GDC Fellow

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Frances E.M. Johnston, FGDC/Hon.

Born in Hamilton in on May 25, 1921, (Miss) Frances Emily Marshall Johnston (as she wrote it in her résumé) was President and Chief Executive Officer of The Museum of Promotional Arts, and “a student all her life.” She took art classes, later becoming an assistant instructor to Arthur Lismer at the (then) Art Gallery of Toronto. In the late 1930s she graduated from the fine and commercial art program at Northern Vocational School in Toronto. She planned to be a professional artist and designer, and won a province-wide poster competition sponsored by the Junior Advertising and Sales Club of Toronto. (Where are they now?) These qualifications were apparently not enough to overcome the effects of the Depression, and she moved into secretarial and administration positions in museums and libraries. She also worked in the education department at the Art Gallery of Ontario between 1961 and 1966, and was a ceramic jewelry artist who owned her own kiln.

She conceived the idea for The MPA (she insisted the capital ‘T’ was mandatory) in 1978. “This is the first museum institution to foster the concept that the whole planet is a museum containing objects in everyday life that are worthy of musing upon for what they represent in the history of humankind and all life.” It was, then, a ‘museum without walls’ somewhat in the mold of Malraux, except that its object of study was focused on what she somewhat vaguely called the promotional arts. “Among the promotional arts,” she wrote, “are such things as flags, signs, book illustration, advertising, packaging, the religious arts, and many, many more.” A list of great generosity, but with perhaps one guiding interest: she confessed she was “mad about the letters of the alphabet and the numerals because of their power to influence.”  

It would require an equally generous act of definition to see The MPA as fully a museum since, as noted, it had neither a building nor a collection (unless we count Miss Johnston’s lifelong interest in collecting shopping bags). It was an enthusiasm of hers; she produced an irregular newsletter, EMPA, and hosted well-attended annual speaking events. Named in honor of Carl Dair, the first event was held in 1980 at Massey College. The 17th Annual event, for example, was in 1996 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and looked at the evolution of photographic technology in the digital age. It was sponsored by BGM imaging, and featured a panel of photographers, the president of BGM, and Miss Johnston. The newsletters were always a single folded sheet, sometimes hand typed, and sometimes beautifully typeset on a volunteer basis by some of the best typographers in Canada, notably Rod Macdonald, the designer of Cartier Book, and the late Ed Cleary. They always included one original photo, stamp, matchbook, miniature calendar, or other tipped-in artifact. 

Following her death, in February, 1998, the posthumous issue of EMPA (March–April 1998) contained tributes to her as a one-woman show: determined, gentle, and practical. It also noted that her Museum, while it is everywhere around us, was an idea sadly shared by only a few. Anthony Jenkins allowed, in the Globe and Mail, that it was “an idea whose time has not come and isn’t expected to come all that soon,” perhaps destined for a future, “gentler age, when people have time to muse.” Miss Johnston summed it up, suggesting that “as soon as you say ‘museum,’ people think ‘building.’ Getting them to think ‘whole planet,’ goodness me, people think you’re nuts!”

Besides the legacy of her project and her works, Miss Johnston left a bequest to be overseen by MPA trustees Jim MacLean and Ted Morrison, part of which was applied in 2003 as seed money to help launch a joint research project in Canadian design history, with primary funding by the Department of Canadian Heritage, and managed jointly by Sheridan College, the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (, and the Ontario College of Art & Design.

— Brian Donnelly