A Rrose by any other name would still be Sélavy (with apologies to Marcel Duchamp)
It would appear the only constant in life is change. The visual arts in Canada are destined for extraordinary transformations; our arts institutions propose major makeovers, expansions, evolutions and philosophic turnarounds. Staying the same was never possible or desirable. It seems we need be ready for upheavals, some gladly welcomed and others a cause of consternation. We know it’s all about the money. Most visual arts institutions are scrambling to find basic operating funds. If they’re not successful, drastic cutbacks are imperative. Thus, many have turned to the comparatively benign practice of selling naming rights.
In the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t offend me that an American college football classic was rebranded as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, nor that we now have the Rogers Centre rather than the Skydome in Toronto. I get it. As the bard rejoined, “What’s in a name?” Yet, I’m not for rebranding the Eiffel Tower or the Acropolis for the highest bidder. Transactional philanthropy permits agencies at will to buy and sell naming rights for an agreed period of time. So I don’t lament the passing of names like the Husky Tower in Calgary. It would sadden me, however, if historic names such as Massey Hall, the Halifax Citadel, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection or the MacKenzie Art Gallery needed to reflect new investors. Must everything be monetized? Well, apparently, yes.
We are seeing it in the West, throughout Canada, and beyond. Institutions that crave transformation are exercising their imperative to dump prior histories and abandon founders, cornerstone builders and cherished mandates in favour of attracting new money. Instead of cumulative institutional history, built generation upon generation, we witness institutions only too willing to switch allegiances in search of a shinier future. The profound disappointment of supporters and founders of the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon is a case in point. The Remai Modern may turn out to be an absolute jewel; it nevertheless has created an unfortunate rift. Do benefactors know a commitment to them is provisional and temporary? I’ll bet that would dampen donor enthusiasm. But the inverse is perhaps worse. Perpetuity is a long time. The public can’t commit to that. Yet without the support of benefactors, most Canadian art galleries could not survive. We have to accommodate a reasonable middle ground.
As the bard rejoined, “What’s in a name?”
In the past, our poster child for autonomy would clearly have been the National Gallery of Canada. Founded in 1880 through the actions of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, one could muse that it was Canada’s first artist-run centre. Yet, early in its history, the gallery asserted its independence. It abandoned hosting annual artists’ society exhibitions that had been a programming mainstay. In the name of professional integrity, the gallery asserted its right to choose what it would hang, irrespective of the views of its founders. But is the National Gallery still as resilient?
Unlike the vast majority of institutions, the National Gallery was not known for its named spaces. We thought of it as “our” National Gallery. Recently, media magnate David Thomson gave a colossal gift from his magnificent collection to establish the Canadian Photography Institute. Scotiabank, an enthusiastic supporter of photography, also committed as a long-term sponsor. In return, the bank attained naming rights for the Scotiabank Great Hall for the next 15 years. More money and power to all the participants. I just wonder how the gallery will set priorities for exhibitions in the dedicated photographic gallery? We should remain hopeful.
Concurrently, the National Gallery announced a gift of 50 works by Montreal-born artist J.W. Morrice. In response, a gallery will be named in recognition of the donor, Toronto art collector Ash Prakash, for 25 years. Naturally, we can imagine these works jumping to the front of the queue when shows are installed in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. For context, Heritage Canada lists indicate there were 2,536 works by Morrice in public museum collections in Canada, including 568 in the collection of the National Gallery, prior to this donation.
For me the question is proportionality. Will the bounty of the new gift be respectfully incorporated into the continuity of the pre-existing collection? Or will they supplant contributions of prior supporters? By comparison, the Art Gallery of Ontario shows its Thomson collections as discrete dedicated long-term installations, separate from the storyline played out in its related displays. Does this mean that, for the rest of my foreseeable lifetime, the works by Morrice I see at the National Gallery will be from this gift? I’m hoping and suspecting not. Yet if you follow the trend line, who is to know?
So, how can we balance the desires and preferences of collectors, donors, curators and the public they serve? Keep in mind that, despite all these phenomenally desirable gifts by generous individuals and corporations, the public is still the largest financial supporter of the arts in this country. The new federal government has promised to significantly increase arts spending. We need to put the public back in front of arts funding and ensure as well that public interests are maintained ahead of private interests.