Melanie Townsend was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. She attended Kennedy Collegiate Secondary School and earned an Honours Bachelor degree from Western University in 1991. This was followed by a Master’s degree in history from the University of Windsor in 1994. During her undergraduate studies, while working as a collections assistant with Windsor’s Community Museum, Townsend was captivated by the creativity of the museum and gallery world. Five years later, she began her career in the visual arts, working at the Art Gallery of Windsor as its Curatorial Assistant/Coordinator. Because she grew up in the industrial community of Windsor, Townsend was sometimes known as the “Blue Collar Curator.” One of the first, labour related, exhibitions was entitled “Some Assembly Required” at Windsor’s Community Museum in 1997.
From 1998 to 2004, Townsend worked as Curator of the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff. Here she established lifelong friendships with many in the national and international arts community, and helped establish the Banff International Curatorial Institute. She was also instrumental in partnering with Plugin Gallery in 2001 for the 49th Venice Biennale, which featured the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. While there, the artists created The Paradise Institute for the Canada Pavilion. It won a special jury prize, the Golden Lion Prize and won international critical acclaim at the most prestigious international exhibition for Visual Art. While at the Walter Phillips Gallery her most notable curatorial projects included: Sentient Circuitry (2002); Roy Kiyooka: Accidental Tourist (2004) and Campsites (2005). She also edited and wrote many key works within the curatorial world including: The Paradise Institute (2001), Beyond the Box: Diverging Curatorial Practices (2003) and a series of essays on the works of numerous artists. During these years she also made an important contribution to the Calgary artist-run centre TRUCK, serving on its board, including as President. In later years, Townsend went on to provide generous support to the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, serving as its Secretary, Vice President, and President between 2010 and 2016.
In July of 2004 Townsend returned to Southwestern Ontario, taking on the role of Curator of Contemporary Art, at Museum London. One year later she was elevated to its Head of Exhibitions and Collections. In this capacity, Townsend made innumerable contributions to the institution, and to the broader state of contemporary and historical Canadian art. She nurtured important subjects in Canadian culture through her writing, exhibitions, catalogues, and other projects. She supported hundreds of artists, and mentored many professionals in the field of curation, including her colleagues, emerging professionals, and university students.
Townsend’s peers in the gallery world, and her friends across the country, will always remember Melanie for her insightful and original curatorial work, and her deliciously dry sense of humour. She was an industrious, down-to earth, and inventive individual who developed popular and critically-acclaimed programs. A selection of her major exhibitions and/or publications while at Museum London include:Garry Neill Kennedy: Superstar Shadow (2006); Wyn Geleynse: A Man Trying to Explain Pictures (2006); Gardens of a Colonial Present: Ron Benner (2008); Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words (2009); Kim Adams: One for the Road (2013); Kim Ondaatje (2013); and Colette Urban: Incognito (2014). Exhibitions and catalogues developed or supported by Townsend won several OAAG Awards, including Exhibition of the Year prizes, in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2015. These endeavours celebrated and documented new research on the work of Jamelie Hassan, Jack Chambers, Jane Buyers, James Lahey, and many others. Such projects brought accolades, and meant a great deal to Townsend personally.
She died on December 19th, 2018, after her 2yr battle with ovarian cancer, and will be deeply missed by her husband, step father and 4 yr old son.
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