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Greg A. Hill, former curator of Indigenous art for the National Gallery of Canada, was dismissed from the gallery in mid-November along with three other senior staff members.Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

Greg Hill, the National Gallery of Canada’s Audain senior curator of Indigenous art, was dismissed from the gallery in mid-November along with three other senior staff members. He spoke to The Globe and Mail. Below is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You’ve mentioned that you had asked a lot of questions of management at the gallery – what does decolonization mean, what do Indigenous ways mean – and it was your understanding that those were distinctly unwelcome questions, is that right?

I repeatedly tried to have a dialogue about that, about the appropriateness of trying to work with different governance models, different structures within our own department. And none of that was going anywhere and it wasn’t appreciated that I would bring that up. And instead, it was what I thought was a real entrenchment of the hierarchical structure and increase of bureaucracy that was being used against me to try to limit things that I could do.

What’s been your experience of the trajectory of Sasha Suda and Angela Cassie’s leadership?

Sasha Suda came in, she made some big moves that were in support of Indigenous art. We were just coming to the final preparations for [the 2019 exhibition] Àbadakone, so she got behind that exhibition and supported it and we got along very well. I was a big supporter of her and her efforts to change the corporate culture. I was very engaged – engaged in a way that I that I hadn’t been for quite a while. A lot of my time at the gallery was just trying to survive and trying to get things done in and around the blockages that an institution like that has.

What kinds of blockages?

When I arrived there in the year 2000, until we did a reinstallation of the galleries that was called Art Of This Land in 2003, we didn’t have one work by an Indigenous artist in the galleries that purported to tell the visual history of the lands we now know as Canada. My focus in the contemporary art department was to start to bring in more works by Indigenous artists. There was kind of a very slow-building of momentum, up until 2007, when a position was created for a curator of Indigenous art, followed very soon after by the department [of Indigenous art], and we were able to greatly advance the rate of acquisitions of works by Indigenous artists. During my tenure, we acquired 1,300 works. So we doubled the size of the collection, in an institution that began in 1880.

So the blockages are the resistance to all that change through those years. Even with those advances and those numbers, they sound impressive, but it was not without resistance.

Inside the power struggles and staff turmoil at Canada’s National Gallery

So even when you’re reciting the progress, that did not come easy.

No. Society has been changing through all of this, the institutions are changing. You kind of move through a stage of where you just have to check boxes. You know, as long as there is an Indigenous art department, they don’t actually have to do anything, that box is checked and satisfies the requirements from outside in terms of optics.

One thing that I’ve always felt is if one is occupying a position in an institution that has the responsibility of working for Indigenous artists, then you are responsible and accountable to those communities. So if you’re not doing something for those communities, then you’re actually working against them, by occupying that space and not doing something.

What was your assessment of the strategic plan the National Gallery unveiled in 2021?

What we’ve been experiencing is a disconnect between the words spoken and written, and what we see and experience. So there’s a lot of flowery words about respecting and supporting staff, yet staff are living a culture of fear and intimidation, afraid to speak out, afraid that they’re going to be restructured at any moment with no explanation. It’s a really toxic environment.

What should decolonization, and moving an institution like the gallery into a better place, look like?

I just think it’s hard to comprehend being a champion of all those things that they’re supposed to be standing for, and you get pushed out the door with no explanation. If I need to go to really make advancements for Indigenous ways and decolonization, then that’s fine. I had a really great run there, I did a lot. They could have said, “Greg, thank you for your service, we acknowledge these things that you did, wonderful, but we need to change things. Here’s a nice way to go.” But they chose not to do that. They have not given us an explanation, under the guise of protecting my privacy, but I’ve been very public about wanting them to talk about it.

Other people have commented that they found discussion of art lacking in the strategic plan. What was your observation?

There’s really a need for corporate cultural change and structural change that recognizes and empowers staff, that supports staff, that tries to rebuild a healthy supportive structure within the institution. On the external side, the gallery needs to be better about engaging publics that have been very underserved, diversifying. All those things need to happen. It’s just there’s no obvious connection between these recent moves and going in that direction.

If it’s unclear what is accomplished by the recent dismissals, then why do you think you were let go?

I think I was pushed out because I was an annoyance. And I was pushed out, because I could be, so it’s an exercise of power. If we’re talking about Indigenous ways, my understanding of Indigenous ways from the Haudenosaunee perspective is that power comes from the people. You’re chosen to hold a leadership position, and you’re accountable to those people that put you there. It’s not the other way around, that you grab a position and then exert your power over all the people that you want to control. That’s about as far from my understanding of Indigenous ways as we can get.

What to you are the major problems at the gallery? Where do you place blame?

I think there needs to be accountability for those positions and from that department [the gallery’s Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, created earlier this year] that holds the responsibility for an area that’s very dear to me. My entire tenure at the gallery was to do that work from a curatorial perspective, so to be at a time where we’re making incredible advances and we have more potential to do great work than we’ve ever had, how it just became a conflict and struggle for power is interesting.

I’m concerned about some of the reporting and dialogue that is questioning the management and gallery as a whole and blaming the strategic plan, because it’s too much a kind of nostalgic view of the glory days of the gallery, almost being manipulated to something that sounds like “make the gallery great again.” And that would be such a dark reversion of progress that has been made and the potential that I believe is still there.

This project they are supposed to be undertaking is something you’ve spent your whole career on, and now you’re not involved. How do you feel about all of this?

I think it’s fair to say that at the gallery I’ve been in a position that has always represented all of those things that the strategic plan and department are also responsible for. You can say that every work brought into a collection that was hostile to Indigenous artists for much of the institution’s existence, every acquisition is an act of decolonization. So we had 1,300 of those acts.

And the global contemporary exhibitions Sakahàn and Àbadakone were also decolonization and Indigenous ways. That has been transformative for the institution in a much larger way than just putting on a show, because that was engaging with living people and many different cultures from around the world, and requiring staff to learn how to do things in a different way, to learn about Indigenous protocols. In the conservation department, it was, “What, this object that we’re handling is alive? It has spiritual power in it? We’re being encouraged to take our gloves off and hold this thing with our bare hands to develop a relationship with it so that it gets to know me?”

Those kinds of things have changed those people, and that has an effect on the institution in creating an openness and understanding for Indigenous ways. And I was really looking forward to doing more of that. That’s where my heart and my soul is. So to be turfed for apparently not being part of the plan to do those things doesn’t make sense, and if it can be made to make sense to me, that would be of some comfort. But I don’t see that happening because it doesn’t make sense.

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