A major national museum doesn’t decide to transform its permanent galleries of 500-600 works for nothing. It doesn’t close the heart of its exhibition space for nine months on a whim. It doesn’t tear down walls, expand entrances and redesign its main galleries unless it wants to signal a dramatically new approach to collecting and exhibition the art of this county. Why now? It’s 2017.
According to National Gallery of Canada Director Marc Mayer, it was time to present a deeper, stronger, more inclusive narrative of Canadian Art – one that reflects our stories as Canadians at a pivotal moment of reflection, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
“The newly transformed galleries provide the ideal setting to tell a more complete story of artmaking in this land, which dates back thousands of years,” said Mayer.
On June 15, the National Gallery will open Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967. This represents the final stage of a complete changeover of its permanent Canadian galleries, with includes the contemporary galleries (Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present), and Photography in Canada, 1960 to 2000). It’s huge installation that includes some 800 work.
In consultation with architect Moshe Safdie, the National Gallery used the services of internationally renowned museum design firm Studio Adrien Gardère to reconfigure the galleries with the latest in museum LED lighting technology, accessibility standards, and custom-made display cases. The gallery spaces have a more spacious open feel with widened doorways, neutral floors and long vistas. The Garden Court has also been renewed with a design by the original landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, now in her nineties, who worked jointly with Vancouver landscape architects Enns Gauthier.
Old favourites have been restored like Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880) and Robert Harris’s A Meeting with the School Trustees (1885), made famous by the Historica Canada Heritage Minute.
But perhaps the most important change is addition of Indigenous and photo- and film-based work to tell the fuller, deeper story of Canadian art that drove this transformation.
In each gallery, many best-loved works can be appreciated in new ways through their placement in dialogue with new works. Two of the most stunning examples of this is the Tom Thomson & Group of Seven room, where iconic wilderness paintings surround a magnificent Algonquin canoe, and the Quebec abstraction room where Riopelle and Borduas canvasses co-exist with Inuit sculptures which began to catch the eye of collectors during the same period.
But for the National Gallery to truly retell the story of Canadian art, it had to deal with huge gaps in its collection due to a history of European-centric bias on what merited acquiring and exhibiting. It borrowed some 95 works, in consultation with an Indigenous advisory committee and a long list of lenders, including from the Canadian Museum of History, the Bata Shoe Museum, and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Cultural Centre.
One of the displays that is deeply symbolic and moving are the potlatch ceremonial objects lent by Chief James Hart of the Haida Nation. The loan of this work is a statement on how the conversation around Indigenous art and culture and art institutions has changed. These objects, once banned along with the potlatch ceremony – another example of systemic efforts of cultural genocide, are now exhibited as one of Canada’s masterpieces.
Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967 opens at the National Gallery of Canada on Thursday June 15, with free admission all day (9:30am-9:30pm). Special activities include concerts every hour by the Ottawa Wind ensemble Music Viva, and Inuit drummers and throat singers in partnership with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.