National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

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Discoveries of a New Director

by Hsio-Yen Shih

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3

All art museums share certain principles and goals in common, but a national institution must necessarily have more numerous, varied and extended responsibilities. More particularly, the National Gallery of Canada has, by tradition (since 1880) and necessity, served a widely dispersed population in a country which has had, until very recently, relatively few art or museum resources.

After sixteen years in Toronto, at the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto, I became the sixth Director of the National Gallery of Canada, bringing with me an awareness of the institution such as most Canadians must have. The distinguished service of my predecessor, Jean Sutherland Boggs, the Gallery's important acquisitions and instructive exhibitions are known across the land, as well as internationally.

The workings of any organization reach deeper and operate more intricately than can be seen in its public functions, however, and those of a Canadian federal institution are probably less well understood generally than others of more limited mandate.

This Annual Review will present essential information about the Gallery's activities in the course of one fiscal year, as has become the custom. My introduction will appear as a departure from precedent, though, as I propose to share with its readers my own newly-formed knowledge of a cultural agency which has been the main bulwark for the arts in Canada for almost a century.

The most visible aspects of the Gallery to all Canadians are its collections and programmes, but these are made available by the efforts of people. As an active institution, the Gallery's force rests in its staff, whose intelligence, sensitivity and professional expertise supply the impetus for all that is identified with works of art and their presentation. The envelope that surrounds us in Ottawa, the building that bears a sign identifying this national museum, cannot convey the spirit and energy of creative endeavour.

The Collections

From time to time, works of art newly acquired by the Gallery have been widely publicized, but until my arrival at the institution itself I had little real knowledge of the extent and scope of its holdings. Over the year, curators have reported to the Gallery's Visiting Committee on the collections, describing their strengths and their weaknesses. These surveys, and analyses made by the previous Director, have permitted the articulation of an Acquisitions Policy, now approved by the Gallery's Visiting Committee and the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Canada.

The Gallery, since its foundation in 1880, has given primary emphasis to Canadian art. It, therefore, collects

(1) traditional Canadian art, to reveal its growth and to demonstrate fully its strengths, including the development of an extensive study collection;

{2) contemporary Canadian art, to exhibit the best and most imaginative creative artists of our time.

Since the post-First-World-War period, the Gallery has sought in its collections to demonstrate the continuity in Western art from the Middle Ages to the present, to illustrate the roots of Canada's own civilization, as well as to generally represent the greatness of visual imagination.

After the Second World War the Gallery, in common with the remainder of the Western art world, began to recognize categories which had previously been neglected or never given serious consideration as "works of art." The radical shift away from the "great man" concept of the collective history of art has resulted in a much broader and more democratic approach to the total creative record of man. Thus, to the Gallery's collection in the general category of graphic arts (of which the European and Canadian drawings formed the foundation) have been added the allied field of prints, and the newer one of photography.

More recently, the principle of broadening the Gallery's range of collecting beyond its present boundaries was urged, in the belief that ongoing viability for the collections as a whole depends upon such dynamism.

How, in practice, does the Gallery work to fulfill its purposes in collecting and in improving its holdings? I believe that procedures of selection and judgement in this institution are among the most rigorous, by any standard. Curators constantly search for works relevant to the collections. Before any proposal is made to the Gallery's Acquisitions Committee, the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory will have made a thorough technical analysis of the work's condition, and the curator responsible will have prepared documentation on the history of the work itself, as well as a description of its position in the history of art. The opinions of external specialists are also sought. The committee of curators, chaired by myself, will delve into each of the se questions. The longest discussions inevitably revolve around questions of aesthetic quality, always keeping in mind that each work of art was created in a particular historical set ting whose values might have differed from ours, but whose vision may also enhance our own. All acquisitions are reported to the Gallery's Visiting Committee and the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Canada, whose further consideration and approval must be sought for the acceptance of all gifts and the purchase of works at certain price levels. Finally, approval by the Secretary of State and Treasury Board must be given for any work costing more than $500,000.

Unfortunately, despite all efforts, the acquisitions capability of the Gallery has steadily deteriorated over the last five years, during which time our budget has remained static while inflation has run rampant. Over the past ten years, works of art in every category have increased in price by at least 46 per cent per annum, and some by as much as 400 per cent per annum. A single additional grant by the Treasury Board in this fiscal year could not correct or arrest the decline in our comparative buying powers. Whereas, at one time, the Gallery's acquisitions placed it within the top echelon of art museums internationally, we have now, sadly, descended to a second-rank position.

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