The Magnificent Art of this Land: The New Canadian and Indigenous Galleries

William Raphael, Bonsecours Market, Montreal, 1880, oil on canvas, 30.4 x 40.7 cm. NGC

Katerina Atanassova is speaking animatedly in her office overlooking the Ottawa River, surrounded by books on the history of Canadian art, and tracing lines on a floor plan. “One of the main reasons for initiating this project is to unite the collections  to integrate Indigenous art, Photographs and the Canadian collection.”

She’s discussing the National Gallery of Canada’s (NGC) ambitious transformation of the former Canadian Galleries in time for the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations this summer. The entire Canadian art wing — including rooms A100 to A114, the Garden Court, Rideau Chapel and Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium — is now closed for renovations and will re-open in June as the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.

Over the past year, Atanassova, the NGC’s Senior Curator of Canadian Art, has been working assiduously to help plan the renovation. Indeed, it was one of the main responsibilities she assumed upon joining the Gallery in 2014. At that time, Director and CEO Marc Mayer already had a vision to better represent the complete narrative of the art of Canada and to engage visitors in new ways. “We started with a directive from Marc,” says Atanassova, “to make the collection more relevant to 21st-century audiences.” 

Many exciting changes are in store. For the Canadian art collection up to 1967, Atanassova and her colleagues have developed a chronological and thematic approach, with themes such as The Dignity of Labour, Inhabited Landscapes, and The 19th-Century Portrait Tradition. Similarly, an entire section will be devoted to Canadian artists abroad, and another to winter scenes. These thematic groupings will be woven into a primarily chronological layout, but with flexibility for the occasional divergence in time period. The new design will make room for many recently acquired works, including William Raphael’s exquisite Bonsecours Market, Montreal, painted in 1880, and Emily Carr’s delightful sketchbook, made on her 1907 trip to Alaska. Works from the Gallery’s outstanding collection of silver will also have a prominent place. 

Emily Carr sketchbook, Sister and I in Alaska (detail), 1907, sketchbook with paper covers, containing 48 pages of beige wove paper with 46 drawings in watercolour, 22.3 x 19.5 x 1.5 cm closed. NGC 

Central to the transformation is a new approach to telling the history of Indigenous visual art. Outstanding historical art objects by Indigenous artists, such as stone and ivory carvings, woven materials, regalia, beadwork and quillwork, as well as paintings, sculptures and prints, will be installed throughout the galleries. At times the works will be in dialogue with those by settler Canadians, while at others, they will reflect a distinct Indigenous path.

The artworks will bring to the fore themes shared among different Indigenous cultures, such as cosmology and worldviews, cultural continuity, diplomacy and sovereignty, domestic design and trade, innovation and adaptation, group and individual identity and gender relations. Three key moments will be featured as significant chapters in Indigenous art history: the time preceding the arrival of Europeans, represented by ancient artworks of the founding nations and original inhabitants; the 19th century, when Indigenous peoples created exquisite regalia for ceremonies such as the Potlatch and Sun Dance; and the 1950s and 1960s, when Inuit art and the artists of the Woodland School became part of the mainstream in Canadian art.

Naskapi(?) Artist, Ceremonial Coat, c. 1840, caribou hide, paint, thread, wool and glass beads, overall measurements on mannequin: 95 x 80 x 50 cm. NGC

According to Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, this new approach signals a renewed commitment for the National Gallery to representing Indigenous art. “And it is for the long-term,” she stresses. The National Gallery has requested major loans from collections across Canada and abroad to bring in iconic works, and has also reached out to a number of advisors in the field. “Early on, we recognized that the scope of the project required special expertise,” says Lalonde. “So we created two Indigenous art advisory committees to help develop the narrative, the selection, the protocol and the interpretation for the many artworks.”

Another important change that visitors will notice is the integration of works from the Gallery’s superb collection of Canadian photographs. Associate Curator of Photographs Andrea Kunard has made a selection of works presenting an overview of the evolution of the medium in Canada — from 19th-century portraits, landscapes and urban scenes, to mid-20th-century abstraction and Arctic scenes — while also complementing the paintings, sculptures and Indigenous works on view. “What we want to emphasize is the many different forms that photography took during these periods,” Kunard told NGC Magazine. “We are highlighting how photographers crafted engaging images of the land and its people, while also developing the medium as a form of artistic expression.” Continuing its successful partnership with Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the Gallery is also devoting two spaces to LAC’s extensive collection of archival photographs: one for historical images and one for modern works.

To assist in the renewal of the galleries, the NGC has engaged an internationally renowned museum designer to work closely with the NGC Design team. Paris-based Adrien Gardère has designed gallery spaces for the Musée du Louvre-Lens in northern France, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum. With expertise in furniture and lighting, as well as museum and exhibition design, he is well qualified to handle the challenges of renovating what is already a striking architectural space.

Salomon Marion, Snuffbox with Agate, c. 1820, silver, agate, gold, gold alloy, copper, and brass, 2 x 7.6 x 5.4 cm. NGC

The original Canadian Galleries occupied 4,200 square metres and sixteen rooms on the second floor of the building. Visitors entering from the Great Hall took a chronological journey on a more or less rectilinear path around the central Garden, Chapel and Atrium. Drawing upon these spaces, and considering the works to be installed, Gardère developed a vision to expand views, passages, and sources of natural light and create a more flexible and inviting experience. “The whole point,” said Gardère in an interview with NGC Magazine, “is to create a real encounter and a real dialogue between Indigenous and Western collections.”

To that end, the designer proposed the opening of walls and doorways into a number of small side galleries to allow more integration and communication between the spaces and the works installed there. “It’s about making the journey more fluid,” says, Gardère “and trying to break up the succession of closed and enclosed galleries. This will also create a broader dialogue between the artworks in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.”

He also recommended changes to some of the door frames to unify the style, and updated the warm-toned hardwood floors with a more neutral colour. “These are small tricks designed to take advantage of the strength of the existing architectural elements and enhance them,” he explains. 

Métis leader Louis Riel is said to have declared, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Over the past few months, many of the country’s most beloved and iconic works have been resting in storage, while others, such as the 19th-century Ceremonial Coat, made by a Naskapi(?) artist, are being prepared for their first installation at the Gallery. The unveiling in June promises to be a spirited awakening, one that will transform the way visitors see and experience the rich artistic heritage of this land.

The Canadian Galleries are fully closed for renovations and will re-open as the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries on June 15, 2017. For more information, please click here

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