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National Gallery of CanadaHandout

What does a decolonized art museum look like?

That was the kind of question Indigenous curator Greg Hill was asking at the National Gallery of Canada when he lost his job last week. He wanted to know what the gallery’s new department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization was doing to actually adopt Indigenous ways and model them for the rest of the institution. He felt the department, led by his colleague Steven Loft, was doing nothing to challenge the gallery’s hierarchical decision-making.

In an interview this week, he said he believes he was let go because his questions were unwelcome.

“The gallery has an inherited structure, a corporate structure that is not of Indigenous origin,” Hill said. “It would be interesting to look at Indigenous governance models and begin to incorporate some of those ideas into the structure, first within the department and then seeing how that works and taking best practices forward. That’s the kind of dialogue I attempted to have from day one, and instead I was constantly reminded that I was in a subservient position and really should just be keeping my mouth shut.”

(The gallery, which also laid off chief curator Kitty Scott, conservation director Stephen Gritt and communications manager Denise Siele, declined to make Loft or interim director Angela Cassie available for interviews.)

Both Hill and Loft, his former boss, are of Indigenous ancestry. Loft, who is Mohawk and Jewish, came to the gallery from the Canada Council, where he was director of strategic initiatives for Indigenous art. In February, he was appointed vice-president of the new department, which was established by former director Sasha Suda (who left the gallery in July). Hill, who was the gallery’s long-time curator of Indigenous art and is of Mohawk and French-Canadian ancestry, moved over to the new department with the idea that he and Loft were working towards the same goal.

“We are making progress but it is still early stages,” said John Hampton, director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, who grew up in that city but whose father is Chickasaw from Oklahoma. “We are going to see some growing pains, which is contributing to the turmoil.” Hampton sees advances in public programming as artists and curators change the way museums define art and present it, but said the tricky part is spreading the rethinking to other departments beyond curatorial.

Canadian art museums were founded on principles established in Europe and the United States in the 19th century as nation states built new cultural institutions. They reflected a hierarchy of fine art over craft, and of Western art over that of other cultures, and tended to present art chronologically. If African or Asian art was included, it was part of a mission to bring the world to the viewer’s doorstep, often presented as foreign and exotic, and sometimes obtained under questionable circumstances. Indigenous art, meanwhile, was viewed as ethnographic material, in a different category than Western painting or sculpture. The assumption was that the viewer was white.

“Museums are repositories of the colonial stage of humanity,” said Toronto museum consultant Gail Lord, referring to several hundred years of Western history. “People take decolonization as a slogan, like pop art. There was abstract expressionism, now there’s decolonization. But it’s not that. It’s a massive process to change what imbues every aspect of the museum. Institutions have to go about the process with humility and compassion.”

They have started, mainly making changes in their galleries. The National Gallery, for example, merged collections in 2017, to mix both ancient and contemporary Indigenous pieces into a chronological survey of Canadian art. In 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario dismantled its traditional Group of Seven display – visitors can always turn to the Thomson Collection galleries for classic Canadian painting – in favour of rotating mixed installations in the J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous and Canadian Art. Featured artists have included Lawren Harris, Jessie Oonark, Kent Monkman and Joanne Tod.

Increasingly, museums hire Indigenous professionals to curate Indigenous art – or they at least consult Indigenous artists, educators and elders before organizing shows or new exhibits. Last month, the Royal Ontario Museum simply closed its First Peoples gallery, after conversations with Indigenous educators and artists convinced the museum that the displays needed immediate changes. The museum hopes, with consultation, to reopen the gallery in a few months.

Meanwhile, across the country, human remains are being sent back to the places where they were unearthed while negotiations continue to determine which Indigenous art and artifacts should also be returned to communities. (In September, the Canadian Museums Association, responding to tasks assigned to it by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, issued a report calling on the federal government to enforce repatriation by law and provide funding to speed up an expensive and bureaucratic process that has seen a tiny fraction of material returned.)

But what is also slow, and where many museums seem to run into controversy, is applying these principles beyond the curatorial department. Public programming may acknowledge Indigenous and other non-European perspectives, but does the back office?

The Winnipeg Art Gallery is blunt about the problem, stating on its website: “We must decentre and dismantle the culture of whiteness within the institution. This is a difficult process, one that is resisted by the underlying principles, structures and assumptions that the gallery has historically endorsed.”

WAG knows the challenge first-hand. In 2021, it opened Qaumajuq, a centre to house the largest collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world, merging its own pieces with a huge loan from the territorial collection of Nunavut. The centre displays hundreds of sculptures in an open vault and makes them readily accessible online. The gallery consulted widely with Inuit artists and elders in the planning and established digital links so that Northerners could visit remotely.

The project seems to be a model of co-operation and respect, yet this month a consultant’s report suggested that the museum’s internal practices lagged far behind.

“Indigenous and/or racialized employees reported experiencing everyday racism at all levels of the organization,” it said. The equity consultants, who spent a year gathering data, also noted that white employees move toward permanent jobs at a faster rate than Indigenous or racialized ones.

Lord said that for changes to percolate through an institution, decolonization needs to happen in every department, and that outside historians, sociologists and community members need to be brought in. She was impressed when Suda unveiled the National Gallery’s new strategic plan in 2021 – putting interconnectivity and Indigenous knowledge at the core of the institution’s mission – but said it takes a task force, not a single department, to make changes.

She called Hill’s departure shocking, saying, “People are trying to do things, but this attitude, shut down a gallery, fire people … this shouldn’t be punitive. It should be a joyous learning opportunity.”

Hampton says it will take time to bring about change, but Hill has run out of patience with the National Gallery: “It’s been nine months? What has been done? … Those are the kinds of questions that I was asking. And I guess that turned out to be a problem.”