum dedicated solely to the work of Carr (nothing akin to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for example). Do you think one day it might be possible to have a place dedicated solely to the work of Carr? Should this be a main aim from your perspective? Are there other pressing goals right now?

JR: Bringing together–in a united and collaborative way–all these important institutions and the contributions that each makes in furthering an understanding of the importance and accessibility of Carr can be achieved by adequate resourcing and goodwill.

SM: What is your perspective on the recent Carr exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London? This is Carr’s first international exhibition? Is that correct?

JR: The spotlight that is being shone on Emily Carr and British Columbia at the Dulwich Gallery in London cannot be over exaggerated. Much has already been written, filmed, broadcast and put forward into the social media world about this exhibit. Carr was one of a group (and the first historic Canadian artist) to be shown in Germany three years ago at documenta. Carr had some of her works shown at the Tate Gallery in London in 1937–they were extremely well received.

SM: This question is related to the former. Why do you think it has taken so long for Carr to begin to get international attention? I know it was only in the last couple of years that members of the Group of Seven were profiled at the Dulwich. Had they had more international representation before this/before Carr?

JR: As Canadian, Carr’s international reputation has, indeed, been slow in growing, but, from the current perspective, it would seem she is poised to become far more widely known and appreciated.

SM: How do you think Carr can be re-thought today? What other new understanding, or understandings, of Carr would you like to perpetuate?

JR: Carr’s particular path to her expressing herself in her art and writings, spiritual, environmental and personal clearly are a fit for much of what we see in the current zeitgeist. Perhaps this is where and why so many are discovering or re-discovering her? And dammit, when all is said and done, when you look at her work–that woman could paint! And her writing is as with all great writers truly a unique voice.

SM: I have to ask you this, Jan, because you know I’m obsessed with possible connections between Carr and Van Gogh. Maybe obsessed isn’t the right word: I simply spent many years considering this connection. What do you think about possible connections between Carr and Van Gogh—especially in light of the numerous comments now (about Carr’s comparability to Van Gogh) that are being made since the Dulwich exhibition of her work opened? Are there other artists you’d like to see drawn into conversation about Carr—or other artists you’d like people to consider comparing her to?

JR: The comparisons and connections to Van Gogh come from a wholly justifiable place. Carr herself, as well as her contemporaries, drew them repeatedly. The validity of that comparison and connection is based upon historic data (Carr saw Van Gogh’s work, she knew his story) and upon the studied reflection of scholars (such as yourself). As we know, nothing is created in a vacuum or without precedent or influence. Art historians, such as myself, may study these aspects, but it is with scholar artists, such as yourself, that we may find the clearest path to understanding because, for artists like Carr, like Van Gogh, and like you as a poet, the elusive but vital component of the muse enters in.

As to other artists . . . All the Post-Impressionists, all the Impressionists, the greats–Gauguin, Picasso, the Group of Seven. All those anonymous, but, clearly, most important First Nations artists that she bore witness to—like Sophie Pemberton. Any and all she came in contact with and saw–those she embraced and those she rejected!

SM: Would you like to make any other comments or address any other questions here (that I have not asked)?

JR: Undoubtedly, living in Emily Carr’s home, raising a family with daughters here, championing Carr and the importance of her place in our collective, cultural, and spiritual ouevre has left me with an unmistakable bias. To steal a phrase from Turner’s wife, ‘I am merely a handmaiden to [her] art.’ But having said this, I would add that the value of Emily Carr House for me, personally, and, I trust, in how we have stewarded it, has been by making it more than just a shrine to a long dead artist/writer. It is to make it a wellspring for Carr’s legacy of inspiration.

Thank you, Stephanie, for these good questions and the platform to respond.


For more information about the Emily Carr House in Victoria, BC, please visit their website at