Be original and innovative: Schweitzer

Talent is not enough to ensure success, rather those with an inner desire to succeed will achieve their goals, Canadian artist John Schweitzer told graduates of The University of Western Ontario Friday.

Schweitzer spoke to graduates from the faculties of Information and Media Studies and Social Science, as well as the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the Oct. 28 afternoon session of The University of Western Ontario’s 298th Convocation.
The university conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws upon Schweitzer in recognition of his generosity as a donor and patron of the arts.

“View your life as a mission to marvel and be marveled,” Schweitzer says. “Just getting by limits your ambition to the ranks of the pedestrian. … To be original, innovative, stellar, now there’s a testosterone-charged challenge.”

Graduating from Western summa cum laude, Schweitzer went on to complete a master of fine arts at York University, where he studied with distinguished Canadian artist Vera Frenkel.

Best known for his large collages, Schweitzer’s artistic career includes 22 solo exhibitions at venues such as the Musee des beaux-art de Montreal, the Goethe-Institut, Toronto, and McGill University. He has also participated in more than 50 group exhibitions in Canada and abroad.

“The university has always represented the genesis of my career,” Schweitzer says. “When this small-town boy enrolled here in 1970, I still recall the incandescent sense of belonging, one that valorized the arts and embraced individualism.”

Rather than be dissuaded by life’s obstacles, Schweitzer encourages graduates to “frame bad luck as a call to action.”

“Remain a perennial student; be curious about your world and the world. Do not restrain, and thereby restrict, your interests to your career,” he says. “Consider a vocation in life, one that allows or even requires an approach of polysemous pluralism, or even better, a omnivorous predisposition of passion.”

In 1984, Schweitzer founded the Galerie John A. Schweitzer in Montreal with a landmark project featuring acclaimed American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For the next 20 years his gallery was a major platform for engaging the Montreal community through thought-provoking exhibitions and animated social events.

While many celebrate Schweitzer’s contributions to the arts community, few are aware of his philanthropic activities. Throughout his career, Schweitzer has given to a variety of charitable organizations within the arts and community-at-large.

Schweitzer has been a significant supporter of Western, making substantial gifts of material culture to the D.B. Weldon Library, Archives and Research Collections Centre, and the McIntosh Gallery. Since 2000, he has been a trustee of Western’s Pride Library and in 2004, the John A. Schweitzer Gallery opened on campus, where aspects of his activities as an artist, collector and donor are permanently displayed.

He received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 for his contributions to the arts and received a national citation for philanthropy from former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson in 2005.

“My trajectory as both an artist and philanthropist is predicated upon the ideological latitude of this enlightened (Western) community,” he says.

He has donated art to more than 50 public galleries in Canada. His record of community service and patronage includes an array of health-care organizations, such as the Montreal Children’s Hospital and Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. As well, his own foundation supports visual artists with AIDS and Schweitzer has supported the fight against HIV through a range of activities.

In 2009, the Poirier Schweitzer Pavilion opened at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital Foundation in recognition of Schweitzer and his life partner of 33 years, Robert Poirier.

In his citation, McIntosh Gallery director James Patten says Schweitzer has given selflessly to a variety of charitable organizations within the arts and broader community.

“Whether it is through the scraps of paper and ephemera he artistically arranges into beautiful collages, or the array of Canadian and international art he displayed in his Montreal art gallery, John Schweitzer has brought people and visual culture together in innovative ways for more than 30 years,” Patten says.