Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

Telling Our Whole Story: Interview with Marc Mayer

After ten years as Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Marc Mayer is leaving the country's premier art institution. Katherine Stauble took the opportunity to discuss his most memorable achievements.

Katherine Stauble: Among your early initiatives was the acquisition of several striking outdoor sculptures, including Roxy Paine’s One Hundred Foot Line, James Hart's The Three Watchmen and Michel de Broin’s Majestic. Why did you think the Gallery needed these?

Marc Mayer: Because this is an art museum and it should look like one from several blocks away. I remember when I had just arrived in Ottawa, walking down Sussex Drive and hearing a man ask a woman, "What's that building over there?" She answered, "Oh, that's the Museum of Nature. See the spider?" Louise Bourgeois' Maman was very popular and I realized Ottawa could use more public sculpture of that quality and scale. It had a lot of commemorative sculpture, but not much for pleasure, to uplift us aesthetically and intellectually.

James Hart, The Three Watchmen, 2003, cast 2010. Bronze, 457 x 152 x 152 cm. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, Vancouver, 2011. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © James Hart Photo: NGC

I had already known about One Hundred Foot Line and Majestic (a gift from Donald and Beth Sobey), and finding myself Director of the Gallery, I had a very interesting site for them on Nepean Point. The Three Watchmen was offered as a gift by Michael Audain and Yoshi Kurasawa at a time when Indigenous public symbols were lacking in Ottawa. It was also when I started talking about the need for a “precinct of beauty” in our capital.

KS: In 2014 you organized the Jack Bush exhibition, along with co-curator Sarah Stanners. Why did you want to take on this exhibition yourself?

MM: I like to get involved in projects where my gut feeling is of a great attraction but where I am lacking in knowledge of the subject – not an expert but wanting to be. I have always loved Jack Bush’s work but didn't exactly know why. I do now. Sarah Stanners approached me in La Guardia airport, saying, "You don't know me, but I know you, and I would like to talk to you about Jack Bush." The plane was delayed, so we had time for a good conversation and by the end I had not only agreed to propose an exhibition about Jack Bush to my colleagues, I also wanted to work with Sarah Stanners. She is extremely knowledgeable about the artist and the only person, besides Bush himself, who had read all his personal journals of twenty years. I thought, by working closely with someone with these insights and sheer mass of experience with the corpus, I might become an expert myself. She also, luckily, turned out to be an amazing collaborator.

Installation view of the exhibition Jack Bush, November 13, 2014 to February 22, 2015, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Jack Bush / SOCAN (2019) Photo: NGC

KS: One of your most ambitious initiatives was the establishment in 2015 of the Canadian Photography Institute. Why did you feel this was important?

MM: Photography is a unique medium and largely misunderstood, I think. Not only is it by now a fairly central art form, but photographs and their unique culture rather heavily inform the larger ‘picture culture,’ certainly of contemporary art-making.

At the Gallery we have an absolutely extraordinary and enviable collection of historical photographs that continues to grow. Photography is one of our great strengths in Canada. We have produced not only great photographers, but also all kinds of people who have a deep understanding of photography. Art museums are public places where people can get access to this kind of knowledge and experience. Given that everyone is a photographer now, this is a serious public service.

When we were offered large gifts of vernacular, technical and journalistic photographs, I thought we should accept these gifts and create a place that could make use of a vast, more encyclopedic collection, covering every aspect of this medium that has been such a rich resource for art since its invention in 1839. The Canadian Photography Institute was a way of increasing the international reputation of our photographic collection and our curators. It was also a means to establish this institution as a centre of knowledge about photography, a place where the larger field of mechanically produced images could be studied, experimented with and enjoyed. Scotiabank and David Thomson helped make it a reality, but it now needs to go further.

William Notman, The "Skating Queen", c. 1855. Albumen silver print, 13.9 x 10.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo: NGC

KS: In 2017, the Gallery transformed the Canadian Galleries into the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. Can you talk about this change?

MM: When I came to the Gallery there was Indigenous art in the Canadian historical section and a laudable but not overly ambitious attempt to integrate it into the story of art-making in Canada. I felt we could go much further, that the National Gallery could also be a place where Indigenous people in Canada could see their heritage and great artists celebrated prominently. And I felt it important to remind people that although Canada is politically new, for thousands of years rich, beautiful and inspirational cultures have been active here. I also felt it was time to do more for Canadian women because not only did women participate in this story, to a certain extent, there is also an art history particular to women.

KS: One of the great revelations at the galleries' re-opening, and in your book Art in Canada, was the stunning altar frontal by Marie Lemaire des Anges, then on loan to the Gallery. Why did you want to highlight this work?

MM: I had a religious experience, so to speak, in the museum of the Ursuline Monastery in Quebec City, where I saw an exhibition of very fine embroideries. What stunned me were some 17th-century works of a superior quality to that of the paintings and sculptures made in Canada at the time. I remember thinking this was pretty outrageous. I'm an art historian, I studied Canadian art in school. Why did I not know there were such very fine works of art made in Canada by French women collaborating with Indigenous women, and that the leader was a nun, Marie Lemaire des Anges, who came from a long line of French embroiderers? Why was this not more widely known and part of the curriculum?

Mère Marie Lemaire des Anges, Altar frontal With the Immaculate Conception, c. 1675. Wool and silk polychrome yarn, crimped spun gold and silver metallic yarn, cannetille, paillette, chenille thread, cabochon on moiré silk and lace backing, 88 × 180.5 × 4.8 cm. Musée des Ursulines de Québec,  Pôle culturel du Monastère des Ursulines. Photo: Photo: J. Beardsell

When I asked our curator of Early Canadian Art, René Villeneuve, why her name was not better known in Canadian art history, he replied, "It’s the old craft prejudice,” meaning that old-fashioned notion that the artistic practices of women belong in a decorative arts museum and those of men in an art museum. We don't have those craft-based hierarchies in contemporary art much anymore. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary women artists are making things the way women did a thousand years ago, most notably with textiles. Yet the issue remains unresolved because of our culture of specialisation. It is tricky, but we really do need to grapple with this subject once and for all and clear out the cobwebs of the old hierarchies.

KS: What do you think the Gallery does best?

MM: We mount beautiful shows. I have heard it again and again from people who have seen the same show in multiple museums. They are enchanted by how these works look in our galleries. We not only have talented people to mount the shows but also galleries that were designed specifically to present these impressive exhibitions. Our publications are both beautiful and useful. When we do collaborative projects with other museums, notably with international partners, we often manage the book. We are also very good at choosing important works to contribute to the collection. After nearly 140 years, you get good at collecting.

KS: What is your greatest hope for the Gallery in future?

MM: More means at its disposal. It definitely needs more people and more financial resources, for example for programming autonomy. There are so many important exhibitions and catalogues that we can’t produce because they wouldn’t attract a large enough audience. Almost every art museum is in the same boat today and it's unfortunate for the health of our culture that programming is so tied to attendance.

The National Gallery of Canada serves the entire country. We need to be more responsive, so when someone asks to borrow something with four months' notice we can say, "Sure!" rather than “Can’t do it!” We simply don’t have the means to work faster because the volume of requests is very high and our resources are limited. We are by far the biggest lender of art in the country. That is our role, after all, but it has become overwhelming. I find it frustrating that we can't be more present across the country, that we can't publish more books, notably on Canadian art. There aren't enough beautiful, ambitious books produced by Canadian experts on their own culture. This has been a vulnerable institution that people have taken for granted for 140 years. It needs to be more prominent in the minds of our parliamentarians. I would like to see more of them at our openings, for example. Art has been a key part of our intellectual, cultural and spiritual life since the beginning. The Gallery is an important institution not just in Canada but internationally and important in ways that have yet to be acknowledged.

KS: What are you doing next?

MM: I'll be going back to New York, for a spell, where I have a home. I’ll still be involved in the art world in some capacity, especially with contemporary art because I do love being close to living and breathing brilliance. Not only has this been the most meaningful job I have ever had, I also can't imagine I'll ever have another one that will be as meaningful to me personally.


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