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Sasha Suda, director of the National Gallery of Canada, in the Baroque Gallery on Nov. 18, 2019.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

On Sasha Suda’s first day as director of the National Gallery of Canada, she declined to use the staff entrance around the side of the building.

“I walked through the front doors and walked all the way to my office – and I didn’t see a single artwork after Maman,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the giant sculpture of a spider that sits outside the gallery on Ottawa’s Sussex Drive.

It had long been a complaint that the institution, designed as a treasure house of glass and granite by architect Moshe Safdie in the 1980s, kept the art hidden away, waiting to surprise visitors after they trekked up the long ramp of the entrance colonnade. Seven months after Suda arrived, that has changed: Today, the gallery’s first public spaces, its lobby, that distinctive stone ramp and the soaring great hall are all filled with installations from the current Abadakone survey of contemporary Indigenous art. In the lobby, Norwegian artist and architect Joar Nango has constructed a rough treehouse of tanned hides and filled it with books about Sami culture. Joi T. Arcand has pasted electric-coloured messages in Cree syllabics on the floor of the colonnade. Jordan Bennett has filled the great hall with banners and mobiles inspired by ancient Mi’kmaq art. In short, there’s a riot of colour, imagery and ideas, in marked contrast to Safdie’s cool and elegant design.

“The architecture is an artwork,” Suda said, “but after 30 years, it is about how we re-engage with that.”

She has also relocated the box office from the lobby to the great hall, so there is more space the public can visit without paying – and so a financial transaction is not the first thing people experience when they enter. It may be a challenge for the front-line staff who have to keep the crowds moving, but the shift is highly symbolic, looking to remind Canadians that this place and its art belong to them.

These changes coincide with a period in which museums are readjusting their relationship with the public, asking what they do for the community and how their collections might better represent it. For example, under Suda’s predecessor Marc Mayer, the permanent collection was rehung to merge Canadian and Indigenous work. Where once visitors walked from Quebec religious art to Tom Thomson landscapes in a single narrative of Western culture, they are now exposed to startling juxtapositions. Group of Seven landscapes hang behind an Algonquin canoe from the same period; Inuit prints are compared to the work of Quebec abstractionists.

“Sometimes, we have tourists come and they are just looking for the Group of Seven gallery,” Suda said. “Are we here to invite that opportunity or also a richer, more textured art history?”

Some in the museum community want to further complicate the role by including social advocacy. The International Council of Museums split last summer over a controversial new definition that suggested museums should contribute to “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.” A divisive vote was eventually postponed. Suda finds the proposed definition potentially limiting, as it lists expanded responsibilities.

“It doesn’t feel as urgent to me as rethinking the work we are doing in our organizations,” she said. “We have accepted there are more and different ways to program and curate and acquire work. We are just on the beginning of that journey, so why try to imagine what it will look like in 10 years?”

To navigate that journey, Suda is relying on curatorial storytelling skills learned from working with historic European art, not modern, Canadian or Indigenous work.

Born in Toronto to Czech parents, she was educated at American universities, including NYU, where she completed a PhD in medieval art. She worked in that area at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for eight years and became intrigued by an institution where the entire staff was engaged by a famous collection.

“I was totally entranced by the crate makers and the registrars. I thought a lot about what makes museums tick,” she said. Curating medieval art is good practice for telling compelling stories, she added, because you can’t rely on famous names to draw your audience.

She moved to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2011, hired as the European curator at a museum previously known for Canadian and contemporary art but transformed by donations from the late Ken Thomson, including medieval and Baroque ivories, portrait miniatures from the 16th to 19th centuries and a collection of British ship models.

“I knew what it was for an institution to really believe in a collection, and now it was my job to get it there,” she said. She established a powerful professional reputation when her 2016 show Small Wonders, which used digital imaging to reveal how Gothic boxwood miniatures were made, proved unexpectedly popular with visitors. She also curated the current Early Rubens exhibition at the AGO, a large show built around a single major painting, The Massacre of the Innocents, purchased by Thomson.

The strength of the National Gallery’s collection is the first thing she mentions if you ask her why she took the job, moving her young family to Ottawa.

“It’s the best collection in Canada,” she affirms. Both the AGO and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts might dispute that, but she cites as evidence the “unbelievable” Bronzino portrait of Pierantonio Bandini from the mid-16th century, the “gorgeous” Iris by Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt’s “extraordinary and tough” Hope I, an image of a naked pregnant woman.

Still, she is also a fan of Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet, a 2001 sound piece mounted inside the historic Rideau Chapel, and Ron Terada’s You Have Left the American Sector, a highway sign first commissioned by the Windsor Art Gallery and controversially erected along that city’s waterfront in 2005, only four years after 9/11. After complaints the sign might offend American visitors from nearby Detroit, the work was quickly removed by the city and trashed, but later recreated and acquired by the National Gallery in 2016.

“I’d like to see more risks in the acquisition program,” Suda said. She recently hired Kitty Scott, the AGO’s contemporary curator, as deputy director and chief curator. This is a return for Scott: Not coincidentally, she is the person who bought Maman, the spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, when she was working at the gallery in the 2000s.

“I was always impressed with her ability to make extraordinary acquisitions,” Suda said. “We need that kind of ambition at this institution.”

And Suda thinks Ottawa is ready for it, figuring its reputation for bureaucratic caution is unfair. At $8-million a year, the National Gallery has the largest acquisition budget in the country, and Suda feels gallery staff can rise to any occasion. The Abadakone curators, for example, jumped into action when she asked them to add installations for the free public spaces. The hides for Nango’s Sami Architectural Library were tanned in the plaza outside the gallery’s front door.

Of course, risks can backfire. The gallery was pilloried in 1990 when it purchased Voice of Fire, a towering 1967 abstract of one red and two blue stripes by American artist Barnett Newman that one parliamentarian vowed he could have painted himself in 10 minutes. The gallery paid $1.8-million; today the painting is worth at least 20 times that.

“We don’t love to engage in that kind of market conversation, but, indeed, we do know what we are doing,” Suda said.

Last year the gallery was the subject of more national outrage when it proposed selling off a painting of the Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall in order to acquire one of St. Jerome by French painter Jacques-Louis David, a swap the public couldn’t comprehend. The curatorial reasons were sound – the David was a missing link in the gallery’s story of European influences on its important collection of Quebec religious art – but the communications were badly botched, forcing the gallery to withdraw the Chagall from a New York auction at significant cost and marring Mayer’s last months.

Suda said the institution has recovered and is rethinking how it can deaccession – as the process of culling a collection is called – without outcry. This kind of controversy highlights how tricky it can be to balance the demands of audiences with traditional curatorial responsibilities.

“We aren’t exempt from conversations,” she said. “If the public is interested, it’s interesting. If the public is not convinced, it’s not convincing. That is the new reality.”

But in a great National Gallery tradition, Suda chooses to see the fuss as ultimately encouraging, arguing that it was an occasion when the idea of a national collection, held in trust for all citizens, came to the fore.

“We care for and keep the collection for the people. We have to help them understand it is theirs,” she said. “What I took away as a real positive from the Chagall episode was that somewhere deep down, they know it.”

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