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People arrive in atrium of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa on July 18, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Canadian graphic designers are criticizing the National Gallery’s decision to hire an American company to do its recent rebranding, rather than an agency based in Canada with connections to Indigenous culture.

On June 23, the gallery, Ottawa’s main public art institution and the country’s most prominent repository of Canadian artwork, unveiled its revamped brand identity. The new design includes new corporate colours and an animated, circular logo.

The new look is based on the Anishinaabemowin word Ankosé, meaning “everything is connected.” The work was done by AREA 17, a branding agency with offices in New York and Paris.

Canadian graphic designers have since spoken out against the decision to hire the foreign company. They say the gallery missed an opportunity to invest in local creators, many of whom have struggled during the pandemic. They also say Indigenous designers should have been involved.

“We have the talent here in Canada. We’ve got world-class designers and world-class agencies,” said Mark Rutledge, president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, a non-profit that has represented creative professionals in the country for over six decades. “Why wasn’t a firm within Canada chosen to do this prestigious work?”

Mr. Rutledge said he was “dismayed” when he heard that an American firm had done the redesign. In his role as president of the GDC, he said he heard from local creatives who were upset that the National Gallery had decided to turn elsewhere for such a significant project.

Mr. Rutledge, who is Ojibwa, also said that the decision to hire a foreign company for the rebranding passed over Indigenous artists who could have been involved.

“We have very talented Indigenous designers and creators in this country that could have had considerable insight,” he said, adding that, because the gallery didn’t include these local perspectives, its claim that the redesign was rooted in Indigenous knowledge “falls short.”

“There was that missed opportunity of collaboration,” he said.

In early July, he wrote an open letter from the GDC, asking the gallery’s chief executive officer why Canadian companies had been passed over for the contract.

He said that Rosemary Thompson, the gallery’s vice-president of corporate and public affairs and marketing, who led the redesign, responded to his letter within a few hours and explained that Canadian companies had been asked to participate.

Ms. Thompson confirmed in a statement that the gallery invited six firms to submit proposals for the redesign last December, and that four were Canadian companies and the other two were based in the U.S. In the end, Ms. Thompson said, five firms sent in formal submissions.

“The Gallery was looking for some key elements in the project,” reads the statement. “We needed a team that understood the Gallery and where it was going, we were looking for experience in the museum sector in Canada or internationally, we needed an agency that could operate seamlessly in Canada’s two official languages, and we wanted a team that was strong digitally.”

The statement says that the proposal submitted by AREA 17 was a “true stand out.”

Sasha Suda, CEO of the National Gallery, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the new brand identity is based on the work the gallery did for its strategic plan. She added that the gallery’s procurement process is aligned with Treasury Board standards, and that AREA 17 has deep experience in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Kemp Attwood, the chief creative officer at AREA 17, said in a statement that the creation of the gallery’s new brand was guided by an Indigenous advisory committee, as well as a consultancy group focused on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and insights gleaned from 350 interviews. He pointed out that two of the firm’s three leaders are Canadian.

Mr. Rutledge maintains, however, that hiring a local firm would have boosted domestic investment during a particularly difficult period, and that such a prominent Canadian institution should have made a concerted effort to hire within the country.

“The National Gallery is wanting to showcase the best of Canadian culture and arts,” he said. “The missed opportunity was to further support their own strategic direction in supporting Canadian creators.”

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