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At the National Gallery of Canada, art in—and for—a time of crisis – Maclean's



Paul Wells: How Canada’s national gallery and its director, Alexandra Suda, have been working to ‘keep the doors open’ to new art and new realities

Somebody once said anecdotes are the only evidence. I wanted to write about Alexandra “Sasha” Suda, the director of the National Gallery of Canada. I wanted to contrast the difference between the year she expected—her first full calendar year running the nation’s flagship visual-arts institution—and the year she wound up having instead, which in many ways was the same gong show we all lived through. But first I asked her about a big orange painting she’d shown on her Instagram account. She took me upstairs, to one of the gallery’s largest display rooms.

The paining is Middle Passage, a riot of billowing orange and red cloud, in acrylic and ink across a square of canvas three metres on a side. The artist is Frank Bowling, a Guyana-born British painter, whose formative years were in New York City in the ’60s and who was knighted this year by Queen Elizabeth.

Suda came here a week earlier to see Middle Passage with her children. To get to know it, really. “We were here for about an hour, basking in its sunlight. We got all dressed up.”

The setting is propitious. Middle Passage, which is a promised gift from Winnipeg financier Michael Nesbitt, hangs in Gallery C-214, next to the most hallowed and sometimes controversial works of Abstract Expressionism in the National Gallery’s collection: A Mark Rothko, a Clyfford Still, an Agnes Martin, and a handful of stark Barnett Newmans, including Voice of Fire, whose 1989 acquisition sparked one of the National Gallery’s greatest controversies. This makes sense: Bowling was a contemporary of the AbEx gang, exhibited with them, exchanged ideas with them. That he’s only now joining the others as the first Black artist in a room that’s become, “in many ways, the inner sanctum,” as Suda put it, is to some degree a case of the gallery catching up to the culture.

Rothko and Newman favoured simple shapes and uniform fields of colour. In Middle Passage, Bowling has more to tell you: a map of Africa is visible, and human faces, all half-obscured amid the clouds. The painting evokes the murderous Atlantic shipping routes of the 18th- and 19th-century slave trade. Compared to the taciturn works beside it, it’s practically chatty. “It renegotiates your expectations,” Suda said.

It’s been a year for renegotiated expectations around here. When the Trudeau government appointed Suda in early 2019, she was the highly-regarded chief curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but she was youngish and untested, having never directed any arts institution. When she spoke to John Geddes for Maclean’s a year ago, she had some new ideas for increasing visitor traffic, a solid slate of summer shows, and a few years to make her mark. Three months later the building, and most of surrounding society, shut down on a few hours’ notice.

“Our biggest concern then was a little bit less about, ‘How do we keep everybody at work?’ and a little bit more of, ‘How do we keep all of our guards healthy?’ We went from being an outward-facing institution to really having one single job, which was to secure the national collection.”

For weeks after, the National Gallery alternated between implementing contingency plans that had been drawn up in January and February, and improvising a path forward. Suda started giving virtual tours of the building on Instagram Live. She and a camera operator would wander through the eerily empty building, discussing the sculptures and paintings. The online tours acknowledged, and barely began to resolve, a yearning for the in-person experience that any arts institution’s patrons know well.

In mid-July the gallery reopened to the public on Thursdays through Sundays. Gallery visitors are used to restrictions on where they can stand, after all. By December 50,000 people had visited. On two weekends the numbers were comparable to a year earlier, but instead of tourists almost all the visitors were local. So that was a big objective ticked off Suda’s to-do list, quite by accident—”to reset our relationships with the communities we exist to serve.” Beginning with the hometown crowd. “We want to be more than just the place people bring their in-laws to, once or twice a year.”

Another goal will just have to wait. Suda had hoped to boost total attendance past the levels set by her predecessor Marc Mayer, about 400,000 visitors a year. That will take years now. Even after it’s safe, people will probably be leery of crowds. But raw numbers weren’t the goal anyway. “I’m not going to bring in a mummy show to get more foot traffic.” She hopes the National Gallery of Canada can draw audiences with art that’s good and doesn’t shy away from hard topics. The Indigenous contemporary-art exhibition Abadakone, which had been in the works before her arrival, was an early highlight for Suda and an audience success. In May, pandemic permitting, the gallery will host the first major Rembrandt exhibition in Canada since 1969.

Much has changed since 1969. It’s harder now to ignore that Dutch art’s “Golden Age” was an ornament of an imperial culture’s economic upper crust. While Rembrandt is in town, the gallery will prominently display new works by two young Black artists, Toronto’s Tau Lewis and New York’s Rashid Johnson. “They’re going to be offering alternate narratives to this notion of a Dutch Golden Age… unique contemporary installations that you can think about in connection with Rembrandt.”

You can’t really just hang an old master any more, or you can’t only do that. COVID-19 is hardly the only crisis that’s rocked the art world in 2020. The Black Lives Matter aftermath of George Floyd’s death “rocked the museum sector,” Suda said. Executives or institutions that have seemed awkward or reluctant to change have paid in turmoil. The National Gallery of Canada has had to play catch-up too. Just before a 2019 exhibition on Paul Gauguin opened, Suda and her staff changed some title cards to reflect awkward or appalling realities in Gauguin’s life. A reference to his relationship with “a young woman” was changed. She wasn’t a woman. She was a 13-year-old Tahitian girl.

“And then this notion of us as a white supremacist institution, which is the kind of language that’s circulating now, comes to life for people,” Suda said. “Nobody was out to do the wrong thing. But I think we were a little bit scared to have those tough conversations, because it’s hard to do. And I’m not saying that I’m the expert in it. I have a PhD in 15th-century manuscript illumination from northern Europe. [But] I think every work of art offers that invitation to see it differently. And it’s our job to keep those doors all open.”

“I think there might have been a time when a big institution like ours framed the story for people. Those days are over. Not for us, but for art within society. I think when somebody comes and says, ‘You’re wrong about that label, and by the way, you triggered trauma within the friend I was with and you’re doing harm,’ instead of being defensive, we have to kind of relax and understand that it matters what we do. People care. So how do we keep their attention and incorporate their story in here?”

The answer to that one won’t be the work of a weekend or a season. It will become one of the lenses through which Suda’s tenure at the gallery will be measured and evaluated. The year 2020 was quite good at replacing the work people thought they had ahead of them with other, often harder and more important work. “There will be a robust discourse” around the role of art in society, Suda said. “Period. Whether we think we can hide from it or not, it’s going to happen. And if we’re not prepared to engage in that conversation, then we shouldn’t be museum professionals.”

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Ann Clow showing her art in Georgetown –




Artist Ann Clow has an exhibit on display at the Kings Playhouse.

Running until Jan. 28, Through the Lense and Palette offers highlights from Clow’s collection. 

Originally from Nova Scotia, but living in P.E.I. for the past five years, Clow is a self-taught painter and photographer who has followed in her family’s tradition and been an artist all of her life. 

She has been selling her work and giving classes for more than 40 years. 

Her work is influenced by her surroundings, and since she values travel, these change over time.  

Much of her style can vary from highly realistic, abstract to deeply spiritual. 

“My heart is filled with creativity and so is my mind,” she said. “In art, I combine my mind and my heart.” 

Once the show is finished, people can also view her work in Montague at The Turning Point health store in the Down East Mall and Twice Upon Book Store. For more information, visit and

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Art 101: The juiciest art war of the 21st century –



Hey everybody!

Let’s talk about privilege. It’s a huge part of our lives and a huge part of the art world. 

Today we’ll talk about the art war that broke out when one artist decided he owned a colour and nobody else could use it. And we’ll tap into why that colour battle said something really important about the art world.

I’m Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). We’re going on a deep dive into an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that may be controversial, inexplicable, or just plain weird.

Act 1 – Colour is Important!

Lest you think it doesn’t matter, take a moment to remember how much colour lets you recognize the work of your favourite artists. Like Mondrian, whose pervasive use of primary colour makes his paintings easy to spot. Or General Idea! Their vivid colour scheme is a signature element of their work, just as much as the slightly un-natural colours of any Group of Seven painting let you know you’re looking at a work from your uncle’s coffee-table book.

Artist have even tried to make a colour their very own: in 1960, artist Yves Klein patented International Klein Blue, or IKB, and other artists (including the Blue Man Group) still use it today, continuing his legacy. Sweet little anecdote, right?

The Blue Man Group continues Yves Klein’s legacy by using his patented “International Klein Blue” (RASLON RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s move on.

Act 2 – The Colour War

You know that big bean at Chicago’s Millennium Park? It’s a huge reflective satisfying shape and every single person who visits Chicago is contractually obligated to take a selfie in front of it. It’s actually called Cloud Gate, and it’s by British Indian artist Anish Kapoor. It was made in the mid 2000s out of 168 plates of stainless steel joined by welding, and it cost in the vicinity of 20 million dollars.

Why does the massive and expensive bean matter to our story? Because it’ll give you an idea of the scale and scope of Kapoor’s art — he’s a huge deal, and his work costs a lot of money.

Cloud Gate by British artist Anish Kapoor or better known as the “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images))

Why are we talking about Anish Kapoor? Calm down, I’m getting to it. Kapoor’s gotten a ton of honours for his large-scale architectural public art. He’s won the Turner Prize (the Oscars of the art world) and was even knighted in 2013. So let’s agree, he’s done good work and made his name.

In 2014, he started working with an entirely new material called Vantablack. It was developed in the lab of U.K.-based Surrey NanoSystems and it’s the blackest paint ever made. Originally fashioned to help in optics and aerospace, Vantablack’s dense black look is much easier to grasp in person than in photos and it’s made possible through pretty intense chemistry. In essence, light is TRAPPED by Vantablack instead of being REFLECTED by it — creating an effect that looks a bit like what it might be like to spot a black hole in space. In effect, Vantablack is pretty special and pretty new.

How did Kapoor start working with it? Well … he licensed it. Exclusively. That’s right, uncles everywhere — Anish Kapoor is the only person in the world that can use Vantablack in art.

Hey, did I hear somebody say that’s a dick move? You’re not alone!

Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Arts in central London (SHAUN CURRY/AFP via Getty Images)

On this Instagram post, where Kapoor shows off a work featuring his exclusive black, Willsmithfresh comments, “One man owning vantiblack [sic] is truly the loneliest bean that you’ll ever see.” And hannahjasmin_ says, “Selfish enough to keep an entire colour all to yourself, and all you’ve used it for is a circle. Congratulations, you’re the worst.” And that’s just two members of the general public — some artists were pretty upset that Kapoor took this incredible new invention and crafted a situation where he was the only person who could benefit from it.

Why’d Kapoor do it? He’s said a few things on the topic, including that “it’s not about possessing the stuff.” He’s also ascribed the response to the colour itself, saying, “The problem is that colour is so emotive — especially black … I don’t think the same response would occur if it was white.”

Enter Stuart Semple, popular British multimedia artist, nice guy and … well, for this story, let’s call him a “democratist.”

Artist Stuart Semple (Nadia Amura)

Semple was one of the artists aggravated by Kapoor’s snatching of the black, and so he decided to invent his own radically new paint: the pinkest pink. He made it beyond vibrant, very affordable, and available to any artist in the world — except Anish Kapoor.

The resulting war raged on through the late 2010s, marked by regular skirmishes. Like when Kapoor somehow got his hands on some of Semple’s pinkest pink shortly after its debut, and posted himself flipping the bird to Semple — the bird in question covered in Semple’s pink paint. Classy move, Anish Kapoor.

Semple, undaunted, went on to make other paints available to the world, including his own version of the blackest black, the mirroriest mirror paint and the glitteriest glitter.

Ok, so why are we reviving this story from 2016? Well, it’s fun! Artists fighting is hilarious! Uncles everywhere rejoiced. And you can find a good number of articles, explainers, and I dunno, maybe even a graphic novel about the Semple vs. Kapoor incident. But that’s not really why we’re here. I mean, it’s part of why we’re here. But there’s more to it.

Act 3 – Why it Matters, or, Kill the Rich

Here’s why Kapoor’s hoarding of black paint points to a problem in the art world, and why Stuart Semple worked so hard to steal Kapoor’s acorns.

It’s about access. Let’s talk about that for a minute.

When you go to your parents and say, “Uncle, I’d like to be an artist,” their inevitable question is, “How will you make any money doing that?” But there’s a missing question here. That is: how are you going to be able to afford to be an artist?

Let me explain: If you want to be a successful artist, you need stuff. I get it — our earliest evidence of art is with simple materials on a cave wall. But making art costs money, and if you want to make art now you need things like: a space to work in, materials, a computer, unlimited bandwidth.These things cost money. Cheap materials can, unfortunately, look like cheap materials. Expensive materials or processes can, unfortunately, look special.

Specialness and prestige are two words we don’t talk enough about when we’re talking about how artists get started. A painter who submits work to the gallery made on panels of stainless steel with the blackest black paint in the world is going to get some notice.

Artists level up. That Cloud Gate we talked about at the beginning? That wasn’t Kapoor’s first work. It’s the result of fame, skill, AND MONEY — both the money he makes from the work AND the money he had to put into it. I’m not trying to suggest that you can’t be an artist without money — you can AND YOU WILL. But it helps, right?

Anish Kapoor’s artwork ‘Shooting into the Corner’ (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

So when the rich guy snatches up the best materials and makes them exclusive to himself, he’s tapping into an issue that’s big in the art world: PRIVILEGE. What Stuart Semple is doing, on the other hand, is making prestige materials — the whateveriest whatever paint available to anybody who wants to use it, except Anish Kapoor. Look, it still costs money — we can’t get away from that. But Semple’s made a big gesture to acknowledge that artists have a rough go and gave them a little leg up.

So let’s give a little shoutout to Stuart Semple, because while this may have been a fun story about artists getting real angry, it’s part of something bigger. And I suspect Semple will keep doing his part to make the art world a more democratic place.

Act 4 – The End!

Thanks for listening! Especially because working from home is really lonely. 

See you next time on Art 101!

Artworks featured in this video:
00:46 – Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian (1942)
00:51 – AIDS by General Idea (1988)
00:56 – Lake and Mountains by Lawren Harris (1928)
00:59 – Autumn Foliage against Grey Rock by Franklin Carmichael (1920)
01:21 – Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor (2006)
01:47 – Leviathan by Anish Kapoor (2011)
01:54 – Shooting into the Corner by Anish Kapoor (2008-2009)
02:04 – Sectional body preparing for Monadic Singularity by Anish Kapoor (2015)
06:09 – Lady Gaga ARTPOP by Jeff Koons (2013)
06:13 – End of a Century by Damien Hirst (2020)
06:15 – Eroded Delorean by Daniel Arsham (2018)
06:27 – Gathering Clouds I-IV by Anish Kapoor (2014)

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During these pandemic 'daze,' art an essential service – The Sudbury Star



Article content continued

Online, the producers promise I can learn about thousands of new products, boats, accessories, and services, and receive exclusives Boat Show deals and learn plans for the summer boating season ahead.

From NYC, I signed up to connect directly. I phoned my dear colleague, former Commodore Roy Eaton, residing in Little Current. He has been the collegial, renowned Host of Hosts of the Little Current Cruiser’s Net for the past 17 years. Over the years, Roy Eaton has been written in Sail Magazine, Cruising World and in 2010, he was awarded The Canadian Safe Boating Council Volunteer of the Year, devoted to safe boating.

A seasoned sailor, Roy’s so personable, during summer boating season he’s known as the Voice of the North Channel. The Net broadcasts every morning from July 1 to Aug. 31 at 9 a.m. on VHF Channel 71.

“Roy, will you present at the Boat Show about sailing the North Shore this summer?”

“Bonnie dear,” he laughed, “I’m on as guest speaker in thirty minutes.”

I tuned in, listening to Roy speak about, Summer in Paradise — Northern Georgian Bay and the Fabled North Channel. He showed charts to boaters, sharing knowledge and tips about anchorages. I knew many of them. As a former Caribbean sailor, I learned how to navigate, became proficient, and then took on The North Channel. with help, of course.

Staying afloat is definitely artful.

The day after, the seminar coordinator told Roy; “You broke the bank yesterday. There were 532 boaters in attendance at your seminar. Since our seminars are all recorded and saved, they’ll be on the website starting Jan. 25.”

Happily listening to Roy provide knowledgeable information for boaters who hope to ply the North Shore this summer, about the anchorages, towns, places to dine, and places to hike, was absolute Northern Ontario artistry.

Our Bonnie’s been in the Window Seat for 29 years, always learning about us in Northern Ontario. Please find her at She loves hearing from you.

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