Marc Mayer has big plans for Canada’s sesquicentennial; he has committed to a complete redesign, reinstallation, and reinterpretation of the permanent Canadian and Indigenous collections at the National Gallery. As of May 2017, the now two separate collections shall be one.
“We have two art histories in Canada: Indigenous art, which goes back thousands of years, and Canadian art that begins only a few hundred years ago,” Marc explained to me as I caught up with him over lunch on a recent trip to Ottawa. “They are distinct but parallel stories of resilience, survival, interaction and transformation. And they have converged today in significant ways.”
By merging the galleries, Mayer believes that it will be easier to follow the two stories. “We will be able to more effectively show how they both evolve in relation to one another in a way that may help us understand our history, warts and all. And from a different perspective, it will also help situate the present moment. We can’t presume to tell the story of art in Canada by pretending that its oldest continuous cultures are not integral to the story and are incapable of making exceptional objects. That makes no sense!”
Mayer has been thinking about the problematic definitions of Canadian and Indigenous art for some time. “It has not been helpful to separate Indigenous Canadian art from the art of the settler communities. My predecessor understood that and a temporary approach was taken with a project called Art of this Land,” he said, taking a moment to reflect. “But by 2017, it’s time to commit to inclusion in a permanent and systematic way.”
Mayer has come to a more complex understanding of our history. “When you really look, you see that Indigenous people and the Europeans who settled here constantly interacted from the moment of contact, whether through trade, diplomacy or intermarriage. Canada’s aboriginal population was not hiding in the woods, oblivious to the strangers. They were in the towns trading, negotiating, and attempting to establish reasonable boundaries and the terms of collaboration. As much as our European ancestors resisted the idea, and too many still do, the aboriginal peoples of Canada and their cultures have always been, and will always be fundamental to the notion of Canadian identity.”
For Mayer, this question of how to best represent Indigenous art and Canadian art was the beginning of a voyage of discovery. “I began to question why do we tell these stories of art in separate galleries, for that matter in separate museums? There may be good, practical reasons to separate these different cultures from each other. But I believe there are equally good reasons not to. Especially in the case of an art museum where the emphasis is on the celebration of exceptional objects.”
Having headed up major galleries in New York, Paris, Toronto and Montreal before coming to Ottawa in 2009, Mayer knew that to successfully combine the National Gallery’s Indigenous art and Canadian art collections, collaboration would be critical. He opened up a dialogue with the curators of the two galleries and they set to work on developing an ambitious new plan.
This meant that everything was on the table, including the types of material that get displayed. “We concluded that it was important to get rid of the old-fashioned media and cultural segregations. So you are going to see what some call ethnographic material as well as photographs displayed alongside more traditional Western-style art objects. We are going to bring in a canoe, for example, and other symbolically powerful artifacts that help explain Canadian art history, things that you don’t normally associate with an art gallery.”
Mayer and his team also came to the conclusion that a complete redesign and reinstallation of the two galleries would be required. They commissioned internationally renowned museum designer Adrien Gardére, who was responsible for Toronto’s new Aga Khan Museum and other museums worldwide. “Adrien is one of the most sophisticated designers I have ever worked with. We have learned a lot from him,” said Mayer.
Part of what the team wrestled with is the tension inherent between the placement of art in the galleries. “Architecture should be of service to objects and not the other way around,” explained Mayer. “Rather than placing a painting in a room because that’s the only place it fits, we decided to open up the space and have floating walls. This will give us more freedom to tell the story the way in needs to be told.”
The new gallery will feel lighter and brighter, with the floors a paler hue and the rooms replete with new LED lighting, which allows for greater control as well as reducing energy use. The gallery is installing all new vitrines with a much finer glass, so viewers will be able to see through them unencumbered by distracting reflections and solid plinths.
Passionate about his work, Marc takes his responsibility for stewarding the past with the utmost seriousness. “Doctors take a Hippocratic oath and museum curators are like that too,” Mayer told me. “We see ourselves as stewards of the objects and we are obsessively loyal to them. No matter what culture made them, these objects have dignity, meaning, and power. Therefore, we want to make really sure that the way they are installed empowers them further.” To this end, Marc and his team are consulting with Indigenous experts on which objects should be included, how to display them correctly, and how to talk about them. The new signage will be in English, French and in the language of the objects’ makers. “For example, if a work of art was made by a Cree artist, the label will also be written in Cree,” said Mayer.
Mayer has also decided to break with traditional chronologies. The first room visitors enter will mix both historic and contemporary Indigenous works. “It’s important that we show that these ancient Canadian cultures are far from dead. In fact, they are thriving.” By showing the past and present together, Marc is taking another bold move. “This is very unusual and I hope it will provoke visitors into a new appreciation and understanding of not only First Nation art and artists but also the Canadian legacy.”
The National Gallery has a strong Canadian collection, but in the short term, to properly tell the story, material will have to be borrowed. “We are frantically sending out loan requests to the world. We don’t have much of a collection of Indigenous historical art. For example, our collection of Inuit art is only strong after 1950. Anything before that will have to come from other collections,” he confessed. “Also Metis flower beadwork. We own the beadwork-like painting by Christie Belcourt that couturier Valentino made famous but we haven’t collected actual Métis beadwork. It will take us years to build up that aspect of the collection.”
Looking to the future, Mayer sees an opportunity to develop longer-term relationships. “A lot of material held by Canadian and foreign museums and galleries is sitting in storage due to lack of display space and also for conservation reasons. To solve our problem, we are working on building continuing relationships with different collections. In addition, we will slowly acquire exceptional things as they appear.”
The National Gallery’s newly renamed Canadian and Indigenous Galleries are only big enough to take viewers to about 1967. Consequently, for 2017, the curators for the Contemporary, Indigenous, and Photographs collections are cooperating on a temporary exhibition that will take visitors from 1967 to today.
With construction underway and staff working overtime, Marc is busy on the book that will accompany the exhibition. “It’s exciting to explore the grand themes of Canada’s fascinating art histories,” he said. “And you know, in many ways, it’s a thrilling and optimistic story, though for Indigenous artists, there were some long and very dark periods. We live in a different time now. Canada is no longer a European colony and institutionalized racism has subsided considerably. Our brilliantly diverse visual artists attest to our strength as a society every day. And they also alert us to the work that still remains to be done”
The new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries will open late May 2017.