Born in New York City and a student at Hunter College Elementary School and High School, Joan Charlat moved to Canada in 1959 to marry W. Ross Murray, Q.C. She studied art history at the University of Toronto, receiving an Honours B.A. (1965). After earning her M.A. at Columbia University (1966), she returned to Toronto to complete her doctorate, but in 1968, hired by the Art Gallery of Ontario as Head of Education & Extension, she did not return to the University to complete her doctoral work. In 1969, the Gallery promoted her to Research Curator, and then to Curator of Canadian Art (the first such Gallery appointment) (1970–73). At the Gallery, she also served as the Acting Chief Curator (1972). From 1974 to 1999, Ms. Murray served as Director of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa where she organized over one hundred exhibitions and built a substantial collection, largely of Canadian art, as well as assisting with the creation of a new building by Arthur Erickson in 1987. In 2002, she assisted the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario as one of the curators for a major retrospective of Tom Thomson. She also developed several exhibitions for the McLaughlin, among them The Birth of the Modern: Post-Impressionism in Canadian Art with a major book-catalogue and a ten-year retrospective of First Nations artist Carl Beam, as well as curating an exhibition of Guido Molinari for the Art Gallery of Hamilton, a show of Painters Eleven for the Thames Art Gallery in Chatham and a major retrospective of Florence Carlyle for Museum London. From 2003 to 2004, she served as Adjunct Curator to the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville. From 2005-2006, she served as the Interim Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. Her most recent books include one on the important Canadian abstract painter Michael Adamson (2008), a book on Tom Thomson, A Treasury of Tom Thomson (2008), and in 2012, Laura Muntz Lyall: Impressions of Women and Childhood.
Murray is a well-known and popular lecturer, both in Canada and abroad, and has served on many juries as well as writing many entries for catalogues, encyclopedia and lexicons. Her interviews with Canadian artists constitute the Joan Murray Papers: 750 audio and video tapes housed in Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, forming Canada’s most extensive oral history of art.