The Long Journey in Search of Home
To what extent is the appreciation of art dependent upon the architecture of the gallery? That question has preoccupied art museums around the world since the 18th century, most recently when the pandemic forced many to close and, often, to substitute online programing for the in-person experience. It is a question that has certainly arisen periodically throughout the history of the National Gallery of Canada, although for an entirely different reason.
For much of its existence, Canada's National Gallery was a kind of vagabond institution, bouncing between various temporary homes – mostly shared accommodations that also housed other government services. In the ten decades preceding the 1988 opening of the Gallery’s permanent home on Sussex Drive – designed by architect Moshe Safdie, and now one of the most captivating features of the Ottawa skyline – the Gallery won praise for assembling an impressive collection of work and for organizing exhibitions that triumphantly toured across Canada and around the world. By contrast, when one of the Gallery’s early unassuming Ottawa premises was mentioned in the press or in Parliament throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, it was invariably characterized as a national embarrassment. The search for a suitable permanent home befitting this premiere Canadian cultural institution would take more than a hundred years.
For the first two years of its life, Canada’s national gallery of art (originally named the National Art Gallery at Ottawa) was actually homeless. The institution came into being when the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was founded in 1880 and – in consultation with Canada’s fourth Governor General, John Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne – committed its leading members to donate one of their works for a national collection. The first exhibition of works was held on 6 March 1880 at the Clarendon Hotel, (a building that later served as headquarters to the Geological Survey of Canada), at the corner of Sussex Drive and George Street in Ottawa's Byward Market. Entrusted to the care of the Dominion Chief Architect in the Department of Public Works, the nascent national collection had no fixed address until two years later, when two converted rooms above the Supreme Court on the edge of Parliament Hill were set aside for the Gallery. Opening on 27 May 1882, it welcomed 8,261 visitors and by 1885 had a collection of 50 works, which nearly doubled – to 93 works – the following year.
Within six years, the Gallery migrated off the Hill to Victoria Hall. The building was located a few streets south at the downtown corner of Queen and O’Connor, where the Gallery was housed “over the Fisheries [Fish Hatchery] Exhibit.” The space had been renovated, and the rooms “are now well lighted and convenient with space to spare for additional work of Art,” noted the 1889 Annual Report. But by 1900, the report provided a more dire commentary on “… the crowded condition of the Gallery” which made it “impossible to hang the pictures with any degree of satisfaction on account of the lack of space.”
In April 1912, the Gallery was on the move again – expanding and going more “upmarket.” It assumed occupancy of the top three floors of the east wing of the newly built Victoria Memorial Museum Building (further south on O’Connor Street), an impressive stone castle which today houses the Canadian Museum of Nature. During this period, Gallery attendance continued to grow, aided partly by the popularity of a 25-cent catalogue, continued expansion of the collection (by 1915 the Gallery had 1,046 works) and the opening of the Gallery on Sundays (when attendance often surpassed 1,000 visitors). This upward trend in attendance, however, was reversed when the First World War “caused many people with leisure and interest in art to be fully occupied with charitable and patriotic works,” according to the 1916 Annual Report.
Additional misfortune struck in 1916, when the burning of the Parliament Buildings compelled the Gallery to vacate the premises within 36 hours. The collection was hastily moved into storage to allow the country’s legislators to take up temporary residence at the Museum, while the Parliament Buildings were rebuilt. When the Gallery was allowed back in 1921, it took occupancy of the entire east wing. However, this expansion was not adequate to keep pace with a growing collection and surging patronage. Between September 1921 and March 1922, as the 1920–21 Annual Report notes, “no less than 75,000 people passed the turnstiles which is a remarkable record for a city and district not exceeding 150,000 people.” Lack of storage space also provided a partial motivation for the Gallery’s successful program of loans and travelling exhibitions.
Despite its itinerant status and sometimes discouraging surroundings, the Gallery worked doggedly throughout the early 20th century to support Canadian artists and cultivate a national awareness of the visual arts. After Parliament incorporated the Gallery in 1913, it was able to independently apply annual government grants and private gifts to the tasks of organizing exhibitions and amassing a collection notable both for works by European Old Masters and by Canadian innovators such as the Group of Seven and Emily Carr.
The fact that this impressive collection continued to be inadequately housed didn’t escape notice by the press. In 1927, a correspondent for the Toronto Globe lamented that “unlike Australia and almost all other countries … of the civilized world [sic], Canada has no special building in which to house her great art collections. This really disgraceful condition should be remedied at once.” The author and diplomat G. Campbell McInnes similarly complained about the Gallery’s Victoria Memorial Museum quarters in Saturday Night magazine in 1936, writing that the Gallery’s “magnificent Old Master Collection (one of the finest in America…) and the most representative array of Canadian art in existence are housed in cramped and inadequate quarters, which are not even fireproof.”
That the state of a national art museum could evoke such strong feelings, rooted in bruised national pride, is an anomaly of the modern world. As Witold Rybczynski writes in his 1993 A Place for Art, the public art gallery is itself a fairly new creation. For most of human history, “art was usually experienced in the course of daily life” – displayed on public buildings, in plazas or at religious sites – and when art was found indoors, from ancient Rome onwards, it mostly took the form of large murals in the homes of the wealthy. Even when the familiar “gallery” emerged in the 16th century (made possible by easel painting, which enabled the creation of portable works for display in a dedicated art room), it too was only found in rich people’s houses.
Democracy transformed the art gallery by degrees. Museum collections had already begun in the 17th century, with universities such as Oxford and Basel making their collections accessible to the public. Rome’s Capitoline Museums predated 18th-century public openings in St. Petersburg, Besançon and Vienna, while London’s British Museum opened to the public in 1759, and the Louvre in Paris was designated by French revolutionaries as the national public art museum in 1793. The notion of art as a national treasure belonging to every citizen spread rapidly across Europe and America in the 19th century, and by the 20th century it had a transformative impact on the design of art museums.
The first wave of purpose-built art galleries, writes Rybczynski, had borrowed a classical style from the private palaces that had housed works of art for centuries. But from the 1930s onwards, modernist architects reimagined art galleries as open, inviting public buildings – frequently glass-clad, sometimes with movable walls and, in later decades, with more than a passing resemblance to modern shopping malls. The “white cube” – a white-walled square with works hung at eye-level, the better to appreciate the individual pieces – became the ubiquitous interior space after the Second World War, not just in public museums, but also in commercial galleries.
The new public art gallery embodied a spirit of egalitarianism that was firmly entrenched when Canada finally resolved to deal with its lingering exhibition-space deficit. John Diefenbaker’s late-1950s government took a cautious, two-pronged approach: first moving the Gallery into the new Lorne Building (fittingly named for the Marquess of Lorne) as a temporary fix, while longer-term plans for a permanent home took shape.
Although the structure on Elgin, between Albert and Slater Streets, was designed to be convertible to office space (which it later became, before its demolition in 2011), as an art gallery it was highly functional, with climate controls and 33 exhibition areas – five times the space of its predecessor, much needed for a collection of 1,255 paintings, 83 sculptures and over 5,000 prints and drawings. It also included a tea-room for visitors on the roof. The building’s 1960 opening, however, was dogged by the historic tension between “elitist” and “democratic” conceptions of gallery-going, with opposition MPs characterizing the event’s “white tie and medals” dress code as a means of keeping ordinary citizens out of the event.
When Pierre Trudeau’s government returned to the question of a permanent home for the Gallery in the 1970s and '80s, it faced the dilemma of whether to choose a classical or a modernist building. Moshe Safdie’s winning design deftly combined the two, with traditional, fixed viewing rooms surrounded by a modernist glass atrium that serves as a public meeting place. The result, Rybczynski concludes, is a building that “celebrates our shared belief in the importance of a common culture… [by providing both] a place for the jostling crowd and also the individual, the tourist as well as the connoisseur. Each visitor can experience this multi-faceted building in a different way.”
It was a journey interrupted by fire, the disruption of two world wars, the vagaries of politics, and the shifting tides of public tastes, but by 1988, the odyssey had concluded. The National Gallery of Canada finally had a permanent home.
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