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Sasha Suda on July 16, 2021. Sude will be moving to Philadelphia in September.Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

As she leaves the National Gallery of Canada next month, director Sasha Suda could be forgiven if she were thumbing her nose at her critics with a loud “Na na na na na.” The director, who has strived to modernize the nation’s leading visual arts institution, has often been undermined by Byzantine Ottawa politics and, after a mere three years in the job, has landed the directorship of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will be moving there in September.

“The opportunity to lead the Philadelphia Museum of Art was one I couldn’t turn down,” she said when I asked why she was going.

And perhaps it is only professional ambition that drove Suda, a Canadian entirely educated at American universities, to return to the U.S. Philadelphia boasts one of the 10 largest art museums and most respected public collections in the country and it’s conveniently close to the art world’s power centre in New York.

The curator and cultural executive can expect to double or even triple her pay through the move: When she was hired at the National Gallery, the salary range was listed up to $210,800; Philadelphia’s outgoing director Timothy Rub made US$672,395 in 2019 according to public filings.

Still, it’s unusual for a director of the National Gallery, an order-in-council appointment that must be approved by cabinet, not to finish the five-year term and if Suda has achieved a lot in a short time, there are also good reasons she might want to be moving along.

She has brought change but not stability to the gallery, partly through her own impatience but mainly because of institutional rivalries that preceded her.

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A graduate of the prestigious art history program at Williams College, she began her career at the Metropolitan Museum before moving to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Suda is passionately engaged in changing art museums so they don’t sink into irrelevance or, worse yet, become lighting rods for resentment of their white, male privilege.

Her mandate at the National Gallery was to produce a strategic plan that addressed these issues and she did, crafting a mission statement about “interconnection through time and space,” promising that meant connections with all communities and launching a motto (Ankosé, which translates as “everything is connected”) and logo that honour Indigenous knowledge.

But what does this mean in practical terms?

“It’s not about the what, it’s the how,” replies Angela Cassie, the chief strategy and inclusion officer who will replace Suda as the gallery’s interim director on July 10. Staff “recognize ‘I have been doing this this way for 15 years; here’s a different way to do it. What support do I need to make that change?’ … It’s a big institution to shift but if it’s created in this atmosphere of curiosity and learning ... that is half the battle.”

One obvious example of such change is the recent Rembrandt in Amsterdam show, which included examples of contemporary art by Indigenous and Black artists as a way of discussing the colonial sources of Dutch wealth and relations between Dutch traders and Indigenous peoples in North America in the 17th century. These additions were controversial – in a good way: there was hearty community debate about whether the exhibition worked.

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Sasha Suda awakens the National Gallery of Canada

Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada layers colonization and slavery over artistic achievement

Another example is the education on racism and decolonization that has been offered to staff: Cassie says that as a Black woman she hears complaints from communities who don’t feel welcome in the art gallery including from racialized people who sometimes feel they are being followed by guards.

Suda was leading the charge on such issues but she was also encountering hurdles, particularly in building a stable management team as she repeatedly rearranged executive functions. Her tenure has seen a steady drip of senior staff as some stalwarts from the years when Marc Mayer was director bowed out and some newcomers didn’t last.

The two executives who served jointly as interim directors after he left were soon gone, followed by the heads of design and education. A new chief operating officer lasted two years while a VP of public affairs only lasted 18 months.

In person, Suda can be refreshingly frank about what art museums – out of touch with a diverse public; slow to change – need to do and will cite her predecessors’ mistakes. Yet Suda has also suffered from an institutional problem that predates her and needs to be fixed if the gallery is to thrive.

As the federal government cut the national museums loose in the 1980s and 1990s, granting them more independence but less money, it allowed them to establish their own charitable foundations.

The gallery’s main board of trustees is highly diverse, represents the regions, both official languages and Indigenous interests, but lacks the oomph of big money that traditionally fills out arts boards. Meanwhile under long-time chair Tom d’Aquino (now chair emeritus) the foundation gradually built itself up and has raised more than $60-million for the gallery since its inception in 1997, allowing it to flex its muscle: Mayer was able to keep the foundation on side; Suda, who had worked as curator not an executive before joining the National Gallery, has not.

Although U.S. museums are far more dependent on wealthy interests than government grants, Suda may actually find it easier to manage the politics in Philadelphia: a large endowment covers many costs, there is no second board and no national mandate.

She inherits a mess in Philadelphia, where staff were infuriated at management delays in dealing with sexual harassment complaints and are also now bargaining their first union contract, but her stress on diversity and democracy is exactly what that institution needs too.

So, where does this leave Cassie? The interim director says she looks forward to co-operating with the foundation on fundraising ideas, but as a temp, whose initial appointment only runs for 90 days before it must be extended by order-in-council, she’s unlikely to wrestle the parallel institution into its proper place.

Cassie is an impressive cultural executive in her own right, a bilingual Manitoban who spent a decade at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg before joining the gallery and, crucially for political skills, also served in the federal Department of Canadian Heritage.

She is not, however, an art historian, and would be an unusual choice for permanent director. Still, if she can further change while bringing stability to the gallery, she should earn a nation’s goodwill.

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