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The new director of the National Gallery of Canada Jean-François Bélisle was elected to serve as president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization in May.Claudia Morin-Arbour/Handout

The visual arts community heaved a sigh of relief this week as news broke that Quebec curator and gallery director Jean-François Bélisle would be the new director of the National Gallery of Canada.

The gallery has been in disarray since the departure of former director Sasha Suda last summer, three years into her five-year contract. Bélisle is well-respected and well-liked. He comes to Ottawa from the Musée d’art de Joliette – an institution with more impressive programming and national recognition than you might expect from a small city less than an hour from Montreal – and last month he was elected by his peers to serve as president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO).

You can guess what they talk about at CAMDO these days. Every art museum in the country faces a similar dilemma: how to decolonize collections amassed in a different era, make space for more women and artists of colour in exhibitions and achieve diversity behind the scenes, all the while offering crowd-pleasing shows that will drive the recovery from pandemic closures.

Under Suda, and her temporary successor Angela Cassie, who is leaving for a new position in Winnipeg, the gallery was doing all that with great fanfare but also with a certain lack of sophistication in its public programming and communications, and a certain ham-fistedness in its management of staff.

For example, the gallery’s new strategic plan, unveiled in 2021, emphasized Indigenous knowledge, which led to creating an Indigenous Ways and Decolonization department, which led to a power struggle with Indigenous curator Greg Hill, which led to his dismissal last November, which led to him going public with his complaints.

(Senior staff turnover during Suda’s three years had already been high but, after she left, his was one of four simultaneous departures that shone the media spotlight on the gallery’s hiring and firing, including the use of a contracted consultant as its human resources director.)

Bélisle, meanwhile, has solid credentials in curating Indigenous works: Joliette won kudos for Gazes in Dialogue, a 2020 show that found an inventive way to display late 19th and early 20th century bronze sculptures from Quebec donated by Toronto collector Ash Prakash.

These romantic works included several semi-naked Indigenous figures and a 1916 statue of the 17th-century French soldier Dollard des Ormeaux with a vanquished Iroquois warrior at his feet, a heroic image intended to recruit Quebeckers during the First World War. To remind viewers that these statues were constructions of their time, they were displayed in a house roughly constructed from raw plywood by Toronto artist Nicolas Fleming, and accompanied by video interviews with local Indigenous commentators.

Still, the government of Canada has not appointed Bélisle as a chief curator but rather as a director and, at the National Gallery, he will need to start hiring curators who can find smart ways to address current and historical social issues while crafting popular shows. At present, the key positions of chief curator, senior Indigenous curator and senior contemporary curator are all vacant, much to the alarm of former staffers who have complained publicly about an institution distracted from its core mission by its restructuring.

Running let alone restructuring a big operation is tough and Joliette’s admirable museum is a much smaller institution than the National Gallery, where former directors have tended to come from large public galleries in Montreal and Toronto. In Ottawa, Bélisle will need to navigate extremely delicate politics, with one new power base established in Indigenous Ways and Decolonization and one old one remaining in the National Gallery foundation, which raises money for the gallery. The clout of the foundation’s big-money board, which includes such well-known collectors as Prakash, often outweighs that of the gallery’s own board with its more diverse and regional membership.

It’s worth noting that as director in Joliette, Bélisle was simultaneously the director of philanthropy for that museum’s foundation, so he has experience managing relations with donors and collectors, an area that seemed to bedevil Suda. He is also, unlike her, perfectly bilingual, always an important asset in Ottawa.

And, sad to say, he has the distinct advantage of being a man: Museum directorships remain a profession where women who break the glass ceiling often find themselves with shards in their backs. Suda and Cassie are not the first women to leave Canadian institutions prematurely or under difficult circumstances. Nathalie Bondil’s long reign at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ended in a nasty public fight with her board in 2020, while Janet Carding served only four and a half years in the 2010s as the first female director of the Royal Ontario Museum.

When I asked Bélisle this week why he wanted the job, he said he loved the National Gallery and immediately began speaking about identity: He did his master’s thesis on the topic of how Canadian programming at the Venice Biennale was received internationally. His point was not that the National Gallery crafts Canadian identity but that it speaks to it.

So, anyone who thinks Bélisle is the man who will quietly shelve the gallery’s strategic plan with its emphasis on outreach, diversity and Indigenous knowledge may be disappointed. Rather, the hope is that he executes it with more tact and aplomb. For those who care about this national institution, it would be pleasant to spend a lot less time analyzing its byzantine politics and a lot more enjoying its shows.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Janet Carding's tenure as director of the Royal Ontario Museum. This version has been updated.

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