On the recent situation and debate around the National Gallery of Canada

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003. The Easton Foundation. Photo NGC.jpg
Photo credit: Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003. Bronze, stainless steel, and marble, 927 x 891 x 1024 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © The Easton Foundation. Photo: NGC

There were several inquiries to CIMAM’s position on the recent debate around the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa. With its surface of half a million square feet and a collection of close to a hundred thousand works, this is one of the major museums in North America. It was founded in 1880 by the then Governor General of Canada ‘assisted by a number of patriotic Canadian citizens’, for the collection of ‘pictures, statuary and other works of art’. The federal government assumed legal responsibility for the museum in 1913, and the 1990 Museum’s Law added photography to its domain, defining its purposes as ‘to develop, maintain and make known, throughout Canada and internationally, a collection of works of art, both historic and contemporary, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, and to further knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of art in general among all Canadians.

At this moment, NGC’s website indicates six collection areas: ‘Indigenous Art and decolonisation’, ‘Canadian Art’, ‘European, American and Asian Art’, ‘Contemporary Art’, ‘Prints and Drawings’ and ‘Photography’. Tensions between national and international art, and between fine art and contemporary art have since 1990 been further complemented by a new urgency, that of truly giving attention to all Canadians, which includes its indigenous population. This urgency manifested in the changes to the first collection area, which is now not only identified as ‘Indigenous Art’ but also as ‘Decolonisation’. This last turn was initiated when Sasha Suda became the director and CEO of the NGC in 2019. In the spring of 2021, she launched a strategic plan, titled “Transform Together”.

It states, ‘Every chapter in an institution’s story is marked by a call. Ours is to create a beacon of connection for the communities we exist to serve’. The plan sounds quite generic, depicting the Gallery as ‘a beacon of hope and healing’ with a ‘practice grounded in justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility’. It mentions five strategic pillars: Strengthen community connections through transformative art experiences, Build a collection and program that inspire human connection, Empower, support and build diverse and collaborative team, Centre Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and Invest in operational resilience and sustainability.

These aspirations, while lofty may have a disruptive effect that causes dysfunctionality. The ‘sense of belonging and trust among all Gallery employees, volunteers and partners’ and the ‘collaborative, adaptive, and human-centred teamwork’ the plan mentions have hit a bumpy road. Some of the articles point towards the directorship of Sasha Suda as the origin of the disruption. Her predecessor, Marc Mayer, gallery director from 2008 to 2019, even called Suda's reign ‘the Russian revolution’, sending dissenters to ‘re-education camps’.

In June 2022, one year after announcing the plan, Sasha Suda left to become director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The board of trustees then installed Angela Cassie as interim director. Angela Cassie and her colleague Tania Lafrenière had been brought in to assist with the implementation of the new strategic plan.

Cassie joined the museum in 2021 as ‘chief strategy and inclusion officer’, coming from a communications background and having been part of the inaugural leadership team of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which was founded in 2008.

A couple of months later in November 2022, four senior staff members were dismissed: its long time Indigenous curator, Greg Hill, its chief curator, and deputy director, Kitty Scott, its head of conservation and technical research, Stephen Gritt, and its senior communications manager, Denise Siele. This brought about an avalanche of reactions to the transformation process as people suffered anxieties produced by very diverse perspectives and changes in this huge institution. In addition, the federal heritage minister expressed concerns while his spokesperson announced the position to keep an ‘arms-length’ from the government of Canadian Heritage portfolio organizations, who are responsible for their own day-to-day activities.

The response of the artist AA Bronson is characteristic of a broader disquiet: ‘A main issue that nobody seems to mention is that almost all of the senior positions are empty, especially the curatorial positions…. And it leaves the curatorial department in a very weakened position’. ‘There are other senior positions empty too: Head of Publishing, for example, and the Head of the Archives and Library. The museum has been dismantled in a fairly structured and thorough way, the opposite of what one expects when managing a major institution.’ We were informed that due to several reasons, such as retirement, there are vacancies that include the position of deputy director and chief curator; senior curator of contemporary art; associate curator of contemporary art; associate curator of photographs; curatorial assistant, photographs; senior curator of European and American art; and curatorial assistant, Canadian art. This is a substantial portion of a curatorial staff that numbers around 15-18 curators.

Bronson also said, ‘I have never worked at a museum with such a dense political fog enveloping everyone and everything.’ It is indeed hard to get a precise understanding of what is actually happening at the museum. CIMAM finds itself in the awkward position as one of its own board members, our esteemed colleague Kitty Scott, is among the recent dismissals. Kitty Scott informed us that she prefers to strictly not communicate about this, not even informally, and we obviously respect her position. Different press articles mention non-disclosure agreements. From the Gallery’s side this silence has been formulated as: ‘For privacy reasons, the gallery is not at liberty to discuss details of these departures.’ Other contacts within the museum that the Museum Watch Committee of CIMAM tried to reach out to but did not receive a response either. When it reached out to the unions to obtain the letter sent to the minister of culture, the response was that this is ‘being treated confidentially for fear of reprisal.’

Of the four staff who were dismissed, only Greg Hill spoke out. In an Instagram post, he wrote: ‘I want to put this out there before it is spun into meaningless platitudes. The truth is, I’m being fired because I don’t agree with and am deeply disturbed by the colonial and anti-Indigenous ways the Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization is being run.’

When we inquired with Françoise E. Lyon, the chair of the board of the NGC, she referred us to the general statement she sent out. She also assured CIMAM that a plan is in place to fill key positions in curation, conservation, and research and that, in the meantime, these positions have been filled on an acting basis. She referred to the upcoming program as proof of the momentum of the Gallery, which include a recently acquired selection of paintings, drawings, prints, and a sculpture by Toronto artist Paul P.. Exhibitions and such as Uninvited: Canadian Artists of the Modern Age that focuses on women painters, photographers, sculptors, architects and filmmakers from a century ago, and an exhibition of Jean-Paul Riopelle for the centennial of his birth are also cited.

The NGC’s board is appointed by the government, and the board in turn appoints the director of the Gallery, with the approval of the federal cabinet. There is currently a job posting up for a new permanent director and chief executive of the NGC.

The overall situation seems to be that of a broad and necessary transformation process, addressing at the same time very divergent challenges, both in terms of functioning and relations to audiences, but also in terms of deep shifts in public awareness. Changes in public awareness are addressed head on by putting ‘Indigenous Art and Decolonisation’ up front indicating its priority as a collection area, spearheaded by a new ‘Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization’ that was created in February 2022 with its new vice-president, working directly together with then Vice-President Strategic Transformation and Inclusion, Angela Cassie.

The radicality of this process puts it at the brink of where it is not about daily matters anymore, but about the mission of the museum and therewith political responsibility.

The situation also seems to be that of a transformation process that has been poorly managed. The recently dismissed four senior staff members have profiles that make them potentially important allies of such a process. Such processes, however urgent, need time and a correct phasing. It is problematic that interim periods in-between directors were used by the board to dismiss senior staff members. CIMAM has also noticed this situation happening in museums elsewhere. On the contrary, it would be good practice to empower an incoming director, giving her or him the capacity to agree with existing senior staff members leaving or to alternatively forge an alliance with them. Governance is not only about transformation but also about the continuity of expertise and institutional memory. That balance is one of the challenges that a board shares with the director it nominates.

The new director will need to have the capacity to project a vision that re-establishes a feeling of addressing all Canadians, and the diverse perspectives the NGC is expected to take. He/she/them will have the challenge to not only bring about the challenging multitude of transformations but also to heal an institution after this interim period. That doesn’t only require managerial capacity but also an encompassing non-partisan expertise and commitment to art and cultural narratives. Given the concern expressed by the federal heritage minister, the radicality of the transformations and the public incertitude of their relation to with the existing set up, and the approval needed of the federal cabinet when nominating the director of the Gallery, CIMAM hopes that internal clarity prior to the nomination will be achieved at the level of political and governance. The joint public announcement of the choice of a new director will demark the beginning of a next phase in the history of the NGC.

CIMAM is looking forward to the concrete strategic plans of the board and the new director that balances the diverse axes of the NGC, addresses tensions between national and international focusses, critically engages the blurring of boundaries between fine art and contemporary art, and finds a decolonial narrative in between the patriotic citizens of 1880 and the indigenous people.

In representation of the CIMAM Museum Watch Committee integrated by:

  • Bart de Baere, Director, M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium.
  • Malgorzata Ludwisiak, Chief Curator, Department of Modern Art, National Museum in Gdansk, Poland
  • Victoria Noorthoorn, Director, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Zeina Arida, Director, Mathaf, Doha
  • Agustin Perez Rubio, Independent Curator, Madrid, Spain
  • Yu Jin Seng, Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research), National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

CIMAM – International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, is an Affiliated Organization of ICOM.


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