Way back in 1995, when the Art Gallery of Ontario had appointed its second American chief executive in the space of five years, one mischievous journalist suggested that the first thing he would ask Maxwell Anderson would be to name his favourite member of the Group of Seven. Anderson was a former curator of Greek and Roman art who came to Canada from a small university gallery in the United States. He was replacing Glenn Lowry, an American specialist in Islamic art who has been director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York ever since he left Toronto 20 years ago.
There was no joking about trick Canadian questions this week when the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., named Briton Ian Dejardin as its new director: Dejardin probably knows more about the Group of Seven than you or I do.
As director of London's Dulwich Picture Gallery he has introduced Europeans to classic Canadian art with a pair of successful touring exhibitions devoted to Tom Thomson and the Group, and Emily Carr.
He is a bold choice for the McMichael, a treasure chest of early 20th-century Canadian painting located in a bucolic setting a half-hour drive north of Toronto. With the AGO now trumpeting a Lawren Harris show curated by the American actor Steve Martin, there seems to be a new international interest in art that Canadians have cherished for generations, and Dejardin is well-placed to bring wider and perhaps more serious attention to the McMichael, long a favourite of school groups and day-trippers.
But he is also the fifth international appointment to head a major Canadian cultural institution in the past 15 months. He follows two Americans (Joshua Basseches at the Royal Ontario Museum and Stephan Jost at the AGO) and two other Britons (Tim Carroll at the Shaw Festival and Anthony Sargent at the Luminato Festival, where an Australian was also recently appointed as artistic director).
On paper, all these new men – and the one woman, Josephine Ridge, the incoming Luminato artistic director from Australia – have impressive credentials. They also, to judge from their various interviews and public appearances, seem refreshingly free of the condescension that once guaranteed these appointments only reinforced a colonial mentality on the Canadian arts scene.
Time will test their specific visions, managerial smarts and ability to compensate for an initial lack of local context and contacts.
Time will also reveal whether the fit is so good they become long-time residents committed to building the local community, foreign hires such as both Richard Bradshaw and now Alexander Neef at the Canadian Opera Company.
No, it's not the individuals and their careers that are in question. What is worrying is the pattern: It suggests that Canadian cultural institutions are not nurturing their own talents.
If Canadian curators cannot aspire to eventually manage the museums where they work, or Canadian stage directors need never consider running Canada's festivals, they will not give their institutions the best of themselves. They will either slump into the self-fulfilling prophecy of lower expectations or they will go abroad.
Of course, museum and festival management is, like many a business, an increasingly global game and these things do go through cycles – Anderson was rapidly replaced by one of his Canadian curators, Matthew Teitelbaum, a Torontonian who ran the AGO for 17 years before moving to the helm of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts last year.
But the recent trend suggests that the boards of large Canadian institutions need to band together to discuss how they can better mentor and nurture potential leaders.
Perhaps they should also take a careful look at the assumptions they are making in their hiring processes. These big appointments are often trumpeted with announcements that stress the long, complicated and, most of all, international searches that have been undertaken to find candidates. That may actually be part of the problem: the increasing use of headhunters to fill these jobs. Executive-recruitment agencies charging large fees to conduct searches deep into the United States or over to Europe are unlikely to conclude that the best person for the job is sitting down the hall or across the street from the incumbent.
The searches also tend to produce the same type of candidates: peripatetic white male careerists from the United States or Britain who are probably more able to persuade a spouse and family to pull up stakes for the next big job than their female colleagues.
There are exceptions – Janet Carding, Basseches's predecessor at the ROM, and Ridge, Jorn Weisbrodt's replacement at Luminato, are two women with careers based in Australia – but in many arts institutions women are well-represented in the lower ranks of management and governed by a man in the corner office.
The pattern of recent foreign appointments isn't encouraging: It makes the cultural scene look like a place with double-glazed glass ceilings where neither Canadians nor women need apply for the top job.