Births, deaths and anniversaries are occasions that spur the urge for reflection and assessment. Galleries West was founded 15 years ago. It has matured, flourished and, perhaps even more remarkably, it has survived. The magazine has become the de facto voice advocating awareness of and celebrating the values of the arts in Western Canada. The success of many of our artists, galleries and institutions is accountable, in part, to its patriotic dedication. Other national institutions are still not up to speed with the art of this region. Despite many reasons to rejoice and be thankful, we should remain ever vigilant. Unless we continue to proudly proclaim the virtues of our best, others may not hear.
Thus, herein Paul Gessell delivers views about many key milestones and indicators of the significant changes we have experienced in the arts in Western Canada throughout the last 15 years. I would hasten to list my own observed highlights. However, two breaking stories shifted my focus.
Kate Taylor’s article in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 5, No Canadians need apply: the worrying trend in arts hiring, reports and comments about the appointment of a Briton, Ian Dejardin, former director of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, as the new director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Taylor observes it is “the fifth international appointment to head a major Canadian cultural institution in the past 15 months. He follows two Americans (Joshua Basseches at the Royal Ontario Museum and Stephan Jost at the AGO) and two other Britons (Tim Carroll at the Shaw Festival and Anthony Sargent at the Luminato Festival, where an Australian was also recently appointed as artistic director).” Other internationals admirably serve in Western Canadian art institutions. Taylor hastens to reassure that as the curator of two shows about Canadian art, Dejardin “probably knows more about the Group of Seven than you or I do.” Really, two shows?
Unless we continue to proudly proclaim the virtues of our best, others may not hear.
I am prepared to be convinced this is a superb appointment. My deliberations were interrupted by news of the passing of a towering legend: Mel Hurtig, a publisher and founder of the Committee for an Independent Canada, died Aug. 3 in Vancouver. Throughout his life, from his home base in Edmonton, Hurtig championed the cause of Canadian nationalism. He ferociously attacked lethargy towards cultural imperialism and foreign ownership of Canadian resources. He served as chair of the board of the then Edmonton Art Gallery. What would he have thought of this chain of appointments? It is, perhaps, cruel irony the stories broke concurrently.
Regionalism, nationalism, internationalism, how do we ensure the appropriate balance? I seriously doubt we would ever expect a majority of Canadians to fill the roster of the Toronto Raptors. Talent is talent; we need to embrace it. If we can lure extraordinary people to Canada, then game on. We are the great beneficiaries. Reflecting back over the past 15 years, Kathleen Bartels came from Los Angeles to head the Vancouver Art Gallery. Gregory Burke came from New Zealand and now heads the Remai Modern. These are enormous positives. Concomitantly, Canadians have travelled for opportunities abroad. Matthew Teitelbaum heads the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Montreal’s Stéphane Aquin is chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and Bruce Ferguson, born in Lethbridge, Alta., is the new president of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Stephen Borys, director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, previously held important positions in the United States, notably at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. Roald Nasgaard and I both served at Florida State University. The countervailing examples are endless. It is a two-way street; we’ll be fine.
However, we do need to take some actions. In my lifetime, art colleges once were populated solely by “credentialed” professors from Europe and the United States completely unaware of and dismissive of Canadian art history. Canada now has numerous institutions offering doctoral degrees, and Canadian graduates tell our nation’s art stories to new students. We don’t necessarily need to await Steve Martin to recount the virtues of Lawren Harris, the Group of Seven and The Idea of North. Thanks all the same, we’ve already rambled through some of those thoughts ourselves.
Yet, despite my brave words to the contrary, unhappily, Kate Taylor is right: the recent appointments are a worrying trend. Why is this happening with increasing frequency? Boards make these appointments; why not become a member of one of them? The gallery membership must vote and ratify board appointments and their major decisions, so throw your hat in the ring. However, if you do, be prepared to confront the many vexing challenges facing boards and art galleries. In the 15 years Galleries West has been publishing, Canada has changed. Western Canada has also changed, and the very shape of Western Canadian art has changed. We need our institutions to reflect this reality.
Meanwhile, more than ever, institutions face phenomenal transformative challenges. Will we provide mentoring opportunities for potential new arts professionals that reflect our diverse society? Once art museums had numerous entry-level positions that nurtured the next generation of leaders. At the Glenbow in the 1970s, I can recall no less than Peter White, Patricia Ainslie and Vincent Varga, who came through the ranks to serve in distinguished leadership roles. Let’s be sure there are ample start-up positions, otherwise, sorry Mel, the party is over. And to the Globe and Mail, I suggest the article title ought to have read: No; Canadians need to apply.