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The Portrait Gallery of Canada was announced by the Liberal government in 2001 and was to open in 2005 in the former American embassy building directly across from Parliament. The Harper government cancelled the project.

Blair Gable/The Canadian Press

Canada's arts and culture sectors did well out of last week's federal budget. The steady infusion of cash over the next five years – an estimated $1.9-billion – is a necessary move, repairing the inevitable degradation caused by years of budget freezes and employment cutbacks. The increase in funding is also a welcome gesture of confidence in once-vibrant national institutions that had lost much of their centrality and sense of purpose under the arts-wary Harper government.

But with all the focus on successful beneficiaries such as the National Arts Centre and the Canada Science and Technology Museum, it's easy to overlook a significant omission.

What's happened to the Portrait Gallery of Canada?

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As the Trudeau government surveys the empty and unused buildings that inexplicably wither away unused, just steps from Parliament Hill, it will be compelled to find a new use for the roomy Beaux-Arts structure that used to be the United States Embassy. This is a natural home for the much-needed Portrait Gallery – not least because it had already been designated as such by Jean Chrétien's Liberals. Renovations were well under way, and $11-million had already been spent when the Harper government put a stop to the process in 2007.

It was never entirely clear what the Conservatives had against the idea of a national Portrait Gallery, an institution that has the capacity to be all things to all people simply because the idea of humanizing history through the individual portrait is so vivid and immediate. The Tories set out on a decentralizing and privatizing cultural mission that could have seen the gallery relocated to the wing of an office tower in Calgary. Eventually they gave up on the notion of a permanent building and demoted the gallery to largely online status as a program within Library and Archives Canada.

As a result of this studied indifference, an institution that has a rare capacity to showcase Canada's history through the eye-catching images of the great and good now lies dormant. National portrait galleries thrive in London and Washington. There is every reason to think Canada's long-hidden collection of 20,000 artworks, four million photographs, 2,000 caricatures and 10,000 assorted other representations would inspire and delight visitors when given pride of place in the nation's capital.

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