At 38, Alexandra Suda is the youngest director the National Gallery of Canada has had in decades.
Her pitch to the board that hired her, she says, was about making the gallery more relevant to the present day.
“I think art is one of the key ways in which we’re going to negotiate the present that we’re living in – and one of the key ways we’re going to define the future we want to live in,” Dr. Suda said as she sat for the first time on the black-leather couch in her new office that looks across the Ottawa River to Parliament Hill.
But that doesn’t mean a sudden pivot to contemporary art. Dr. Suda started out, after all, as an expert on the medieval.
The federal government announced on Wednesday that Dr. Suda, currently the head of European art and prints and drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, will be the new director of the National Gallery. She begins her five-year term on April 18.
Dr. Suda was born in Orillia, Ont., grew up in Toronto and moved to the United States for postsecondary studies. While doing her PhD at New York University, she travelled to Spain and wrote her dissertation on a 15th-century medieval Christian calendar that depicted the gruesome deaths of martyrs.
“This one had the most sumptuous, seductive scenes of gory death that you can possibly imagine,” Dr. Suda said.
But it wasn’t just the beautiful horror of the work that interested her academically, she said, but how it was used by people living in the historical region of Bohemia, in the present-day Czech Republic from which her parents emigrated to Canada.
“It was [the basis of a] reference book that everyone referred to when they woke up in the morning and had to decide who they prayed for, what the prayer was, and how they would go about their day, from prayer and devotion to health and bloodletting,” she said.
Although her specialty is European art, Dr. Suda said she won’t play favourites among the National Gallery’s departments and she looks forward to learning more about the projects in areas such as the Canadian and Indigenous galleries.
And high on her to-do list is hiring a head of the Canadian Photography Institute and a chief curator – both roles having been vacated by resignations last year.
“There’s a recent tradition here of the director being a contemporary expert and curator and the chief curator being an Old Masters expert,” she said – adding that, in her case, it’s likely to be the reverse.
In its announcement, the gallery’s board of trustees said Dr. Suda – the youngest director since the First World War – was picked, in part, because of her history of collaborating with colleagues and stakeholders.
Nathalie Bondil, director-general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, said she welcomed the appointment of Dr. Suda and said she hoped it would allow the gallery to “turn the page” in its relation with other museums.
Last year, the National Gallery and then-director Marc Mayer got in a public spat with the MMFA, the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City and the Province of Quebec over the ownership of an 18th-century painting by Jacques-Louis David, a controversy that also involved the cancelled sale of a multimillion-dollar Marc Chagall work.
“I think that we’ll have a good collaboration,” Ms. Bondil said in an interview. "She will be a very good partner.”
Ms. Bondil said she’s not concerned by Dr. Suda’s rusty French-language skills yet because Dr. Suda has committed to improve them.
For Mr. Mayer, who led the gallery for a decade until January, he said his greatest legacy was making Indigenous art a greater focus of the gallery.
For Dr. Suda, who said she wants to meet with senior managers and curators before setting out concrete priorities, she’s just excited to get started.
“When you look at the gallery's collection, it's unbelievable. I mean, this is the nation's collection,” she said.
“There are so many ways to build and redefine what that means, especially in 2019, in Canada in particular. That opportunity is crazy, right?”