May 31, 2024 | Volunteer & Awards

‘Lifting as we rise:’ Black community champion Dr. Kenneth Montague receives the Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award

The dentist and renowned art collector has changed narratives about the Black community through art and created opportunities for diverse populations in health care

Kenneth Montague image in black and white.

A striking photograph of a young woman once hung in the waiting room of Dr. Kenneth Montague’s (DDS 1987) dental practice. The colourful image went largely unremarked upon at first, but soon started to attract far more attention. Patients began recognizing it as the work of Tyler Mitchell, whose iconic shot of Beyoncé had just landed on the cover of Vogue and been selected to hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Montague’s acquisition of the Mitchell photograph before the artist became widely known is a high-profile example of his penchant for spotting talent and helping nurture it — whether as a globally respected promoter of emerging Black artists or as a prominent health-care professional who helps people from underrepresented populations follow in his footsteps.

“That sense of lifting, of aspiration, is a big part of my personal mantra, which comes from my father and our family motto: ‘Lifting as we rise.’ It means that as we do well, we should lift others in our community,” says Montague.

“That’s at the core of who I am and what I do as a dentist, an art collector, teacher and father.”

He notes how he himself was lifted by his Jamaican immigrant parents, who moved to Windsor in the 1950s — long before later waves of immigration from non-European countries — and endured withering racism as they established themselves as professionals with the means to put their son through dental school. The phrase “As We Rise” is now so closely associated with Montague that it is the name of a new book featuring selections from his art collection.

Advancing the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion

To recognize his lifetime of contributions across the fine arts and health care, the University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) has named Montague the recipient of the 2024 Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award. Named for past UTAA president Carl Mitchell, the award recognizes alumni who advance the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion through their extraordinary volunteer contributions to the community at large.

“It is a tremendous honour to receive this award, especially since it is named for someone I really admire and respect,” says Montague. “Carl Mitchell was so well regarded in both the Black and the U of T communities — incredibly smart and generous, just a legend in so many ways.”

UTAA President Corwin Cambray (MScPl 1999) says Montague is an exceptionally deserving recipient who fulfils the aspirations of the Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award twice over.

“To sustain that level of impact for so many people over a period of decades is remarkable enough,” says Cambray. “But to effect this scale of change across two such divergent fields of endeavour — the fine arts and health care — is extraordinary and makes Ken such a fitting and unique honoree.”

Montague almost became an artist himself, and as a young man, he faced a classic sliding doors moment when he received acceptance letters from U of T’s dental school and McGill University’s music program in the same week. “Like a good immigrant son, I chose dental school,” he laughs, adding that playing in a band helped to satisfy his musical bent.

Upon opening his dental practice, Montague realized he could also express his artistic side by filling the space with his favourite artwork and music. The vibrant clinic soon became a dental go-to spot for musicians and entertainers, including Nelly Furtado, members of Broken Social Scene and k-os. For a time, Montague also frequently attended movie sets, providing services such as repairing Russell Crowe’s prosthetic tooth following fight scenes on the set of Cinderella Man.

The beauty of ordinary Black life

Most notably, his success as a dentist gave him the means to collect and promote original artwork by Black artists. The name for his Wedge Collection and non-profit, Wedge Curatorial Projects, was inspired by the wedge shape of his first gallery space but also serves as a metaphor for the need to create space for Black artists and disrupt negative narratives about the Black community. “Why don’t we show the beauty of ordinary Black life? It’s much more radical to just celebrate ordinariness and images that show beauty, identity and power.”

Montague is sought by leading global art institutions for his expertise, with contributions that include serving on committees for the Tate Modern in London and the Art Gallery of Ontario, appearing at international art symposiums and lecturing at the National Gallery of Canada, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among other institutions. Not one to forget his alma mater, Montague has also worked closely with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto to curate an international travelling exhibition featuring works from the Wedge Collection.

“Kenneth is renowned for remapping the knowledge of contemporary photography and visual histories of the diaspora of the Black Atlantic,” says Barbara Fischer, executive director and chief curator of the art museum. “He has been a mentor to many emerging and mid-career arts professionals, and he has been a volunteer supporter and builder of community based on principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, nurturing Black excellence all along the way.”

Treating people, not procedures

Montague’s determination to lift others in his community also extends to his chosen profession. Early in his dental career, Montague, along with several other health professionals, felt compelled to address the extremely small number of Black students training to become doctors and dentists. They found that over a 20-year period beginning in the 1980s, each first-year class in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine averaged only 1.5 students out of 250 who identified as Black — far fewer than would be expected considering that roughly 10 per cent of the population of the Greater Toronto Area is Black.

Through Temerty Medicine, the group launched the Summer Mentorship Program, in which high school students earn money to spend the summer alongside health professionals from the Black community. “It’s a powerful thing to see Black health professionals and think: ‘Okay, I’ve got good marks in science. I like people. I can do this,’” says Montague.

The program now also includes Indigenous students and over the years has grown significantly. Montague says that in September 2023, U of T’s medical school accepted 24 Black students, the most in its history, making up roughly 10 per cent of its first-year class. “Many of them had gone through our program, and it was such a powerful experience for them that they decided to pursue it.”

Montague recently retired from his dental practice and supports U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry as a part-time clinical instructor for fourth-year students. “I’m always telling them to treat people, not procedures,” he says. “You’re all good at what you do. You’re all great students. You’re all smart. You’re all good with your hands. But this is what’s going to bring up the whole dental community. We need to graduate people who change the way people think about going to the dentist.”

U of T Vice-President, Advancement David Palmer says Montague exemplifies the university’s commitment to advancing rights and opportunities for equity-deserving people.

“Our foundational value of inclusive excellence rests upon our close connections to the community and our ability to support diverse populations to reach their highest potential,” says Palmer.

“It is hard to imagine someone who has poured more of his heart and soul into advancing the aspirations and interests of the community than Kenneth. We are delighted to recognize him as one of our most impactful alumni and an eminently deserving recipient of the 2024 Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award.”

About Carl Mitchell

Carl Mitchell (BSc 1984 SMC) gave several lifetimes’ worth of contributions to U of T before passing away from cancer at the age of 55.

His many roles include president and treasurer of the U of T Alumni Association (UTAA) and sitting on the Group of 175 – Campaign Leadership, the Governing Council Committee for Honorary Degrees and the Department of Computer Science Industrial Advisory Board.

He began the UTAA’s Community Engagement Initiative to celebrate the service of U of T volunteers. He was himself honoured with an Arbor Award, U of T’s highest distinction for volunteers.

Building on his success in business and as a pioneer in the computer industry, Carl also became a significant donor to U of T by generously funding a computer lab in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.



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