View of Room C203 in the European and American galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, June 2020. Photo: NGC

Return to the Gallery: A Day Out with Art

On July 18 the National Gallery of Canada reopened its doors to the public and welcomed nearly 3,000 people during its first four days. Sasha Suda, Director and CEO, looks at the changes over the past five months and reflects upon the opportunities and the possibilities for the future.

Sasha Suda. Photo: NGC 

With the Gallery now open again, what is your main message for visitors?

We want to make sure that everyone feels safe first and foremost. Of course, we also want to extend a warm welcome and, with the support of the Distinguished Patrons of the NGC Foundation, we have been able to make admission free for the first 25,000 visitors. At this moment, we are thinking of ourselves as "hyper-local." It is a luxury for us to have the opportunity to think about and reset with our local community – something we often have to balance carefully with our federal mandate.


What steps has the Gallery taken to create a safe environment for visitors?

Moshe Safdie's National Gallery building was designed in such a way that social distancing is easy to achieve. It is defined by its long sightlines, and is processional in its layout. There is a very clear sense of direction that allows people to anticipate the flow of traffic and to redirect as others intersect with their route. We have introduced special signage, and hand sanitizers and masks are both readily accessible. The big surprise has been the effect of moving the entrance east to the Group entrance, which goes against the natural flow of the building. It has allowed visitors to re-visit parts of our grounds, such as the Sunken Garden, which they may not have frequented before. It also brings the public closer to the staff entrance, which is symbolic.


How have the COVID-19 pandemic and recent events around the world caused the Gallery to rethink its responsibilities?

What was fascinating about the immediate impact of COVID-19 was the sudden loss of collective connection – both human (face-to-face) and the collective understanding of what the future might bring. Overnight, society demonstrated a renewed interest in art and artists, whether authors, poets, visual artists or otherwise. In many ways it has made the Gallery's mission and mandate even more relevant, because few embrace the unknown more than artists today. As a society that has, generally, become obsessed with deliverables – closing of the loop and understanding everything from A to Z – the pandemic stopped everything and continues to prevent a return to those routines. Some of these uncertainties are existential, others are very pragmatic, such as how to go to school this fall. This sort of evolution of a more open-ended conversation about life is a space artists inhabit naturally.

The Gallery has a lot of work to do to become an institution that serves all Canadians equally. We'll be working extremely hard, both in the short and the longer term, to make sure that this institution embraces change now and continues to evolve alongside the country in which we live.


What has been the impact on the Gallery's displays and exhibition program?

As the Gallery moves forward, we will obviously try to program and acquire works of art that help to create and spark discourse, to share the lived experience of many with all. To further our initiative on art in public spaces, we are working with artists to commission works for the outside of the Gallery – this will be a first on the granite walls of Safdie's building. We are also thinking about these works as conversation starters that can travel from coast to coast to coast for years to come.

In terms of our exhibition program, we are working through challenging questions: How do you design an exhibition that encourages and rewards social distancing, how do you tour an exhibition with loans from around the world under the distinct challenges that the pandemic has placed on travel in particular? It is still impossible to know what the impact on exhibitions will be in the long term. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the business model of museums, which in recent history has hinged on special exhibitions that draw large crowds, will no longer exist. It certainly won't exist in the short term, and we are excited about finding the opportunities in this unexpected reality and to evolve the ways in which we engage with our communities near and far.


How might the Gallery's closure these past few months affect its digital offering in the future?

The Gallery has been working on finding its digital groove for a long time now, and it will require extraordinary commitment, both financially and also culturally. This is certainly part of the category we are calling "the houses that COVID-19 helped to build." The importance of digital is undisputed today and this work can no longer wait.


What does the future hold?

This art museum is over 130 years old and, given its history, it has been constantly evolving. Our sector hasn't evolved quickly enough, however, and our audience is telling us so right now. It is a particularly challenging time for museums, as they are being asked to step up to meet the new and existing expectations of our audiences. As directors and senior managers, our teams are also telling us that the way we run is not democratic – and we must answer this call. It is a fine balance, and I am absolutely privileged to be in this role at a time that requires extraordinary accountability. So, what the future holds is constant change, and we want to be a productive part of that cycle. The future holds creativity.


For details of current opening hours and security measures, see Free admission to the Gallery coincides with the reopening of the acclaimed international Indigenous art exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, extended until October 4. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.