Sasha Suda quits troubled National Gallery after short term

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Sasha Suda on July 16, 2021. Sude will move to Philadelphia in September.Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

As she leaves the National Gallery of Canada next month, director Sasha Suda could be forgiven if she thumbs her nose at her critics with a loud “Na na na na na.” The director, who strove to modernize the country’s leading visual arts institution, was often undermined by Ottawa’s Byzantine politics and, after just three years in the role, landed the directorship of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will move there in September.

“The opportunity to lead the Philadelphia Museum of Art was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” she said when I asked her why she was leaving.

And perhaps it was only professional ambition that drove Suda, a Canadian fully educated in American universities, to return to the United States. Philadelphia has one of the top 10 art museums and the most respected public collections in the country. central New York.

The curator and cultural manager can expect to double or even triple her salary thanks to the move: when she was hired at the National Gallery, the pay scale was $210,800; Outgoing Philadelphia manager Timothy Rub earned US$672,395 in 2019 according to public filings.

Yet it is unusual for a director of the National Gallery, an appointment by decree which must be approved by cabinet, not to complete the five-year term and while Suda has achieved a great deal in a short time, there are also good reasons why she might want to move.

She brought change but not stability to the gallery, partly through her own impatience but mostly because of the institutional rivalries that preceded her.

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A graduate of the prestigious art history program at Williams College, she began her career at the Metropolitan Museum before joining the Art Gallery of Ontario. Suda is passionately committed to transforming art museums so that they do not sink into insignificance or, even worse, become lighting sticks out of resentment of their white male privilege.

Her mandate at the National Gallery was to produce a strategic plan that addressed these issues and she did so, crafting a mission statement on “interconnectedness across time and space”, promising that this meant connecting with all communities and launching a motto (Ankosé, which translates to “everything is connected”) and a logo that honors Indigenous knowledge.

But what does this mean concretely?

“It’s not about what, but about how,” replies Angela Cassie, director of strategy and inclusion who will replace Suda as the gallery’s interim director on July 10. here’s another way to do it. What support do I need to make this change? … It’s a great institution to move, but if it’s created in that atmosphere of curiosity and learning… that’s half the battle.

A clear example of such a shift is the recent Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam, which included examples of contemporary art by indigenous and black artists as a means of discussing the colonial sources of Dutch wealth and the relationship between Dutch traders and Indigenous peoples in North America in the 17th century. century. These additions were controversial – in a good way: there was heated debate within the community about whether the exhibit worked.

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Another example is the education on racism and decolonization that has been provided to staff: Cassie says that as a black woman she hears complaints from communities who do not feel welcome in the art gallery, including racialized people who sometimes feel followed by guards.

Suda was leading the charge on these issues, but it also faced obstacles, particularly in building a stable leadership team as it repeatedly reorganized executive functions. His tenure saw a steady decline in senior staff as some stalwarts from the years when Marc Mayer was director retired and some newcomers did not last.

The two executives who jointly served as interim directors after his departure quickly disappeared, followed by the heads of design and education. A new general manager lasted two years while a vice president of public affairs only lasted 18 months.

In person, Suda can be refreshingly candid about what art museums are – disconnected from a diverse audience; slow to change – need to do and will cite the mistakes of its predecessors. Yet Suda also suffered from an institutional problem that predates her and which must be addressed if the gallery is to thrive.

When the federal government cut the national museums in the 1980s and 1990s, giving them more independence but less money, it allowed them to create their own charitable foundations.

The gallery’s main board is very diverse, representing regions, official languages ​​and Aboriginal interests, but lacks the momentum of the big bucks that traditionally fill arts boards. Meanwhile, under the longtime chairmanship of Tom d’Aquino (now chairman emeritus), the foundation has gradually come together and has raised more than $60 million for the gallery since its inception in 1997, which has given it allowed to build muscle: Mayer was able to keep the foundation to the side; Suda, who had worked as a curator and not an executive before joining the National Gallery, did not.

Although American museums depend much more on wealthy interests than on government grants, Suda may actually find it easier to manage politics in Philadelphia: a large endowment covers many costs, there is no second board of trustees. and no national mandate.

She inherits a mess in Philadelphia, where staff were furious with management’s delays in handling sexual harassment complaints and is also negotiating her first union contract, but her focus on diversity and democracy is exactly what this institution needs. also needs.

So what about Cassie? The interim director says she looks forward to cooperating with the foundation on fundraising ideas, but as an interim, whose initial appointment lasts only 90 days before it is due to be extended by executive order in board, it is unlikely to fight the parallel institution in its rightful place.

Cassie is an impressive cultural executive in her own right, a bilingual Manitoban who spent a decade at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg before joining the gallery and, especially for her political skills, also served in the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. .

She is not an art historian, however, and would be an unusual choice for a permanent director. Still, if she can still change while bringing stability to the gallery, she should earn the goodwill of a nation.

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