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Jean-François Bélisle is well recognized in the visual art world for curating contemporary exhibitions and was the founding director of the Arsenal art foundation in Montreal and Toronto.Claudia Morin-Arbour/Handout

The Quebec gallery director and contemporary art curator Jean-François Bélisle will lead the National Gallery of Canada, the government announced on Wednesday.

Mr. Bélisle, a bilingual Quebecker, is currently the director and chief curator at the Musée d’art de Joliette in Quebec. He was also just elected president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO). At the National Gallery, he will replace interim director Angela Cassie, who took over from former director Sasha Suda last summer.

“In this role, he brings not only a wealth of experience in curating and directing art institutions both in Canada and abroad, but also a proven record of leading in an inclusive and positive way,” said Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez in confirming the five-year order-in-council appointment. “I am pleased we are able to bring his talent to this important national institution.”

Mr. Bélisle arrives in Ottawa during a troubled period where a strategic plan to make the institution more accessible to diverse audiences and to emphasize Indigenous knowledge has created controversy and disruption. Critics have been especially vocal about the gallery’s failure to fill several curatorial vacancies and its use of high-priced consultants in administrative roles.

Ms. Suda left in August, 2022, to become director at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The gallery told staff last week that Ms. Cassie, who had previously served as the gallery’s chief strategy and inclusion officer, will leave at the end of this week after nine months as interim director. Ms. Suda had put in place a strategic plan that called on the gallery to achieve “interconnection through time and space,” emphasizing outreach to audiences that don’t traditionally visit and to artists, such as women or people of colour, who are under-represented in the collection. The plan also placed Indigenous concerns at the centre of decision-making and launched a logo and motto (Ankosé, which translates as “everything is connected”) that honour Indigenous knowledge.

Staff turnover during Ms. Suda’s three years as director was high, and the sudden departures of chief curator Kitty Scott and Indigenous curator Greg Hill last November caused concern in the visual art community. Mr. Hill said he was let go after disagreements with the gallery’s newly formed department of Indigenous ways, which he accused of hierarchical decision-making that was out of keeping with its mandate.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Belisle, who starts July 17, said his first task would be listening to gallery staff and stakeholders. “I really need to meet … everyone around the gallery to hear them out, hear their stories and hear their frustrations, or their pride and their joys, to understand the situation a bit better,” he said. “Having open, honest, transparent exchanges in my experience resolves 60 per cent of the problems. So, I think this is the focus that I want to take at least for the first couple of months. And then plot a better future with everyone.”

In Joliette, Mr. Bélisle has worked to display Indigenous art and question how it is exhibited. In 2020, he mounted a pair of exhibitions devoted to these issues, one rethinking through contemporary interventions how a historical collection of bronze sculptures represented indigenous people, and the other by contemporary artist Joseph Tisiga, a member of the Kaska Dena First Nation, looking at cultural appropriation in Western Canada.

Mr. Bélisle is well recognized in the visual art world for curating contemporary exhibitions, and was the founding director of the Arsenal art foundation in Montreal and Toronto. In his voluntary role with CAMDO, a professional association for museum leadership, he also participates in national conversations about the future of art museums in Canada. Earlier in his career, he worked at the Sotheby’s auction house in Geneva and a private art foundation in Spain.

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