Sunday, 21 December 2014

to visit or not to visit

In the past year there has been a lot of talk, discussion and thinking about how to bring more visitors to the National Gallery of Canada. This conversation has hit a certain high note this year with the on-going and numerous, I should say countless cuts to various budgets ordered by our dear Leader Stephen Harper has slowly but surely destroyed many areas of service to Canadians. Many agree that we have entered an age of Corporatist politics, where Corporations are people and their voices count whereas the average taxpayer does not. This means a slow but certain degradation of anything and everything the Federal government does.

In the case of all our National Museums they are Crown Corporations, meaning that they receive a lump sum each year and the rest of their financing must come from the public through sales of tickets and other items such as memberships or donations. It has to be understood that for decades the main source of funding came from the Federal government who financed almost everything. Including building infrastructure and maintaining existing building, renovations, landscaping etc... the public was used to the Providential State stepping in at every turn to maintain these national institutions. Not understanding that they did not pay anywhere near enough taxes to support it all.

In other countries depending on their national history either the King or Emperor maintained private museums of their own collection, i.e. the Hermitage, the Prussian Royal Collections, the Saxon Royal Collection or the collections of the Bavarian Royal House or the Vatican Museums which until not so long ago where not open to the public.

In the USA it was Andrew W. Mellon who was the creator and founder/builder of the National Gallery in Washington DC.  Mellon bought the main European art works from the Bolchevics in Russia after 1919 who were selling off treasures of the Tsars and the Hermitage to finance their endeavours. In turn upon his death he donated to the American Nation all of it for the enjoyment of future generations. In the USA the Spirit with a capital S of endowment and gifts is well and alive, in Canada not so.

In Canada our National Museums were a government creation, unlike the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal which was a private sector creation. In 1905 our first Canadian Museum in Ottawa was the Geological Society of Canada located in a castle like structure named the Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street, it is the very popular Museum of Nature today.

The National Gallery had one small room in the basement of that building. Ottawa was a very small town at the time and the development of the museums in general was overseen by Civil Servants. There were some wealthy donors but they were few, unlike cities like Montreal where a well established group of British and Scottish well to do families had their Clubs and Art Circles.

The situation only began to change in our National Museums with the Trudeau (father) era 1968-1982. He had a personal interest in seeing new National Museums built and started a dialogue with the public to get them to involve themselves in the development and enhancement of the collections.
He saw a program similar to the USA where endowment funds and donations would drive museum expansion and not government funds.
The old Lorne building (1959-2012) former seat of the National Gallery until 1987, named after Governor General Sir John Douglas Sutherland, Marquess of Lorne. 

The main idea was that donors would form circles of friends and actively support all the activities of a Museum in particular. This happened with the building of the new Canadian War Museum in 2005, an idea which came about with Barnie Danson (1921-2011), a veteran, member of Parliament and Minister of Veterans Affairs who gathered supporters and to this day continues to thrive on that idea.

The New National Gallery of Canada building opened in 1988, the design alone created a buzz and people where fascinated with it. On the opening year close to one million visitors came to see it.
However this was not a sign that the public was more interested in art in general because suddenly there was a new building dedicated for the first time to our National Art Collections.

National Gallery of Canada (1988)

Whereas in the case of the Canadian War Museum where every Canadian, Veteran or active military is sought after and welcomed, the National Gallery had an image problem very often based on false assumptions and opinions. The public had and has to this day the overall impression that it is a place for the elite and the wealthy. Amongst our French speaking population it is seen as an English institution not open to others. Nothing could be further from the truth but it is a tough perception which will not die easily. Thus an empty museum with the lowest attendance record of all our National Museums including the currently closed under renovation Science and Technology Museum.

The Alarm bell has been ringing and the Board of Directors of the National Gallery have decided that something must be done. I remember prior to 1988 when the National Gallery was located in the old Lorne Building on Elgin Street, a converted office building, the museum was empty then. It was a small dark crammed display area. Not really enticing to promoting the arts and it had that academic approach in the display of the art collection.

This academic approach to the collections is still very present and that is a big turn off for a lot of people in this day and age, when education and intellectual pursuit is ridiculed and seen as worthless in Canada by a clear percentage of the population which includes our Prime Minister who was often quoted in the last 10 years with negative comments towards Arts and Culture. The Media in general has not helped either, a certain popular press is quick to pounce on any type of art which is not appealing to the masses, this includes contemporary, modern and lesser painters of any era.
The tone of the articles is always the same, ''Your tax dollars bought that thing your 5 year old kid can paint'' This type of populist attack which appeals to the lowest common denominator is very popular and sells well.

The other problem, and this is one of society in general, the lack of conversation in Canada about what kind of society do we want to live in. Everything in the last 10 years has come down to the notion of not wanting to pay taxes, having lots of rights and no responsibilities for anything or anyone, the promotion of excessive consumerism, not needing education, i.e. traditional schools, we need more babysitting services instead, not needing arts or culture which is seen as too expensive as long as we have big name sports team and stadiums and prioritizing shopping malls and highways.
As one of our Conservative politician put it so succinctly, ''We are not in Europe here, we don't need that stuff'' meaning arts and culture. A good example of this current political way of thinking is the sudden announcement two weeks ago of the renovations and rejuvenation of the National Arts Centre of Canada on Elgin Street. This is a much needed project however if you look at the details you will quickly notice that we are renovating all the public areas, bar, restaurant, lobby, parking and toilets, nothing is done to the concert halls themselves. This does not mean that more people will be coming to the performances.

The same is true with block buster Art exhibits, one quick solutions to bring people in. Two years ago we had a Summer exhibit of works by Van Gogh, which gave the National Gallery the highest attendance records in decades. However other Summer shows by equally great names like Monet and Renoir have failed miserably to attract record numbers. We did have a show organized with the Tate Modern London in 2010 entitled Pop Life with artists like Andy Wharhol, Jeff Koons and many others, it was a flop despite being a North American exclusive. The cost also of mounting theses big name exhibits has become exorbitant, one cost is the insurance, transport and logistics. Such exhibits need a minimum work of 5 years in planning.
It would appear that Ottawa, the region and as a tourist destination fails to promote/market its museums or maybe the interest is just not there in the Ottawa Valley.

The National Gallery could for starters become more visitor friendly, while retaining a certain academic approach could vulgarise and popularize exhibit space, market the museum as open to the public and at the same time tell the public at large of what we have in our collections. Many Canadians are not aware of the vast richness and diversity of our collections making the National Gallery of Canada one of the truly great world museum.  Maybe the public in general should be asked to support financially the NGC and make a donation upon entry or at any other time. Why rely only on big name donors who are a few hundred at most.

Given that our public often has no information or knowledge on art and may not know artists beyond a famous name and is unable to recognize a work of art by any artists it is crucial to bring things down to a level that is inviting and inspire the imagination. Before we jump to the conclusion that our National Gallery is not at the level of museums in Europe like the National Gallery London or the Louvre in Paris or any other museum in Italy or Germany, we should remember that Europe suffers from the same problem. The Louvre director was saying recently that if it was not for 5 works of art everyone wants to see, the museum would be empty, same phenomenon in Rome, St-Petersburg, Vienna, London or Berlin. Because we live in an anti-education age, the dawn of a new Middle-Age perhaps, the attention span of the public is extremely short, they must be brought to climax quickly because they have other things to do.

The secret of our success in Ottawa depends on how far we are willing to go to reach
a public who is difficult to please or simply unaware of the beauty around them.


  1. It’s sad to read that people don’t flock to exhibits for Monet and Renoir. Thankfully, the Denver Art Museum doesn’t have that problem. It seems like all of the big exhibits are packed with visitors. I think that is because our museum is a tourist attraction that draws from the surrounding states. The nearest competition is in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Kansas City.

    I hate when people make statements that a their five year old could paint. Well, if they could, why didn’t they do it? Ignorant critics don’t understand the balance of color and positive and negative spaces. These critics need to be replaced with people who actually understand what they are reviewing.

    1. One of the difficulties of Ottawa is that we are sandwiched between two big centres Montreal and Toronto, these large metropolitan centres can attract more people and a larger population means more interests. Ottawa being a Capital tends to be very Bourgeois and conservative in its outlook. People like what is safe and not challenging. Amuse the masses, Offer mediocrity seems to be the motto of this town.

  2. My Rare One and I went to the Pop Life exhibit and she was VERY shocked by the sexually explicit Jeff Koons photos. She still gets all wound up about it. Not for the reasons you might think but because she was outraged that Justice Lori Douglas could be subjected to a disciplinary hearing for nude photos when the bloody National Gallery of Canada was showing the same kind of things in public.

    You know what's big in Edmonton? Hockey art. I suspect that won't surprise you. But seriously, the National Gallery has to stage more exhibits that show images reflecting ordinary Canadian life back to Canadians. I went to a retrospective at the Winnipeg Art Gallery two or three years ago of the art of the Ukrainian-Canadian artist William Kurelek. He depicted very ordinary scenes of life on the prairies. That exhibit was friggin packed all the time. And yet the next year they brought in the traveling Botero exhibit (which I saw in Calgary and loved) and Winnipeggers gave it the total cold shoulder.

    The National Gallery should hire me as its next curator ferchrissakes.

    1. The NGC does need a shot in the arm and it needs to ask what is it that people want to see in a National Museum. I know that 2017 the new Curator of Canadian Art Katerina Atanassova is remodelling the gallery showing Canadian art and let's hope it goes beyond the Group of 7 and Emily Carr.
      I agree fresh air is required and better marketing.

  3. Yuck
    You make it sound like Canada is more like the USA every day. I hoped for better.
    Soon Canada will have the awful situation of remonstrating when they are mistaken for Yanks, yet be unable to come up with any real difference. Bad this.

    1. We do have a Bush-Cheney Like government at the moment, 2015 is an election year so we hope for change, though I am not that hopeful.
      Anyway during your time in Ottawa you will be spending a lot of times at the gallery not to worry.

  4. This is sad news. You nailed it though about people not seeing the beauty around them. I haven't been to Ottawa but can assure you it's a museum I would not miss. The un-enlighten miss so much by not seeking and enjoying the beauty available to them.