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National Gallery of Canada: It's unanimous
Just about the country's entire cultural sector wants Pablo Rodriguez to fix this mess
Delighted to learn Pablo Rodriguez, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, has written to the board chair of the National Gallery of Canada asking them what’s going on down on Sussex Drive. This evens things out a bit, because everybody else in Canadian art is writing to Pablo Rodriguez. The poor board chair, Françoise Lyon, must have been feeling left out.
For background on the controversy, read my original stories here and here. They’re paywalled, or rather, easily accessible to paying subscribers, hint hint. Some people have wondered why I’m writing so much about an art gallery in Ottawa. Short answers: (1) Its base annual appropriation from Parliament is nearly $37 million, so we have a stake in the place; (2) In a good year, which we haven’t had lately, half a million people visit the NGC, so many Canadians and visitors to Canada feel a stake in the place; (3) The way Canadians look at the world and think about the world is important, at least to Canadians, or at least to me, and it’s my newsletter.
Here are highlights from Rodriguez’s remarks to reporters as he entered the Liberal caucus meeting on Wednesday. All translated from French.
A reporter asked the minister what’s up at the Gallery.
“It’s an independent organization, we know that,” Rodriguez said. “But I wrote a letter this morning [i.e. Wednesday] to the president of the Board of Trustees expressing my unease, my profound unease, and I asked for a quick reply on solutions the Board of Trustees will put forward.”
He was asked what makes him so uneasy.
“The climate, the — the climate as such. [He said “le climat,” which could translate as “the mood.”] So what I want, it’s an answer from the Board of Trustees…. to know exactly how they explain what’s happening and what solutions are possible.”
Rodriguez was asked about some of the criticisms Marc Mayer, a former Gallery CEO, has been making. He said he’ll wait to hear back from the board. And, the Wednesday scrums being short, that was that.
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Rodriguez’s office and Angela Cassie, the interim director of the NGC who has faced accusations of presiding over a chaotic workplace, had until now agreed on one thing: that Cassie was acting with a strong mandate from the appointed Board of Trustees, led by Montreal businesswoman Françoise Lyon. We had to take Rodriguez’s and Cassie’s word on it, because Lyon has not been giving interviews. Lyon is said — by people who are not her, because she’s not giving interviews — to be a proud steward of the Gallery’s strategic plan, which says in part: “We seek — and do not shy away from — serving as a conduit for brave conversations that expand perspective and deepen empathy.” I would ask her how she feels she is not shying away from brave conversations if she were giving interviews, which she is not.
Lyon was appointed through what the Trudeau government calls an “open, transparent and merit-based” application process. Basically it’s an essay-writing contest. It’s designed to eliminate cronyism, and readers might be surprised to read that I suspect it does substantially reduce the simple appointment of regime pals. But (1) at least regime pals used to get their calls to the government returned, and it is hardly clear a lot of new appointees can; (2) in many different domains, the open, transparent etc. is thought to make subject-matter expertise an uncertain guarantor of advancement. Who judges the merit in a merit-based system? The latest answer, following several predecessors in the post, is Anne Dawson, who used to be a reporter for the Sun papers and then the National Post. Since Lyon’s appointment dates from this government’s early years, I suspect her application was vetted by staffers who worked for Mary Ng, who built the appointments system as a senior PMO staffer and is now apparently minister of Trade or something.
Anyway, Marc Mayer told me that among the people who was surprised that Lyon had been appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Canada was Françoise Lyon, who had simply sent in a CV and an application letter and had not actually specified that she wanted to run the joint. I would ask Lyon about this if she were currently seeking and not shying away from brave conversations, which unfortunately is not currently the case.
Anyway. Meanwhile, just about everyone with an interest in the Gallery’s proper functioning is writing, not to Françoise Lyon, but to Pablo Rodriguez. From this morning’s Le Devoir we have news of two more letters for Rodriguez to throw on a growing pile.
Letter one: “a group of major donors and former members of the Governing Council… wrote on July 27 2022… weeks after the resignation of former CEO Sasha Suda.”
So, a reminder: the current public controversy dates from Nov. 18, when the Gallery fired four senior staff including three formidable curators. But I’ve already reported that unions representing 82% of the NGC’s staff wrote to Rodriguez in early November, before the firings. And now we see signs of dismay among major stakeholders as far back as July.
Le Devoir says the big donors called for a director and CEO who would have “a solid training in art history.” The letter is signed by big names: Michael Audain, Pierre Lassonde and Paul Genest, a former advisor to Jean Chrétien who’s now a senior VP at Power Corporation. Signatories include Ash Prakash, who’s donated dozens of paintings to the NGC and whose name is on one of its most significant galleries.
The second letter comes from the association representing most of the country’s leading private art galleries. Their complaint is different, but connected to the NGC’s turmoil: the country’s flagship art museum has radically slowed down its acquisitions of new works, which depresses a Canadian art market the private galleries depend on for success.
So Rodriguez’s mailbox has lately been overflowing. Big donors, private gallerists, former senior curators, and two staff unions have all written to him, expressing concern about the work of the Gallery, its former director, its current director, and the Board of Trustees. Notice, incidentally — actually, not incidentally; crucially — that all of these people are writing to the minister. Not the board chair. Nobody believes the merit-based appointments system has produced an appointee who merits their correspondence. And also not incidentally, I am aware of no public correspondence by anyone with long knowledge of the Gallery who supports the board or the new staff leadership.
Sen. Patricia Bovey has some advice for Rodriguez. Bovey, a Trudeau appointee from Manitoba, is a former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a former board member of the NGC. So she knows board responsibilities, the work of a museum CEO, and the legislative process. She’s just sitting there in the East Block waiting for someone to ask for advice. Here she was when I visited her Thursday morning:
What’s her advice for Rodriguez? The prompt creation of a search committee to look for a new permanent director of the NGC. Public announcement of that committee’s members, who should include people with superb records in art history and museology.
Honestly at this point, the minister shouldn’t need to be told to do that. But Sen. Bovey has another tip: Rodriguez should meet, and publicly announce he has met, the seven former senior curators who wrote him to sound the alarm. Mostly so they’ll feel heard. Also because they are heroes of Canadian art. They include Diana Nemiroff, who co-curated the Gallery’s first major Indigenous survey exhibition 30 years ago and who literally wrote the book on women leaders of the Gallery. And Charlie Hill, who was the Gallery’s chief curator of Canadian art for 34 years and who marched for gay rights on Parliament Hill in 1971. Hill has spent his life seeking — and not shying away from — brave conversations. I remember when a minister of Canadian Heritage would have met a group like this in the first few days of a national controversy.
I have been thinking about the bit in my interview with interim director Angela Cassie where she noted that I hadn’t asked her about art. It reminded me that I hadn’t visited the NGC in too long. I went Thursday morning, renewing my annual membership as I entered. Here’s some of what I saw, concentrating as I usually do on the Contemporary galleries and the Indigenous and Canadian Art galleries.
This is the photo A.A. Bronson took of Felix Partz, a co-founder with Bronson of the pioneering Toronto arts collective General Idea, minutes after Partz died of AIDS in 1994.
A Karoo Ashevak sculpture from 1974 that I stare at every time I enter this room.
A 1915 portrait of a young Haudenosaunee woman by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté.
Notebooks, some open and showing meticulous notes in careful hand, of Gerald McMaster, one of the country’s most experienced curators, a member of the Siksika nation who curated the Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale 27 years ago.
After a while, though, I noticed something about the museum as I walked through it. See if you can spot it too.
It’s fair to say that, shortly before noon on a weekday, I didn’t find myself having to fight my way through crowds. Perhaps Michael Audain and Ash Prakash are nervous because they have recently visited the Audain and Prakash galleries.
I love this place and I want it to be well, and I hope the government is not ignoring the best advice of the people who know it best.
UPDATE, Thursday night: Brave conversations! Le Devoir has published an interview with Françoise Lyon, the chair of the NGC Board of Trustees. Highlights:
“A board… doesn’t usually comment on departures or hiring. But I personally didn’t much like the direction certain comments were going in recent days — and the board didn’t either. So I wanted to say that we are aware, that each case was put to us, that we support the decisions taken and that we support the interim director.”
On Angela Cassie as interim director: “We had to name, for the interim, a person who was already in place who was able to stabilize the organization on an operational basis, not necessarily an art expert. Angela doesn’t have a say in exhibitions. Her initial three-month mandate has been prolonged by six months, and she’s the right person at this moment.”
There’s more. You have the link.