At the National Gallery, an olive branch
The tactics of the last year are repudiated. One senses the hand of the minister
I’m amazed by news that the new director of the National Gallery of Canada will be Jean-François Bélisle.
In important ways the appointment of Bélisle, who had lately been running the art museum in Joliette, northeast of Montreal, is a repudiation of a management style that had rocked the Ottawa-based national art museum. Expect nobody to admit it, but Bélisle’s appointment is also a direct rebuke to the NGC’s board chair, Françoise Lyon, who last week was still defending the mess of the last year as “necessary.” Her resignation would be surprising but appropriate.
Longtime NGC watchers who had been deeply concerned about a string of management dismissals and absurd consultant tabs were sounding relieved on Wednesday.
“Much relieved,” Marc Mayer, who was the Gallery’s 10th director and CEO from 2008 to 2019, told me in an exchange of text messages. In November Mayer was calling the upheaval at the Gallery since his replacement as director by Sasha Suda, a “major Canadian cultural tragedy,” but in Bélisle he sees signs of hope.
Bélisle has “run a museum before, which is huge for this ageist and anti-experience government, is a serious guy who wants to succeed the old fashioned way, and is well liked,” Mayer said. “A little more experience in a big museum would have been great, but a priority for me is that the director be Canadian. We are such a complicated country with equally complicated culture(s). Jean-François perfectly bilingual, a good listener, and knows what he doesn’t know. I think it will work out.”
And from Tom d’Aquino, the founder of both the Business Council of Canada and of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation — the longtime connector of big money to the Gallery, who had been estranged from the Gallery’s management since Suda’s arrival — there was this tweet:
Today’s news represents the dénouement of one of the most heated and consequential debates in Canadian cultural politics in years.