Reviewed December 2020
Sandra Cowan, Fine Arts Librarian
University of Lethbridge
The Art Canada Institute (ACI) was launched in 2013 as a national institution to promote the study of Canadian art history in an inclusive and accessible way. It is based at Massey College, University of Toronto, and aspires to be an online art museum, a digital library, and an interactive Canadian art encyclopedia. Previously there had been no centralized institute or online collection that was fulfilling this role in Canada.
The Canadian Online Art Book Project is one of several ACI initiatives. They publish six new open access e-books about Canadian artists each year, in both French and English. The introductory page for each artist’s book has links to ACI videos about the artist. It is not clear how they select artists to include every year, but the current list includes Indigenous artists, historical artists, contemporary artists, Group of Seven artists, and more. At the time of this review, forty-seven titles were available. Some of the artists whose “Life and Work” are documented in this selection are Emily Carr, Norval Morisseau, Agnes Martin, Michael Snow, Jean Paul Riopelle, General Idea, and Annie Pootoogook.
The online books follow a consistent and easy-to-access form, including information about the artist’s biography, key works, significant and critical issues, style and technique, sources and resources, and where to see the artist’s work. Each book gives the reader a thorough and authoritative understanding of the artist and their work. The books may be read online or downloaded in PDF format. They are well illustrated with biographical photos and images of the artist’s work; the writing is clear, professional, and well-cited. The authors are respected Canadian art historians, researchers, professors, and curators. The production is consistent and professional, and some of the books are also available in print format.
The website’s structure and navigation are one-dimensional. One can browse the list of books presented graphically as front covers in a grid format, organized in alphabetical order by the artist’s surname. There is a basic keyword search function that will search for an artist’s first or last name. The search function on the website is rudimentary and may become cumbersome as the list of books grows. Libraries can catalog the ACI online books to make them discoverable by their library patrons. However, MARC records are not available through this website. These online books provide a fantastic, authoritative overview of many Canadian artists and their works but are not overly lengthy--each is under 150 pages. Any library with an art or art history focus would benefit from them. The Canadian Online Art Book Project is a highly recommended free resource to learn about Canadian artists and art history – and the best thing is, there are many more Canadian online art books to come.