The poster girl for the progressive ideological mania that’s taken hold of the National Gallery of Canada, the country’s national art museum, is surely the plump young woman who sits at the centre of a certain Rembrandt painting created in 1632–33. The painting has carried a few different names during the last four centuries. The National Gallery, which has owned the painting since 1953, picked Heroine from the Old Testament.
The woman is seen getting dolled up by a servant, perhaps for her own wedding. Suggestions for the identity of the sitter have included Saskia (Rembrandt’s wife), Lisbeth (his sister), or simply an anonymous model posing as Esther, Bathsheba, Judith, or some other Biblical figure. Rembrandt liked to keep people guessing.
But Rembrandt would undoubtedly be the one stumped if he could see his lovely painted lady stuck in the middle of ongoing controversies over “Indigenization” and “decolonization” within the impressive glass and concrete National Gallery building designed by star architect Moshe Safdie. In recent months, fears have been expressed by former senior staff to the effect that the gallery is heading toward irrelevance as a cultural institution. This includes two-term (2009–2019) National Gallery director Marc Mayer, a contemporary-art specialist from Montreal, who concludes that the place is “an absolute mess.”
These concerns are focused on a cadre of newly appointed high-priced administrators, who—despite a relative dearth of knowledge or experience in regards to art curation—have been busily instructing the facility’s pared down curatorial staff about what to acquire and exhibit.
Rembrandt’s lady with the ambiguous Mona Lisa smile and a bejewelled red dress was to take a star turn at the gallery in the summer of 2020—part of a travelling exhibition of about 100 artworks, mainly paintings, currently or previously owned by the princely house of Liechtenstein, a German-speaking micro-state located on the border of Switzerland and Austria. The title of the planned exhibition—to be curated by Anabelle Kienle Poňka of the National Gallery—was The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture. It included works from the likes of da Vinci, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Dyck. The tour was also supposed to include stops at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX and the Seattle Art Museum. But it was all cancelled when Canada’s National Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC both withdrew.
The planned exhibition had been organized before Sasha Suda, formerly a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, was named to succeed Mayer as National Gallery director in 2019. Suda, then still in her 30s, was considered a rising star. The same was true of Poňka, who’d organized successful back-to-back National Gallery exhibitions of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Klee within the space of a few years. But under Suda’s abbreviated tenure at the National Gallery, Poňka didn’t unveil a single exhibition following the cancellation of the Liechtenstein show (though she still carries the title, assumed in 2018, of acting senior curator of European and American art).
The controversy implicates Heroine from the Old Testament, which the National Gallery purchased from Liechtenstein’s prince, Franz Josef II (1938–1989), at a time when he was selling off his Old Masters to raise cash. Suda’s reason for cancelling the exhibition was tied to expressed concerns that Austrian companies owned by the princely house had used Jewish slave labour during the Second World War.
But this whole issue had been fully investigated by a group of international historians in 2005. These investigators were ultimately unable to determine if the royal family even knew about the use of slaves—a fact that would have been well-known to the gallery staff who’d spent years organizing the exhibition prior to Suda’s arrival in Ottawa. Johann Kräftner, director of the Collections of the Liechtenstein Princely House, commented:
This late cancellation, after years of diligent and amicable co-operation in preparation of the exhibition, is rather disappointing, and the reasoning provided by the National Gallery of Canada belies the fact that all the pertinent historical information has been publicly and readily available for well over a decade even before any deliberations regarding this exhibition had commenced.
In this regard, it bears emphasizing that the comprehensive report of a world-renowned commission of historians, with the support of the World Jewish Congress, published its findings on Liechtenstein’s role in the Second World War in 2005 after four years of thorough research of the highest historical and academic standards. In light of the fact that this report does not provide any findings that could reasonably be understood to support the cancellation of the exhibition, it is difficult to avoid the impression that other extraneous considerations, none of which would seem to relate to the Princely Family of Liechtenstein or the subject matter of the mentioned report, have led to the regrettable cancellation decision by the National Gallery of Canada.
Kräftner did not state what “those extraneous considerations” might be. And the National Gallery rebuffed journalists’ requests for more information, as various rumours, some quite salacious, circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. But the most obvious explanation is that Suda, having been appointed by Justin Trudeau’s performatively progressive Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, Pablo Rodríguez, was doing her best to project an ideologically correct posture on matters of group identity. (It was during this period, remember, that staff at many museums, including the Guggenheim in New York City, were becoming overtly politicized in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.)
The story does not end here for Heroine from the Old Testament. The lady was resurrected a year later for another star turn at the National Gallery—but this time, in a manner highlighting the focus on “Indigenous ways and decolonization” that now occupies the gallery’s administrators. Indeed, Heroine became a catalog cover girl for gallery’s Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition exhibit. Gallery administrators now felt comfortable trotting the old girl out because this exhibition was properly “contextualized” with text panels, authored by black and Indigenous historians, criticizing the Dutch Empire—along with accompanying contemporary artworks by black and Indigenous artists.
The overall theme communicated by these text panels was that Africans were enslaved and Indigenous people were mistreated, yet the callous Rembrandt ignored it all in his work, painting portraits of rich businessmen instead of their slaves. “Animal furs, Indigenous traders and enslaved Africans fuelled the great Dutch undertaking in North America,” read one panel. “However, except for likenesses of officials and investors in Dutch trading companies, we see no signs in Rembrandt’s art of the brutality that was so critical to the Dutch Republic’s prosperity in the 1600s.”
Some of the panels were written by Gerald McMaster, a respected Cree artist, curator, and educator who some in the Canadian art world believed should have become the National Gallery’s director, instead of Mayer, when Pierre Théberge retired in 2009. The panels attributed to McMaster were relatively even-handed, detailing co-operation between the Dutch and Indigenous peoples in what is now New York State. Joana Joachim, a self-described black feminist art historian, authored more overtly politicized text that excoriated the Dutch for their (genuinely horrific) involvement in the slave trade. Some text panels were authored by gallery staff. In other cases, it was difficult to know who authored what.
One text panel authored by Joachim, posted near Rembrarndt’s portraits of various wealthy Dutch women, noted that during the Dutch Golden Age—extending from the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1588 to the Franco-Dutch War in the 1670s—white women were subservient to white men, but black women were subservient to white women, some of whom amassed wealth “derived from slavery and colonial trade.” And some of these white women “were slaveholders themselves.” None of these statements are untrue, of course. But then again, what visitors to an exhibit of 17th-century art are looking for a rundown of the moral sins (by modern lights) of the women sitting passively as an artist’s subjects?
Among the specimens of contemporary art sharing the walls with Rembrandt was an ink and graphite drawing on mylar by Montreal’s Moridja Kitenge Banza, formerly of the Democratic Republic of Congo, depicting the crowded conditions of slave ships that transported millions of Africans to plantations owned by the Dutch and other slaving nations. The work is entitled From 1848 to the Present / Cross-section of a Slave Ship (2006–18). An accompanying text panel is aimed at not only educating visitors about these historical horrors, but also attributing moral contamination to Rembrandt: “Evoking the horrendous conditions on ships used to transport enslaved people across the Middle Passage, the work emphasizes the legacies of slavery and colonialism that still impact the artist, his identity, memories and sense of place in the world.”
Also part of the exhibition were two Indigenous-style beaded artworks by Saskatchewan Cree artist Ruth Cuthand—titled Smallpox (2011) and Pneumonia (2013)—depicting the microbes that produce these diseases. Europeans of Rembrandt’s era, it was noted, carried these deadly germs to the Americas, decimating Indigenous populations.
Again, this is all true. But of course, Rembrandt himself did not bring smallpox, pneumonia, or anything else to the Americas. He was, in the modern idiom, a stay-at-home kind of person. Because he sold paintings to rich Dutch entrepreneurs operating businesses in the Americas, however, we are asked to believe he was implicated in Indigenous genocide.
The gallery described its approach to Rembrandt this way: “We are contextualizing the exhibition by bringing a plurality of voices, to look at the artworks not only through the lens of the Netherlands in the 1600s, but also in dialogue with contemporary artists and the issues of our time.” In an interview, Kitty Scott, then the National Gallery’s deputy director and chief curator, explained further: “We are trying to bring forward a show that is seen in the most inclusive way possible at this time. We want our visitors to feel welcomed, dignified, respected, and recognized.”
In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that what the National Gallery was really trying to do is put some of its most famous and popular artwork on display while also, somewhat cynically, adopting a form of presentation that would pre-empt censure by ideologically doctrinaire anti-racists.
It is quite true that the text panels and contemporary artworks provided historic context: The Dutch Golden Age was far from “golden” for the places that the Dutch colonized. But these text panels weren’t the place for this kind of sermonizing. And the effect of seeing so many of them in one show was irritating—like listening to a heckler repeatedly attack a politician’s speech. The vast majority of art enthusiasts in Canada aren’t activists; and their primary reason for coming to a show like this isn’t to take on an ideologically correct view of history, but rather to admire work by one of the Western world’s greatest artists.
There was also something facile about the project. Most educated people know that all the European colonizing powers of the 17th-century engaged in slavery and mistreated Indigenous peoples. (Indeed, the same is true of the empires of Africa and the Middle East, with which these Europeans intermittently warred and collaborated.) And the same trick could be played in regard to any number of exhibitions.
Imagine, for instance, an exhibition of art from the vast collection of Canada’s new head of state, King Charles III. While England eventually took on a leading role in abolishing slavery, it is a historically established fact that many of the king’s royal ancestors condoned slavery and abused Indigenous people. And so the accompanying text panels from historians in such a hypothetical show could be filled with all sorts of blood-soaked descriptions. The same could be true of an exhibition focusing on work by Canada’s iconic Group of Seven landscape artists, who were generally more interested in the trees, rocks, and lakes of Algonquin Park than in the indifference and cruelty toward Indigenous peoples exhibited by Canada’s art-buying plutocrats.
Indeed, one can imagine a multi-media installation by which projected images describing the horrors of history dwarf the actual paintings. No doubt, there are many politically minded individuals—perhaps not a few who work at the National Gallery itself—who would applaud such an approach. But how many visitors would such an exhibit draw? And even among those who came to see such an exhibit, how many would ever come back to the gallery?
In part because of the COVID pandemic, the National Gallery has mounted few exhibitions of note since Rembrandt in Amsterdam, so we have little guide to what future shows at Canada’s national art museum will look like. Indeed, the gallery’s administrators now seem far less interested in putting on any kind of exhibition than in restructuring the organization according to their own top-down blueprint. Dozens of senior jobs, many of them curatorial, now lie vacant, including the three senior-curator positions covering contemporary art, Indigenous art, and European art.
The aforementioned Kitty Scott, an internationally acclaimed curator of contemporary art who was brought to Ottawa by Suda from the Art Gallery of Ontario, was one of four senior staff terminated within a period of a few days last month by Angela Cassie, the interim director who took over after Suda left to become director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cassie, who’d previously run the Programs, Exhibitions, and Public Affairs division at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, was a surprising choice because she had literally no experience whatsoever in visual art. According to the gallery’s Board of Trustees, she was picked as someone who could “strengthen the Gallery’s connections with communities across the country”—an apparent reference to her status as a black, bilingual woman from western Canada (regionalism remains strong in this country) who could be counted on to perform a hard sell on decolonization and Indigenization.
Ironically, however, one of the four senior employees Cassie fired last month was Greg Hill, the National Gallery’s senior curator of Indigenous art. Hill had described difficulties he had with the institution’s “Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization,” a newly created bureaucratic cell within the National Gallery organizational structure that now serves to control professional curators.
In Scott’s case, the reasons for dismissal have not been publicized, and she hasn’t responded to interview requests. Gallery insiders say Scott lacked managerial skill. But she did have extensive experience at various galleries, including the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Serpentine Galleries in the UK. (Full disclosure: I will be eternally grateful to Scott for personally introducing me many years ago to the work of British artist Peter Doig, who lived for a time in Canada.) During an earlier stint at the National Gallery, moreover, Scott orchestrated the purchase of Maman, the giant spider by Louise Bourgeois that stands guard, to this day, outside the gallery building and has become one of the most photographed landmarks in the national capital.
Many of the executives who’ve recently left the National Gallery have remained completely silent about the circumstances of their departure—a fact that can perhaps be explained by (unconfirmed, I must emphasize) reports that non-disclosure provisions were included in termination agreements. During a round of media interviews conducted earlier this month, Cassie declined to either confirm or deny the existence of such agreements. She also claimed that her (remaining) employees appreciate the changes she’s made. According to a statement posted on the National Gallery website, consisting largely of quotations from Cassie, the current disruptions will serve to make the institution more attractive to younger, diverse communities:
Over the past couple of weeks, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has been faced with media coverage and online comments, but unfortunately, some meaningful context has been missing from the current discussion. Although the NGC is unable, for personnel and privacy reasons, to comment on the details of the recent layoffs, it is also important to set the record straight. [Our] strategic plan is rooted in the fundamental premise that art and artists have a role to play in creating a better world and that the purpose of the NGC is to offer transformative art experiences that strengthen community connections … A recent survey indicates that 77% of NGC members are 55 and over. ‘We appreciate our valued members and are focused on how we can continue to welcome and grow a diverse audience that includes youth, from coast-to-coast-to-coast … Our dedicated staff is committed to evolving and transforming the Gallery to remain relevant for the future. We invite all Canadians to join us on this journey.’
In her interviews, Cassie said that the recent firing of Hill, the senior Indigenous curator, was tied to the planned evolution of the gallery’s new department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization: “That team is growing and they will be caring and leading the curatorial work through this transition and will be working collaboratively to implement our commitments to Indigenous people.” As well, the gallery will change the way it acquires Indigenous art, by no longer taking ownership of works, but rather engaging in “collaborative stewardship.” (Various other institutions, including the Canadian Museum of History have instituted similar arrangements with some Indigenous artifacts.)
Heading the department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization is Steven Loft, who’d formerly directed the Indigenous file at the Canada Council for the Arts, Canada’s principal arts-funding body; and another former government administrator, Michelle LaVallee, who reports to Loft as department director. While both have curatorial experience on their résumés, the creation of the department has been seen as an administrative power grab. Or as Mayer, who remains close to some of the National Gallery’s current staff, recently put it:
On this sad day for Canadian art and for a once great Canadian institution, when its interim director Angela Cassie effectively declared to the country, in both official languages, that even though she’s not the definitive director or any kind of art expert, Canadian artists who conform to her decolonization and anti-racist agenda, as interpreted by Steve Loft and Michelle LaVallee, the NGC’s new Indigenous censors, will be warmly celebrated while the others can take a hike—at least that’s how I read her comments and her provincial strategic plan in the measly one place art is mentioned.
In an interview with Ottawa political commentator Paul Wells, Mayer claims the institution he ran for a decade is “in the throes of a major revolution,” and says that staff describe a “funereal atmosphere.” Another word that seems apt is confusion. The words “decolonization” and “Indigenization” reportedly get thrown around National Gallery meetings with great regularity—but few staffers have any real idea what these terms mean in practice, and so everyone is reportedly walking around on eggshells, lest they offend one of the managers from Cassie’s ideologically enlightened inner circle.
While Cassie is attracting most of the barbs, some say Loft has become the real power at the National Gallery, since diktats promulgated under the auspices of “Indigenous Ways and Decolonization” are now seen as morally irrefutable in Canada’s current political environment. Others say the power lies with Tania Lafrenière—though she isn’t even on permanent staff, but is rather an outside human-resources consultant on contract while serving as chief operating officer. Like Loft, Lafrenière was brought in to the National Gallery by Suda.
The day Hill was fired, Lafrenière was reportedly present by a video link to explain the finer points of being declared “surplus” (the formal descriptor that had been applied to Hill upon his termination). This was a man who’d worked at the gallery for 22 years, spearheading many important exhibitions and taking a leading role in incorporating Indigenous art into galleries that formerly had showcased only mainstream “settler” art.
On November 25th, seven former senior National Gallery staff, some with decades of experience at the institution, sent a letter to Heritage Minister Rodríguez, urging the appointment of a new director who could “re-establish stability and restore the institution’s national and international credibility, while continuing its important mission of inclusivity.” Among the problems cited:
The latest restructuring … comes on the heels at least ten dismissals among management ranks at the Gallery, most of them during former director Sasha Suda’s three and a half years in office … The message conveyed to Canadian and international audiences in recent years has been sadly devoid of celebrating art, the Gallery’s collections, and its artists, without which there is no National Gallery of Canada.
Several key positions in important collecting areas are either unstaffed or understaffed. There is currently only one assistant curator of contemporary art; no curator with expertise in early Canadian art and Canadian silver; no senior curator of Indigenous art; no senior curator of historical European and American art; no specialist in Canadian prints and drawings; and the internationally recognized photographs collection is down to one senior curator and an assistant … The National Gallery’s library and archives, the national art library … is currently without a chief librarian, having already lost a significant number of specialized staff through attrition and layoffs … Over the last few years. there has been a dramatic decrease in exhibitions organized in house and an almost total collapse of the national exhibition programme … In addition, there has been a decrease in the availability of images and contextual information about the collections on the Gallery’s digital platform. With the lack of attention being paid to the institution’s national role in sharing its collection through touring exhibitions, publications and the web, the risk of the National Gallery of Canada’s irrelevance to national culture is high.
The authors then went on to discuss the sensitive issue of how the National Gallery is spending its annual budget, which in 2020–21 stood at about C$47 million:
Money spent on non- disclosure agreements for the dismissed non-unionized employees, consultancy firms hired in the first years of Dr. Suda’s tenure, and the retirement packages for employees who took early retirement in 2022, represent a significant burden for a Crown corporation. Staff morale is at an all-time low. The Gallery’s organizational chart demonstrates a lack of logical reporting relationships that privileges hierarchy over sound content-based [i.e. curator-based] management principles.
While the National Gallery is a federally funded institution, the government generally can’t intervene directly in its affairs, outside of appointing permanent directors and an oversight board. And the chair of that board, Montreal businesswoman Françoise Lyon, has outwardly expressed confidence in the current management—including Cassie, who, for her part, says she has a “mandate” from the board to make big changes.
But the signatories to the Rodríguez letter will be difficult to ignore, as they include such Canadian art luminaries as former National Gallery Canadian curator Charlie Hill (no relation to Greg), former contemporary curator Diana Nemiroff, and former photography curator Ann Thomas. Revered Canadian artists, including AA Bronson of the iconic art trio General Idea, and Shelley Niro, an award winning Indigenous multi-media artist, have also been critical of gallery maneuvers. Many other artists have put their names to similarly scathing comments appended to news stories about gallery turmoil.
This is hardly the first time that the National Gallery has been racked by controversy. In fact, Mayer himself was at the centre of a 2010-era storm over how “excellence” should be defined in the art world. But what’s different about this round of controversy is that it involves a wholesale shift in the allocation of power and money within Canada’s national art museum—rather just an argument over doctrine.
With all of these curator positions vacant, where is the National Gallery’s budget going? According to the federal government’s pay scale, the vice-presidential salary that goes along with Steven Loft’s newly created position falls between $149,000 and $212,000. The same goes for the relatively novel position of vice-president of transformation and inclusion, Cassie’s former job. LaVallee’s job, also newly created, falls within the range of $105,000 and $149,000. The same goes for yet another newish position, director of anti-racism. All of this grates on veteran curators, many of whom have toiled for relatively low pay during their entire careers, because they love what they do and see art curation as an important form of public service.
Despite being a bureaucratic newcomer, in fact, Loft enjoys a higher ranking and salary than anyone in the diminishing curatorial staff—even higher than the deputy director, who is also chief curator. The “job purpose” associated with Loft’s position includes providing “strategic direction and leadership in the gallery to ensure that the collections, exhibitions, education and programs are accessible to Indigenous communities and are influenced by Indigenous knowledge and practice.” LaVallee’s “job purpose” is remarkably similar. This is exalted language, but it’s not always clear what actual day-to-day work goes along with it.
There’s an excellent exhibition touring Canada, for which LaVallee is co-curator, called Radical Stitch. It was organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, where LaVallee formerly worked as curator.
The MacKenzie has long been a leader in staging Indigenous art exhibitions that contain more edge and substance than those at most other institutions. The MacKenzie also has a long record of hiring Indigenous experts at all levels. Its current director is John Hampton, the only Indigenous person to lead a major gallery in Canada. The MacKenzie has accomplished all of this without (to my knowledge) larding up its senior ranks with vice-presidents or directors of Indigenous Ways, decolonization, transformation, inclusion, or anti-racism.
Radical Stitch was my favourite Canadian exhibition in 2022. And yet it isn’t coming to the National Gallery, even though LaVallee now works there and the gallery loaned works for the show. (These include head-to-toe beaded regalia that look as fantastical as costumes for a Star Wars movie. Believe me, Radical Stitch is not your grandmother’s beaded moccasins.) A veritable who’s who of Canadian Indigenous artists contributed work—including Barry Ace, Nadia Myre, Dana Claxton, Ruth Cuthand (with more of her beaded microbes), Christi Belcourt and the aforementioned Shelley Niro. If one truly wanted to “decolonize” the National Gallery, it would seem that bringing Radical Stitch to Ottawa would make a lot more sense than hiring on more administrators.
Meanwhile, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has mounted a fascinating exhibition on such Inuit cultural practices as throat singing and drum dancing, called TUSARNITUT! Music Born of the Cold. That show is also touring. But, again, not to the National Gallery, where the Inuit gallery was closed years ago so that its contents could be interspersed with mainstream Canadian art. The result is that Inuit creations, Canada’s most distinctive art form, have all but disappeared from the gallery, except for a few small pieces here and there that are dwarfed by larger objects and paintings.
In fact, a sprawling collection of international and Canadian Indigenous art, Abadakone/Continuous Fire, which was organized before Suda arrived, has been the only Indigenous exhibition held at the National Gallery during the past three years. (That exhibition was extended by several months because it filled empty spaces that the Liechtenstein show was supposed to take up.)
Another such exhibition involving Indigenous artists from around the world is to be held in 2025. Greg Hill, the “surplussed” curator, was organizing it. And now it looks like his former bosses in the Indigenous Ways and Decolonization Department will have to fill in. But there’s one problem: Under union rules, such non-union managers are not supposed to do the work of curators, who are unionized. So, creative solutions will be needed.
One thought: Perhaps, if things really get desperate, the National Gallery can find a way to fit Heroine from the Old Testament into the show. After almost 400 years, the lady is very experienced, very artistically flexible, and, as we’ve all learned, apparently has lots to say about Indigenous issues.