Sasha Suda awakens the National Gallery of Canada

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Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, spoke to The Globe and Mail on July 16, the day the gallery could finally reopen.

Ashley Fraser / Globe and Mail

In the lobby of the National Gallery of Canada on a long-awaited reopening day, director Sasha Suda greets a cleaner by name. A year before the pandemic, Suda came down to Ottawa with a mandate to change a struggling institution, and at first glance, the symbolism of this particular encounter seems compelling. Here is the white woman with a doctorate in art history who runs the gallery talking collegially with the black woman in the headscarf who cleans it: Diversity and democracy seem to have arrived.

Or the storyline could be seen in a different light, one that highlights a familiar ancient power imbalance: Suda herself points out it will take much more than friendly discussions – or even a bold strategic plan and a sparkling new logo – to defeat professional and cultural hierarchies.

“The hardest thing for any leader today is having a people-centered management style in a 140-year-old institution that relies heavily on…. this top-down approach, ”Suda said in a recent interview, adding“ It’s easy for me to say I want to empower everyone. How to redesign the system so that everything gets done and everyone feels empowered is another conversation. “

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Suda, a Canadian trained in New York before returning to Toronto in 2011 as European curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario, had never been a museum director when she was hired to oversee the collection of national art. But at the AGO, she was known as a highly collegial professional, committed to new ideas, someone who could make change happen. The last year of his predecessor, Marc Mayer, had been marred by his controversial decision to sell a Marc Chagall painting, a complex conservation movement that outraged citizens and left the gallery sidelined. The Ottawa Citizen reported that a staff survey around this time showed that only 16 percent of employees believed senior managers were making effective decisions.

It was a public relations and morale crisis that now appears minor compared to the challenges COVID-19 has placed on all museums. Revenues collapsed during prolonged shutdowns that eroded public participation.

“I didn’t want to believe that was happening,” Suda said of the repeated closings, which have closed the gallery for almost six of the past 16 months. She insisted that a federally funded institution – at least 75 percent of the budget is covered by the parliamentary grant – would not lay off any permanent employees and maintained an ambitious timeline for a strategic plan and a new image of Mark. The major adjustment made by COVID-19 – and the Black Lives Matter movement – was that change was now being pushed from the outside.

“The issues of equity and leadership and the downsizing of staff to do more and more with the same amount of resources… these are all things we struggled with,” she said. . “I don’t think we’ve solved the problem. It’s going to take time to change our rhythms and patterns.

Demands for democratization and decolonization flood the less responsive institutions. As Ottawa prepared to reopen this spring, protesters were picketing the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, complaining that it was only for wealthy donors, while the director of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria was resigning on charges of institutional racism.

With refreshing candor, Suda faces the moment head-on. She had already accessed her new clean broom station, supervising several departures of executives, including that of deputy director Anne Eschapasse. Meanwhile, her attempt to overpower an independent photo institute set up inside the gallery by collector David Thomson (whose family-owned investment firm owns The Globe and Mail) led to its closure in 2020. She has also made strategic hires, including two new vice-presidents. , Black Museum director Angela Cassie (who had worked at the Winnipeg Human Rights Museum) to take responsibility for diversity and inclusion, and Tania Lafrenière to oversee a more people-centered approach to HR.

It’s behind the scenes. Up front, two black performers now have special orders displayed in the gallery’s top lobbies. In the main entrance, the American artist Rashid Johnson installed one of his semi-biographical sculptures where living plants, books and pieces of shea butter are mounted in a rising metal frame. And Tau Lewis, a Jamaican-Canadian who lives in Brooklyn, contributed Symphony, a gigantic rag doll sculpture made from reclaimed fabric and floral garlands hanging from the gallery rotunda.

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Outside, along the arcade once reserved for advertising banners for major exhibitions, the gallery has installed photographs of Quebecer Geneviève Cadieux, a senior artist whom she largely ignored during her mid-career years. Kicking off the Leading with Women series, the giant artwork, starring a couple captured in a drama of romantic alienation, makes up for the startling decision to ask Johnson, a prominent American artist whose work speaks specifically of the experience. African-American, to create the first play that viewers encounter within the Canadian institution.

The main focus of Suda’s outreach, however, is not towards black artists or women, but indigenous communities. The gallery’s new slogan is the word Anishinaabemowin ankosé, which means “everything is connected,” while the digital logo is a changing pattern of crosses and stars. Although it represents the new native-centric philosophy, there have been complaints from Canadian graphic designers because the studio that created it is based in New York, like Suda, which has also been criticized for its less than French. current, sometimes has trouble analyzing Ottawa politics.

Meanwhile, the strategic plan raised eyebrows because its first goal – “We encourage interconnection across time and space” – does not mention the visual arts. More deeply, it articulates a mission of social justice with the visual arts that create bridges and open minds. Like most documents of the genre, it is noble yet abstract, promising both inclusiveness and bold change with indigenous knowledge at its core, yet offering few examples.

“The Art Gallery is a national symbol and the idea of ​​reconciliation is of paramount importance: I think the direction is right,” said Diana Nemiroff, retired director of Carleton University Art Gallery and former curator of the Museum of Fine Arts who wrote an upcoming book. on her female leadership. “In principle, everything is fine. We have to see how this plays out in practice. “

The practice at the moment is Rembrandt’s current exhibition in Amsterdam where the gallery’s traditional summer blockbuster of European Masterpieces gets a facelift with contemporary works that speak to black and indigenous themes as well as information about Dutch colonialism and 17th century trade with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Suda, who is not afraid to criticize past practices, points out that a Paul Gauguin show in 2019 did not say enough about this artist’s exploitation of Tahitian culture. But Rembrandt, as his career blossomed with Dutch colonial wealth, was not a settler himself. So what does the viewer think of the weakened link between Rembrandt and Turtle Island?

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“The prospects… come from a place of trust,” Suda says of the Conservatives’ willingness to broaden the agenda. “Have confidence that Rembrandt’s story will not be diminished; believing that the indigenous story will not be a facade, that the African perspective will not be a sort of signal of virtue. The fact that we are ready to support this… is very courageous for an institution of this size and position.

It will take both courage and confidence – on the part of the gallery and its visitors – as change sweeps through the country’s art collection.

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