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The Portrait Gallery is an independent non-profit looking to revive a Canadian institution dedicated to portraiture after the federal government killed plans in 2008 to build a new national museum in the former U.S. embassy building across from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.BLAIR GABLE/The Canadian Press

The Portrait Gallery of Canada is still homeless, but that is not stopping the virtual institution from naming its first director and unveiling exhibition plans.

The gallery announced Friday that it has appointed a retired federal civil servant and communications specialist as director: Joanne Charette has worked previously as official spokesperson for David Johnston when he served as Governor General; as director of public affairs at the National Gallery of Canada from 2001 to 2010, and more recently as vice-president of strategy and communications at the International Development Research Centre.

The Portrait Gallery is an independent non-profit looking to revive a Canadian institution dedicated to portraiture after the federal government killed plans in 2008 to build a new national museum in the former U.S. embassy building across from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. The non-profit aims to build the institution as a public-private partnership with government support, but independent from federal control. Charette has been working with the Portrait Gallery since April.

In August, the organization will unveil its first online exhibition, a show curated by Darren Pottie and dedicated to self-portraits. ‘In Keeping with Myself’ will be posted on the gallery’s website from Aug. 19 to Feb. 1, 2022. The show will explore the artist’s sense of isolation and internal struggle, using photo-based self-portraits by contemporary artists from across Canada, including Seamus Gallagher, Laurence Philomène, Olivia Johnston, Dainesha Nugent-Palache and Rande Cook.

In 2022, the gallery will also unveil a solo exhibition devoted to the work of Winnipeg-based Indigenous multimedia artist KC Adams.

“Our work to secure a physical space in the National Capital Region continues,” said Portrait Gallery board president Lawson Hunter in a statement. “We hope that these two noteworthy online exhibitions will generate an interest in our ongoing efforts and that they will further ignite public conversations about the importance of portraiture and its power to tell Canadian stories.”

The portrait gallery project has a 20-year-history as a political football: In 2001, the Liberal government of the day announced that the former embassy building would house the portraiture collection held by Library and Archives Canada and immediately established this new institution online. However, the Conservatives cut the building project in 2008 and then merged the gallery’s website back into Library and Archives, eliminating its independent online presence and name.

In 2017, the Liberal government quashed hopes of a physical resurrection when it announced the Wellington Street building would be home to a new Indigenous centre. In response, the Portrait Gallery emerged as a citizen-led non-profit in 2019.

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