Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, October 9, 2023
One of the fiercest fights in the past year in Canada has taken place not in a hockey rink, but inside the stately facades of its national art museum.
Directors of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa have come and gone. Senior curators have been fired. Patrons have stopped giving. Public clashes have erupted.
Museums across the West are having an identity crisis, wrestling with their roles in society and their colonial heritage. But as Canada has begun reckoning intensely in recent years with the ugly chapters of its history with Indigenous people, its museums have pushed further than most in transforming themselves — scrapping galleries, rethinking their exhibitions, refashioning the stories they tell and who has the power to tell them, in a process called “decolonization.”
That transformation has drawn criticism that culture is being politicized, and it has turned several museums into flash points. The tensions could have been confined to the rarefied world of museums if they had not reached the country’s most prominent one: the National Gallery, nearly as old as Canada itself, whose identity and national narrative it has helped shape.
“We’ve had a lot of one step forward, one step backward, and we’ve learned a lot,” said Jean-François Bélisle, recently appointed the National Gallery’s new director by the Canadian government. “We’re one of the few countries that have gone that far into that thought process.”
In an interview at the museum, Mr. Bélisle tended to avoid the word “decolonization,” a term he described as “very loaded,” but said confronting museums’ roots was necessary.
“To a certain extent, all museums are colonial constructions, and some people have argued that true decolonization would require shutting down every single museum because they’re born out of a colonial approach to the other,” added Mr. Bélisle. He argues, instead, that change can come from questioning assumptions, acknowledging biases and engaging in true dialogue.
Not everyone agrees with the direction of the National Gallery.
“Too many museums in Canada have changed their mandate from places that are responsible for transmitting culture and for caring for collections,” said Marc Mayer, a former director of the National Gallery. “Their job is not to either decolonize or to make Canada a less racist place.”
Mr. Mayer and other critics pointed to a current exhibition prepared before Mr. Bélisle’s arrival, “The Black Canadians (after Cooke),” as an example of the National Gallery’s politicization. The exhibit, by the artist Deanna Bowen, juxtaposes a drawing by Lawren Harris, a famous 20th-century Canadian painter, with 17 giant panels depicting anti-Black racism. The panels are draped over the museum’s southern facade in one of its biggest installations ever.
Harris was a leader of the Group of Seven, a group of 20th-century Canadian landscape painters credited with developing a national artistic identity. The current exhibition, Mr. Mayer said, unfairly tries to tie the Group of Seven, who were all white man, to the racism of the era and to devalue an important part of Canada’s artistic heritage.
Steven Loft, the vice president of the National Gallery’s Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, established last year as part of a five-year strategic plan, dismissed the criticism, noting that the National Gallery has and preserves the world’s biggest collection of works by the Group of Seven.
“These changes are happening all over, it’s not just us,” Mr. Loft said of decolonization. “And, yes, there’s a backlash. There are people who just refuse to give up that power.”
Tensions arose at several institutions — including the Royal BC Museum, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — over who would ultimately have the power to carry out changes. At the National Gallery, four senior staffers were fired last year following what opposing sides described as disagreements over how to transform the museum; the director then, Angela Cassie, did not respond to interview requests.
The inclusion of Indigenous art at the heart of the National Gallery was an important step, Mr. Loft said. But Indigenous individuals must become decision makers at the National Gallery and other museums to complete the process of decolonization, he said.
“Now reconciliation and decolonization have to be at the heart of fundamental, foundational change,” said Mr. Loft, who is of Mohawk-Jewish heritage.