The changing taste of the public determines the future of art in Ottawa

Alexandra Suda took over the top course at the National Gallery of Canada last year to see two large exhibitions in time that challenge the idea of ​​a blockbuster.

Gallery staff expected the big attraction of the year to be the summer exhibition of portraits by the famous post-impressionist French master Paul Gauguin, the world’s first to focus on his portraits.

They did not know what to expect with the fall exhibition Àbadakone: Continuous Fire, which draws attention to contemporary indigenous art from all over the world. It will continue until April 5.

Sasha Suda is the director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada.

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Everyone was surprised by what happened. The Gauguin exhibition has never caught the public’s imagination, it attracts 107,469 people during the summer, while akbadakone becomes a hit, with nearly 31,000 visitors during the first two months of the slower fall-winter season. The opening night attracted 3,600 people, the largest turnout for every opening in the gallery’s history. So many people arrived that November evening that the security had to stop letting them into the building.

“What’s exciting and frightening about that is that we don’t know for sure what happened,” Suda said during an interview in her office, an airy room with a perfect view of the Ottawa River and Parliament Hill.

The artists of the New Zealand Mato Aho Collective are standing in front of their monumental woven installation entitled “AKA, 2019”. Numerous artists from around the world were at the National Gallery of Canada on Wednesday (November 6, 2019) for the preview of Àbadakone: Continous Fire.

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“How we managed to have so many people that we had to close the doors for capacity reasons is still our understanding. People don’t necessarily come for native art, and contemporary art is also something that is very specific. There is not too much of a data set to tell us that this is what people want now. “

The reaction to these exhibitions shows that the culturally devouring public and their expectations change as millennials mature and the population diversifies. These conclusions are reflected in the findings of the first Culture Track report, a 2018 survey among cultural consumers in Canada, which shows that allophones, those with an English or French first language, are more likely to attend a cultural event than anglophones or francophones, and millennials are the most likely demographic to participate in a monthly cultural activity such as visiting a music festival, concert, historical attraction, natural history or art museum or going out for a dining and drinking experience.

In other words, if you believe that the only people who go to cultural institutions, such as the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Center, are old whites, think again. Canadians of all ages and backgrounds participate in cultural activities and both institutions have been adapting to the changing tastes of the public for more than ten years.

In the gallery, which moved to its current location on Sussex Drive in 1988, more than 930,000 people visited the building designed by Moshe Safdie during the first year (attendance is measured during the fiscal year ending April 1), the strongest year ever attendance. The interest continued until the 1990s, with just over 600,000 visitors in 1995-96 and more than 770.00 visitors the following year.

However, the figures fell considerably between 1997 and 2014. In 2004-05 almost 400,000 people visited, but nine years later only 237,391 people went through the doors.

Cornelia Homburg (L), guest curator of the Gauguin Portraits exhibition, opened in gallery 24 May and Doris Couture-Rigert, Chief of Conseration of the National Gallery, discuss Gaugin’s wooden sculpture.

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The slide was reversed in 2017-18 because more than 385,000 people visited, despite the renovations that various galleries kept closed until June 2017. Many viewed the new Canadian and native gallery, which previously integrated individual Canadian and native art into one permanent, extensive space. It launched June 15, 2017 – the first transformation of the gallery’s collections since the facility opened – in the run-up to Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The turnout continued to grow in 2018-19, with 434,834 visitors, a 13 percent increase attributed to the popularity of the special exhibitions set up that year, including a summer show entitled Impressionist Treasures: the Ordrupgaard collection. With 132,494 visitors, it was the most visited summer exhibition since the Van Gogh of 2012: up close, which attracted more than 230,000 people. The year 2018-19 is also notable for the multimedia exhibition Anthropocene by the famous photographer Edward Burtynsky, a powerful perspective of man-altered landscapes that also contain augmented reality-enhanced installations and interactive films for the first time in the National Gallery.

These attendance trends are reflected globally and various institutions have responded to this by canceling the entrance fees. In London, government-sponsored museums and art galleries have had free access since 2001, a tactic that more than doubled the turnout in the first decade. Washington, D.C. is full of free museums, from the Smithsonians to the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art.

In Toronto’s Art Gallery in Ontario, where Suda worked before he came to Ottawa, a pilot project was introduced last year with free memberships for people under 25 and an annual membership of $ 35 for people over 25. In the first six months, they attracted 100,000 new members, of which 70,000 were under the age of 25.

The newly renovated Ottawa Art Gallery has also been reopened with free admission, along with later opening times and free childcare on certain days.

National gallery.

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Suda is looking at these initiatives with interest. Although there are no immediate plans to remove admission to the National Gallery, she says it is an idea that occasionally swims around, most recently during last year’s election campaign, when the conservatives at the last minute reached their platform made.

The National Gallery has free access on Thursday evenings and it is almost always a busy night. Other ideas to attract new visitors are programming that uses public spaces in the building, and performance-based events, such as the accompanying concert from January 25 to the exhibition with beautiful samples of prints and drawings. The concert features the Ottawa Baroque Consort with stories from actor / host David Brennan.

Suda was hired at the age of 38 and is the youngest National Gallery director in a century and the first female boss in two decades. Some important things have already changed in her nine months in office, the most obvious of which is the relocation of the reception from the main entrance onto the driveway to the Great Hall. When you enter the building, you will first see an installation, the Sami Architectural Library, by the Norwegian Joar Nango, which is part of the Àbadakone exhibition.

“That was my idea, but it really was to make way for an art experience when crossing the threshold,” said Suda, who is now 39. “It changes the dynamics of the authoritative transaction into a engagement in a conversation. I see many people stopping and wondering what’s going on. That’s what we hope to do in that space from now on – providing an experience that asks that question states: what is art for you? “

It also makes the gallery more accessible because you can see art in public places without buying a ticket.

Regarding the Gauguin exhibition, one of the lessons Suda and gallery staff had learned, was that people would have liked the exhibition to delve deeper into the social context of his work, especially during his time in French Polynesia. He was not only a privileged colonialist but also a pedophile who infected several child brides with syphilis.

“We focused on the scientific proposition of the show and we discovered that people were really interested in it, but they were also like,” Wait a minute, what about these issues of colonialism and gender dynamics? Why don’t you talk about that in the show? “Suda said.

“For me, learning was that people are really involved. They care about art, and they care about 19th-century painters, so they will come, but they expect us to deal with the work in a way that is consistent with the present. I think it surprised us a bit, but the extent to which people could articulate the problem was, I thought, really refreshing. ”

Eleng Luluan, from the Rukai Nation in Taiwan, poses for her installation made of polystyrene foam and packing bags entitled “Between Dreams”.

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On the other hand, the gallery is considered a world leader in the presentation of indigenous art, and the current exhibition, Àbadakone, does not shun works that address issues such as cultural oppression, residential schools, and loss of land and language. It is the second exhibition in a series that began with Sakahàn from 2013, a groundbreaking exhibition in the sense that it had a global perspective.

“Nobody really did global thinking on this scale six years ago,” said Suda. “I think we will continue to build that momentum because there is real leadership within the organization, and a great ability to work with native artists and communities with their protocols, and make this a space that is not just ours.”

The gallery is also highly regarded for its contemporary art and new media collection, which includes digital and video art, such as Christian Marclay’s masterpiece, The Clock, a 24-hour video installation.

One of the most recent contemporary acquisitions is More Sweetly Play The Dance, an eight-channel high-definition video installation with a duration of 15 minutes, by the famous South African multidisciplinary artist William Kentridge. It is currently being displayed in the gallery for the first time.

The installation is in its own room, consisting of seven floor-to-ceiling horizontal video screens arranged in a semicircle around the viewer, creating an immersive experience. The film shows a procession set on a lively soundtrack of South African music with figures that reflect the often troubled history of South Africa.

“To me it seems very relevant today when you think of the refugee crisis in different parts of the world,” said Josée Drouin-Brisebois, senior curator of contemporary art at the gallery. “It is outside our comfort zone. He also talks a lot about the importance of people walking, and that the idea of ​​the march is still important. That is very relevant – we are still a people walking, as well as a way of propulsion as a form of expression. ”

Suda sees it as a great example of a piece that brings viewers into the artistic experience in a different way.

“The more immersive the experience can be, and the more we think about our audience and the context in which we live, and develop a program that has a varied offering, the more generous we are going to make a larger community offer,” she said. “We hope that there is something for everyone, not always, but that over time the program has a rhythm that is inclusive and diverse.”

READ: The changing face of art: how Canada’s art institutions remain relevant in the digital age