Art museums, as incomplete and complicated as they are, should be places where the present can find itself in time and where the future can gain good counsel. It is true that without the basic, preliminary education to activate them fully for all of us – an education that, tragically, is only available to a small minority of children today – such institutions as ours will continue to be of limited direct use.
Their indirect value to our society, however, is immeasurable. Art museums must strive to remain sanctuaries for exceptional objects, but they can also afford to pacify the monsters of artistic genius just enough for more of us to benefit from their revelations.
In the case of Canada’s National Gallery, I believe that we should struggle toward a greater equilibrium among all the practitioners of art in our quest to showcase and preserve works of outstanding significance. And, following the enlightened example of contemporary artists, I also believe that we should relax the tired hierarchy of artistic media. Most importantly, I believe that we can tell the asymmetrical stories, as painful as they are, of both the land’s Indigenous and transplanted cultures simultaneously in the same rooms. How else will we explain the convergence of these stories in the present and understand why they remain stubbornly unassimilated one to the other, though increasingly equal and complementary? How else will we overcome our past and embolden our future?
Approximately two hundred and fifty people tend Canada’s national art collection, along with independent expert advisers, trustees and wise friends. We have all worked hard over the last few years to set the stage for the next phase of the National Gallery’s history. We are celebrating the sesquicentennial of Confederation, certainly, but we also wish to announce a new, more inclusive and respectful spirit in the land. We wanted to rearticulate our perspective on artmaking in Canada and provide a more comprehensive and more useful display of Canadian excellence in art. We hoped to systematically improve our commitment to showing the main cultural traditions that constitute the artistic heritage of this land. By no stretch of the imagination will our ambitions find their culmination in 2027; rather, this symbolic year will mark their confirmation and a commitment for the next fifty years.
The National Gallery’s collection is a marvel to behold; it gives me daily doses of joy. Like every art museum, however, we have the historical collection that we have and ours is mostly non-Indigenous. Moreover, superb examples of the other artistic crafts, notably those traditionally practised by women, are obviously absent. To my mind, neither absence is tenable. Growing and correcting the national collection to meet our reformist aspirations will take many years. We have only recently begun to collect historical Indigenous art, and most of what you see of it in the refurbished Canadian and Indigenous Galleries has been borrowed temporarily. As of this writing, we have not yet addressed the dearth of Canadian decorative art in our care, especially the splendid things made by our women ancestors. This must not deter us, however, from doing what needs to be done to tell our whole story, the revitalizing and complete story of Canada’s inspiring artistic cultures, past and present. We hope you will cheer us on.