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The Art Gallery of Ontario faced intense criticism over the departure of its celebrated Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush, pictured, earlier this month.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Until this fall, I thought that when it came to tricky issues such as gender equity or reconciliation, the National Gallery of Canada was talking the talk but the Art Gallery of Ontario was walking the walk. “Look, we have designated a whole wall for female artists!” the National Gallery proclaimed while also unveiling a splashy new Indigenous-centred rebranding. Meanwhile, at the AGO, the radical changes to the installation of Canadian and contemporary art were going on with much less fanfare.

But then the AGO launched a fall programme in which the three principal exhibitions feature work by white male Americans, and parted company in November with Wanda Nanibush, a trail-blazing Indigenous curator. Suddenly the AGO didn’t look so sharp.

Nanibush is just the latest Canadian art curator to leave their post in politically charged circumstances, a year after the National Gallery parted company with Indigenous curator Greg Hill and chief curator Kitty Scott.

Apparently, Nanibush left because the AGO could no longer make space for her vocal political opinions, which most recently included social-media support of Palestinians in the current Hamas-Israel war. Like the situation with Hill, who left in a disagreement over how reconciliation should be served at the National Gallery, Nanibush’s departure reveals how difficult it is to bring outspoken changemakers into venerable museums.

Ironically, she and co-curator Georgiana Uhlyarik had just won the Toronto Book Award for Moving the Museum: Indigenous + Canadian Art at the AGO, which explained their work decolonizing and integrating the AGO’s Canadian and Indigenous gallery installations.

As independent thinkers hired to study art and artists, or material culture generally, curators are public intellectuals sort of like university researchers – and sort of not. Unlike the researchers, curators can’t get tenure and have to work within institutions that depend on courting powerful donors and seducing a distracted public. In Nanibush’s case, that balance seems to have collapsed: The AGO has described her departure as a mutual decision, and her social media posts have disappeared.

Meanwhile, a group of Indigenous arts leaders have signed a letter calling for the AGO to acknowledge her work and explain her departure, noting how Indigenous professionals are brought in to decolonize institutions but then aren’t supported from within. In a statement issued Thursday, AGO director Stephan Jost did not name Nanibush but stressed the gallery’s support for Indigenous art and artists, and noted all museums were being asked to “better define the rights and limits of political and artistic expression” in a complex environment, suggesting these conversations take time.

Comparing the decolonization and equity efforts at the AGO and the National Gallery in recent years, it has often looked like the AGO was the smarter institution. The National Gallery had successfully integrated Indigenous art into its Canadian galleries in 2017, but its more recent strategic plan to stress Indigenous knowledge – unveiled with much self-congratulation – was belied by Hill’s departure. Hill complained the gallery remained fundamentally hierarchical and that its new decolonization department was not even using consensual decision-making itself, let alone spreading Indigenous ways to the rest of the gallery.

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The Art Gallery of Ontario appears to be indulging a renewed taste for populism with its latest major exhibition of the late artist Keith Haring’s work.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, the National gallery has also made a very splashy commitment to female artists by dedicating its south-facing façade to a series of projects by women.

That’s great, but quieter efforts at the AGO actually go deeper. The project that Nanibush and Uhlyarik achieved in the J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous & Canadian Art is a more radical encounter between Indigenous and settler art, a continually rotating selection of some historical and many contemporary works, launched in 2018. (This is possible at the AGO because any visitor who wants the classic hanging of Group of Seven paintings can find that in the Thomson Collection, which was donated to the gallery in 2002 on the understanding it would not be integrated into the rest of the collection. The National Gallery, meanwhile, has to balance tourists’ expectations with new curatorial interpretations in all of its spaces.)

On the diversity file, the AGO has, without any provocative announcement, radically overhauled its contemporary exhibition programming. Can anyone remember the last time that art made by a heterosexual white man was shown in the large 4th floor exhibition space, where the gallery has in recent years featured the work of Yayoi Kusuma, Mickalene Thomas and Denyse Thomasos?

And yet, there is one area where the AGO’s efforts feel flat-footed. In its quest for global dialogues, this gallery run by an American director (Jost) and a British chief curator (Julian Cox) sometimes seems uninterested in Canadian art. Or at least, as it recovers from the closures of the pandemic, it seems uninterested in shows that don’t feature obvious box-office stars from abroad.

This fall’s lineup is plain weird – or maybe just plain populist: The big draw in that 4th floor space is a show dedicated to Keith Haring, the graffiti artist turned art star who died of AIDS in New York in 1990. Simultaneously, the AGO is offering a show devoted to KAWS, another postmodern cartooning American artist, albeit of a subsequent generation. Meanwhile, the entire Zacks Pavilion, home to many a classic blockbuster, has been devoted to the magazine work of American photographer Arnold Newman, known for his celebrity and corporate portraiture in the second half of the 20th-century.

Art Is for Everybody is the subtitle of the Haring show, and indeed, the gallery is bustling these days. On their own, each of these exhibitions might seem reasonable, but as a group it makes the AGO look engaged in naked populism that is disconnected from Toronto and uninterested in contemporary Canadian art. The only major gallery space devoted to a local artist features a retrospective of veteran Sarindar Dhaliwal, a Canadian woman of South Asian extraction. A show of post-colonial storytelling and riotous colour, thankfully it is stuffed with art that does more than tick off boxes.

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