Williams Legacy Chair

The 10 Mile Student Assistance Fund
Godfrey Stephens: Michael Williams, one of Victoria's very few art patrons

When respected heritage property developer, arts patron and philanthropist Michael Williams bequeathed $17 million of his estate to UVic after his death in 2000, it wasn’t just the largest gift to date in the university's 38-year history; it also provided the foundation for the establishment of the Art History & Visual Studies department's Williams Legacy Chair in Modern and Contemporary of the Pacific Northwest.

“There are various living legacies to Michael Williams,” says inaugural Chair, Dr. Carolyn Butler-Palmer. “Establishing a downtown art project, continuing his interest in living artists and in Pacific Northwest art, giving UVic students an opportunity to have that off-campus experience . . . it’s his interests in art we perpetuate.”

A living legacy

A passionate collector, the $3.5 million in contemporary art Williams left to UVic — including pieces by the likes of Myfanwy Pavelic, Jack Shadbolt, Susan Point, Robert Davidson, Maxwell Bates and James Gordaneer — can not only be seen in numerous places across campus, but also formed the heart of UVic's downtown Legacy Art Gallery. But it was the establishment of the Williams Legacy Chair in Modern and Contemporary of the Pacific Northwest in 2008 that has led to some of the biggest impacts of engaging the community through Williams' vibrant and diverse legacy.

Says Butler-Palmer, “I keep the tangible and intangible collection alive through oral histories, exhibitions that showcase the exhibit, and by designing research programs that draw upon his interests—notably downtown revitalization and the homeless community.”

About the Williams Legacy Chair

The Williams Legacy Chair is endowed in recognition of UVic's Legacy Gallery, with a specialization in the area of modern and contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest. The position is focused on three major areas: research with First Nations people and communities, research on and about the Williams Collection, and community engagement in practices of curating.

Dr. Carolyn Butler-Palmer is an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies. Her program of research lies at the intersections between visual histories and issues in human rights, and especially the rights of Indigenous people. Questions about looking relations and the politicization of aesthetic relations significantly inform her research, as does challenging assumptions about the production of art historical knowledge and knowledge mobilization. She is particularly interested in dark heritage and the preservation of intangible value systems with respect to the arts of the Pacific Northwest. Some of her research is community-based, and is designed to attend to the needs of community members rather than academic concerns.

She has recently published articles in the Journal of Canadian Art History and the Journal of the Surrealism in the Americas, and is currently working on a book manuscript From Ellen Newman Neel to Ellen Neel Newman: A Portrait of a Kwaguitl Family of Artists, 1916-2016. This book project focuses on Ellen Neel (1916-1966), who is usually credited with being the first woman carver, and subsequent generations of artists that descend from her eldest son David Neel, Sr. (1937-1961).

Student successes

Over the past eight years, Butler-Palmer has trained a number of undergraduate and graduate students in the field of curatorial studies. Some have gone on to graduate programs at institutions such as St. Andrew’s University, California College of the Arts, Concordia University, and the University of British Columbia. Others have secured jobs with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria, the Robert Bateman Centre, educational institutions such as Shine, which is based in the United Kingdom.

Recents projects

ACCESS Art

Working with ACCESS Health at downtown's Cool Aid Community Health Clinic, this multi-year project involved AHVS students plus staff at UVic Art Collections & Cool-Aid to install 40 works of art in Cool Aid's two community clinics, as well as the mounting of Legacy Gallery three exhibits (Regarding Wealth, Connect the Blocks, On Communities and Nations). 

The Big Button Blanket

Working together with Tahltan Nation artist Peter Morin, local indigenous blanket makers and AHVS students, Dr. Butler-Palmer initiated the creation of the world's biggest button blanket: a six-metre-square, 250-pound blanket using 4,000 buttons, many of which were contributed by community members. The resulting blanket was celebrated at the opening of UVic’s 2014 Diversity Research Conference and was part of an art performance by Governor General’s Award-winning performance artist and former UVic Audain Professor Rebecca Belmore during the 2014 Legacy Gallery exhibit Adaslā: The Movement of Hands.

Emerging Through the Fog

A diverse project focused on Indigenous research, art, culture and community, the Legacy Gallery exhibit Emerging Through the Fog: Tsa-qwa-supp and Tlehpik – Together featured the prints and paintings of Art Thompson/Tsa-qwa-supp and interactive carvings by contemporary artist and Visual Arts MFA student Hjalmer Wenstob/Tlehpik. The two Nuu-chah-nulth men were longtime friends and Tsa-qwa-supp was a mentor and inspiration to Tlehpik and countless other artists who continue his work today. The exhibit was curated by Hjalmer Wenstob, with supervisory guidance from Dr. Butler-Palmer.

The Williams Collection Oral History Project

Focusing on the collection & transcription of oral histories about artists & artwork in the Michael Collard Williams Collection, this project will also create an online database to facilitate future research by scholars and students; to date, 15 interviews have been completed, some of which were featured in the 2013 Legacy Gallery exhibit, Creating Con[text].