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.
Jean-François Bélisle is the National Gallery’s new director.Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
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.”
Much of the museum world has been contending with how to overhaul institutions intimately tied to Western colonialism.
“All the values of museums are now being called into question,” said Yves Bergeron, an expert on museums at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
In Europe, museum decolonization has mostly meant starting to repatriate artwork looted from former colonies. But in Canada, whose colonial history consisted of taking land from the Indigenous and suppressing their cultures, museums are changing from the inside, Mr. Bergeron said.
In the 19th century, Canadian authorities discovered that museums could play a nation-building role in turning the former British colonies into an independent nation, Mr. Bergeron said. Scientific museums were first established to help spur economic development. Then art museums — including the National Gallery, created in 1880, or about a dozen years after the country’s formation in 1867 — told people who they could be.
“The National Gallery served to create a national identity by showing that there were Canadian artists and that there was Canadian art,” Mr. Bergeron said.
The trouble was that the national identity it fostered had a glaring omission: It excluded the Indigenous inhabitants whom successive Canadian governments tried to marginalize from both the land and history. For most of its history, the National Gallery — the only museum whose mandate is to showcase the best of Canadian art to the country and the world — exhibited works by English-Canadian, French-Canadian and European artists, but not by Indigenous ones.
Until a couple of decades ago, Indigenous art was not considered fine art but ethnography — and relegated to the nearby Canadian Museum of History.
Then a series of crises triggered the start of Canada’s coming to terms with its colonial past, a process that spilled over into the art world.
“In Canada, the decolonization of museums took off with the growing awareness surrounding the First Nations,” said Michèle Rivet, the vice chairwoman of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ board of trustees.
The National Gallery’s collection of Indigenous art two decades ago was “willfully inadequate,” said Michael Audain, a prominent Vancouver-based homebuilder and one of Canada’s biggest art collectors, whose foundation stopped giving to the National Gallery because of the turmoil.
“You got the impression that Canadian art history started with the mainly religious-based art of the ancien régime in Quebec,” Mr. Audain said, referring to a period straddling the 17th and 18th centuries. “I think that to represent the history fairly of art-making in Canada you have to start with the original people of the land.”
With backing from Mr. Audain, the National Gallery created the position of Indigenous art curator in 2007 and began building an important collection of contemporary and traditional Indigenous art. In 2017, it merged the works of Indigenous and Canadian artists in the same gallery.
“The idea was to make it official and permanent so that we would always tell the story of art-making in Canada in a way that systematically included Indigenous art,” said Mr. Mayer, who was the museum’s director at the time.
Other museums are remaking galleries focused on Indigenous culture, including the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Royal BC Museum, where several wings were closed last summer with a sign explaining that it was “having conversations with communities throughout British Columbia about what the future of the museum could look like.”
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.
Mr. Bélisle, the National Gallery’s new director, earned a reputation for adroitly handling difficult artwork at the Joliette Art Museum, near Montreal, where he had been director for the past seven years.
In 2020, the Joliette museum grappled with how to display 27 highly prized, century-old bronze statues given by an important collector on the condition that they be exhibited within a specific time frame.
Mr. Bélisle said some had “very problematic depictions of Indigenous people,” including one sculpture heroically showing a French colonial soldier standing over a half-naked Indigenous warrior. Mr. Bélisle’s workaround was “Gazes in Dialogue”: the pieces were accompanied by video commentary by three Indigenous leaders and shown in a plywood house created by a contemporary artist.
“Just celebrating the aesthetic qualities didn’t make any sense,” Mr. Bélisle said. “We had to come up with some type of mechanism to contextualize more and to make the viewers think about the fact that what you’re seeing is a sociological construct that made sense back then, but we’re in a different society today.”