Sitting in a Toronto café as she waits for a flight back to Ottawa, Angela Cassie reassures an interviewer that the National Gallery of Canada is hiring new curators. “We are actively recruiting in a lot of areas,” the gallery’s interim director said.
That is good news for those worried that the gallery, as it reaches out to new visitors while attempting to decolonize, is losing sight of art in a thicket of bureaucratic restructuring. There are currently no permanent senior curators for contemporary art, European and American art, and Indigenous art, as well as no chief curator, vacancies that are going to affect the gallery’s ability to offer stronger programming than 2023′s limp lineup.
The Indigenous and chief curators were laid off in November with two other senior staffers. Contemporary art is vacant because the former senior curator, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, was moved sideways into a position overseeing national outreach. And in European and American art, Anabelle Ponka has remained acting senior curator since 2018, after the departure of Paul Lang, a former chief curator who specialized in the area.
Some of these jobs will be filled, but some have changed so significantly that they have all but disappeared. Starting at the top, the chief curator’s job has been tentatively renamed VP, exhibitions and programming. So, what’s in that tweak?
“It is very significant,” Ms. Cassie said, explaining that previously the curatorial and the operations sides of the gallery were separate. “We are trying to bring those departments closer together.”
To those who are parsing every move at the gallery, that explanation may hint at the reason former chief curator Kitty Scott was laid off in November: Her professional reputation is as a discerning curator with powerful connections to contemporary artists, not as a people manager or operational administrator.
Meanwhile, Ms. Cassie considers the new department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization fully staffed: There is a curatorial assistant and three associate curators covering Indigenous art, historical Indigenous art and a new hire, Jocelyn Piirainen, for Inuit art. They report to director Michelle LaVallee, who reports to VP Steven Loft. Looks like Greg Hill, the long-time senior Indigenous curator who left in November, will not be directly replaced.
Contemporary art has lost its top curators because Ms. Drouin-Brisebois is working on beefing up the National Gallery’s presence across the country beyond the usual touring shows or loans, while Jonathan Shaughnessy, her former associate curator, is now director of curatorial initiatives.
Although the gallery promises that hires in contemporary are “imminent,” there is a pattern here, and it’s not very encouraging, as curators are moved into more administrative roles. Ms. Cassie says a key lesson from Indigenous teaching is to break down hierarchies, yet the organizational chart keeps getting more managers. She defends the new jobs, saying “I think that having a broader senior leadership team does contribute to a more inclusive decision-making process.”
Why should any of us care about these troop movements at the National Gallery? Because its curators buy art for the country and create its shows and, to be honest, the gallery’s 2023 programming slate is unexciting.
Ms. Cassie says COVID disruptions to the exhibition schedule are largely over and that the gallery is on track with a standard three-year planning cycle: 2023 is in place; 2024 is in the works and 2025 will be anchored by the next edition of Àbadakone, the survey of contemporary global Indigenous art that wowed visitors in 2019-2020 (when it was successfully organized by Mr. Hill).
Yet, the gallery’s big temporary exhibition space has been empty since the General Idea retrospective closed in November and won’t be open again until the March launch of Uninvited, a show devoted to female contemporaries of the Group of Seven. That exhibition doesn’t originate with the National Gallery: It was curated by Sarah Milroy at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, toured to Vancouver and Calgary, and is now Ottawa’s big bet for the summer months.
That may work well: So far, Uninvited has proved highly popular with visitors intrigued by its revisionist concept. Although the show already includes several examples of work by Indigenous women of the period, the National Gallery’s decolonization department will also add an adjacent display of work by male and female Indigenous artists from the 1700s to the 1920s.
The next big bet is the Jean-Paul Riopelle retrospective in the fall, an exhibition where independent curator Sylvie Lacerte promises a fresh, 21st-century take on the Quebec abstractionist in his centenary year. Her job will be to prove that Mr. Riopelle is still relevant: A 2021 exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts featuring his work inspired by the Canadian landscape and Indigenous art wasn’t convincing on that score.
Mr. Riopelle is the only marquee name on an all-Canadian 2023 calendar that features no international artists and no (non-Indigenous) art that is more than 100 years old. Magic words like Rembrandt, Gauguin or Impressionism, to quote a few printed on fluttering National Gallery banners in recent years, are absent.
Ms. Cassie talks about widening the frame to include artists who have historically fallen outside it: “To me this work is about recognizing that there’s a rich artistic history and a collection for which we’re responsible for acquiring, preserving and showcasing,” she said. ‘Yet within that, there have been voices that have not been included or have been overlooked. And so we’re taking a step back and widening the lens.”
But she immediately adds that another goal is to become more attentive to visitors, in particular making the institution more welcoming to first-timers, who made up half of last summer’s gallery-goers.
Well, that is the challenge for any art museum these days: how best to include new voices when it’s the familiar old ones that draw reliable crowds.