Engaging with artists from Canada and abroad, the contemporary collection represents current trends in the art world while continuing to build upon and create relationships with the Gallery’s historical works. With a mandate to collect work made in the last 25 years, the contemporary collection is an always-evolving representation of recent art practices and offers a site for exchange, debate and contemplation. Our collection reflects the dynamism and diversity of art and artists, and connects to a longer history of the Gallery’s interest in following and supporting art of the day. This focus reaches all the way back to some of the first works to enter the collection, which were considered contemporary at their time.
Often incorporating newly acquired works, the display of the national collection takes the pulse of contemporary art production in Canada and internationally. Exhibitions in the contemporary galleries can also feature contemporary works from the department of Indigenous art and the Scotiabank Photography Program at the National Gallery of Canada. Moving through some 3,000 square metres of exhibition space, and drawing from a collection of over 1,500 works, visitors experience a range of thematic, monographic, and at times chronological displays; while links and relationships are proposed between diverse works as viewers move from room to room.
Seeking to engage with the larger social and political state of the world, contemporary artists often choose interdisciplinary modes of creation that transcend and explode traditional categories, materials and genres of art. For example, artists such as Chris Ofili, Bharti Kher, Elizabeth McIntosh and Joanne Tod respond to the history and materials of painting, continuing to push this medium in new directions. Large-scale video installations such as Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Candice Breitz’s Him+Her use and rework found footage to create new and immersive experiences, while sound-based works such as Janet Cardiff’s 40-Part Motet allow for a contemplative reinterpretation of a historical composition.
Sculptural installations such as David Altmejd’s The Vessel, Sarah Sze’s 360 (Portable Planetarium) and Lee Bul’s After Bruno Taut (Negative Capability) offer monumental amalgamations of objects and textures, while figurative works by Valerie Blass and Nick Cave use the human form as a starting point, extrapolating and modifying the body’s limits through the addition of materials that augment or protect the person beneath. Artists such as Mona Hatoum and Ai Wei Wei create minimal and poetic sculptures that speak to current social and political concerns, and drawings by Damian Moppett, Los Carpinteros, and the Royal Art Lodge allow intimate access into the artists’ process of creation and personal narratives.
Acquiring and situating outdoor sculpture is also an area of active engagement for the department, with several contemporary art works installed on the grounds of the Gallery. Louise Bourgeois’ immense spider Maman stands just outside of the Gallery’s main entrance, and Roxy Paine’s shimmering 100 Hundred Foot Line can be found in Major’s Hill Park. Ugo Rondinone’s enlarged replica of a “scholar’s rock” is at the entrance to the parking elevators, and Michel de Broin’s assemblage of New Orleans’ street lamps can be seen just outside the cafeteria.
The contemporary collection not only reflects the hybridity that exists within art production today, but also serves to position Canadian artists within a larger international context, to explore our place within an increasing globalized art world. The contemporary department is responsible for coordinating the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, and has presented artists such as BGL, Shary Boyle, Geoffrey Farmer and Steven Shearer to an international audience. Founded in 2010, the Canadian Biennial has a mandate to include not just artists working in Canada, but also international artists – generating wider conversations about the relationships between contemporary art here and further afield.
The contemporary department also helps to administer exhibitions and prizes that recognize outstanding art and artists, such as the Sobey Art Award for emerging artists, and the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. Reflecting the history and future of contemporary art practices in Canada, these exhibitions have showcased work by promising younger artists such as Abbas Akhavan, Nadia Myre, Annie Pootogook, Jeremy Shaw and Hajra Waheed, as well as established figures such as Max Dean, Alex Janvier, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Micah Lexier, Shelley Niro, Landon MacKenzie and Jana Sterbak.
Senior Curator of Contemporary Art
Josée Drouin-Brisebois is the Senior Curator of Contemporary Art responsible for the collections of Canadian and international Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada. She organized the Canadian participation in the 2013 (Shary Boyle) and 2011 (Steven Shearer) Venice Biennales. She also served as Project Director for Geoffrey Farmer’s 2017 Canadian participation, and was the lead curator of Isuma for the 2019 edition. She has curated numerous exhibitions including monographs of senior Canadian artists Arnaud Maggs (2012); Christopher Pratt (2005), co-curated the monographs of Chris Cran (2015) and Wanda Koop (2010) and organized thematic exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto (MOCA) and The Rooms. In addition to publishing catalogues for the National Gallery and the Venice Biennale, her writing on contemporary art has appeared in a variety of publications and periodicals in Canada and abroad.
Director, Curatorial Initiatives
As a curator in the contemporary art department Jonathan Shaughnessy has proposed numerous artworks for the national collection by distinguished Canadian and international artists including Shannon Bool, Sarah Sze, David Hartt, Bharti Kher, David Altmejd, Nick Cave, Mika Rottenberg, Amar Kanwar, and Ai Weiwei. He is the organizer for the 2017 Canadian Biennial, and has been the curator of numerous Gallery exhibitions such as Mary Pratt: This Little Painting (2016), Human Scale (2016), Vera Frenkel …from the Transit Bar (2014), Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012 (2012-13), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) (2011-12), and coordinating curator at the NGC for Pop Life: Art in a Material World (2010), organized by Tate Modern, London, and David Hoffos: Scenes from the House Dream (2009), circulated by the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge.