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Shifting audience tastes are dictating the future of art in Ottawa – Ottawa Citizen

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Alexandra Suda took over the top job at the National Gallery of Canada last year in time to see two major exhibitions challenge the notion of a blockbuster show. 

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

They weren’t sure what to expect with the fall exhibit, Àbadakone: Continuous Fire, which put the spotlight on contemporary Indigenous art from around the world. It continues until April 5.


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

Errol McGihon /

Postmedia

What happened surprised everyone. The Gauguin exhibit never did grab the public’s imagination in a big way, attracting 107,469 people during the summer, while Àbadakone is shaping up to be a hit, with close to 31,000 visitors during the first two months of the slower fall-winter season. Its opening night attracted 3,600 people, the largest attendance for any opening in the gallery’s history. So many people showed up on that November night that security had to stop letting them into the building. 

“What’s exciting and terrifying about that is we’re not quite sure what happened,” Suda said during an interview in her office, an airy space with a postcard-perfect view of the Ottawa River and Parliament Hill. 


The artists from New Zealand’s Mato Aho Collective stand in front of their monumental woven installation titled “AKA, 2019.” Numerous artists from all over the world were on hand Wednesday (Nov. 6, 2019) at the National Gallery of Canada for the preview of Àbadakone: Continous Fire.

Julie Oliver /

Postmedia

“How we managed to have so many people that we had to shut the doors for capacity reasons still defies our comprehension. People don’t necessarily come for Indigenous art, and contemporary art is also something that is quite specific. There isn’t too much of a data set to tell us that this is what people want right now.”

The reaction to those exhibitions show that culture-consuming audiences and their expectations are changing as millennials come of age and the population diversifies. These conclusions are echoed in the findings of the first Culture Track report, a 2018 survey of cultural consumers in Canada, that shows allophones, those whose first language is neither English nor French, are more likely to attend a cultural event than anglophones or francophones, and millennials are the demographic most likely to participate monthly in a cultural activity such as visiting a music festival, concert, historic attraction, natural history or art museum or going out for a food and drink experience. 

In other words, if you believe the only people going to cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Centre are old white people, think again. Canadians of all age groups and backgrounds are participating in cultural activities, and both institutions have been adapting to shifting audience tastes for more than a decade. 

At the gallery, which moved to its current location on Sussex Drive in 1988, more than 930,000 people visited the Moshe Safdie-designed building during the first year (attendance is measured during the fiscal year, ending April 1), the strongest year ever for attendance. The interest continued through the 1990s, with just over 600,000 people visiting in 1995-96, and more than 770,00 visitors the following year.

Between 1997 and 2014, though, the numbers dropped considerably. In 2004-05, close to 400,000 people visited, but nine years later, just 237,391 people went through the doors.


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

Jean Levac /

Postmedia News

In 2017-18, the slide was reversed as more than 385,000 people visited, despite the renovations that kept several galleries closed until June 2017. Many were checking out the new Canadian and Indigenous gallery, which integrated previously separate Canadian and Indigenous art into one permanent, comprehensive space. It launched June 15, 2017 — the first transformation of the gallery’s collections since the facility opened — in the lead-up to Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

Attendance continued to grow in 2018-19, with 434,834 visitors, a 13 per cent increase that was attributed to the popularity of the special exhibitions mounted that year, including a summer show entitled Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection. With 132,494 visitors, it was the best-attended summer exhibition since 2012’s Van Gogh: Up Close, which attracted more than 230,000 people. The 2018-19 year is also notable for the multimedia exhibition Anthropocene by renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, a powerful perspective of human-altered landscapes that also included, for the first time at the National Gallery, augmented reality-enhanced installations and interactive films.

These attendance trends are mirrored around the world, and several institutions have responded by removing admission charges. In London, government-sponsored museums and art galleries have had free admission since 2001, a tactic that more than doubled attendance in the first decade. Washington, D.C. is filled with free museums, from the Smithsonians to the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art.

At Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, where Suda worked before coming to Ottawa, a pilot project was introduced last year offering free memberships to people under 25, and a $35 annual membership for those over 25. In the first six months, they attracted 100,000 new members, 70,000 of them under the age of 25.

The recently renovated Ottawa Art Gallery also re-opened with free admission, along with later operating hours and free child care on certain days.


National Gallery.

Raven McCoy /

Post Media

Suda is watching these initiatives with interest. While there are no immediate plans to remove the admission at the National Gallery, she says it’s an idea that floats around once in a while, most recently during last year’s election campaign, when the Conservatives made it a last-minute part of their platform.

The National Gallery does have free admission on Thursday evenings, and it’s almost always a busy night. Other ideas to attract new visitors include programming that makes use of the public spaces in the building, and performance-based events such as the Jan. 25 companion concert to the Beautiful Monsters exhibit of prints and drawings. The concert features the Ottawa Baroque Consort with storytelling by actor/host David Brennan.

Hired at the age of 38, Suda is the youngest National Gallery director in a century, and the first female boss in two decades. Some key things have already changed in her nine months in the position, the most evident of which is the relocation of the front desk from the main entrance, up the ramp to the Great Hall. Now when you enter the building, the first thing you see is an installation, the Sami Architectural Library, by Norway’s Joar Nango, which is part of the Àbadakone exhibit. 

“That was my idea but it was really to make room for an art experience upon crossing the threshold,” said Suda, who’s now 39. “It changes the dynamic from the authoritative transaction to an engagement in a conversation. I see a lot of people stop and wonder what’s going on. That’s what we hope to do in that space from here on out — offer an experience that asks that question: What is art to you?”

It also makes the gallery more accessible in that you can see art in the public spaces without having to buy a ticket. 

As for the Gauguin exhibit, one of the lessons learned by Suda and gallery staff was that people would have liked to see the exhibit delve deeper into the social context of his work, particularly 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 scholarly thesis of the show, and what we found was that people were really interested in that, but they were also, like, “Wait a second, what about these issues of colonialism and gender dynamics? Why aren’t you talking about that in the show?’” Suda said. 

“For me, the learning there was that people are really engaged. They care about art, and they care about 19th-century painters so they’ll come, but they expect us to engage with the work in a way that engages with the present. I think it surprised us a little bit but the extent that people were able to articulate the issue was also, I thought, really refreshing.” 


Eleng Luluan, from the Rukai Nation in Taiwan, poses in front of her installation made from styrofoam and wrapping bags entitled “Between Dreams.”

Julie Oliver /

Postmedia

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

“Nobody was really doing the global thinking at this scale six years ago,” Suda said. “I think we’re going to continue building that momentum because there’s real leadership within the organization, and a great ability to work with Indigenous artists and communities with their protocols, and make this a space that’s 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 15-minute run time, by the renowned South African multi-disciplinary artist William Kentridge. It’s currently on display at the gallery for the first time. 

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

“For me, it seems very relevant today when you think about the refugee crisis in different parts of the world,” said Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the gallery’s senior curator of contemporary art. “It’s 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’re still a people that walks, both as a mode of locomotion and 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 diverse set of offerings, the more generous welcome we’re going to extend to a larger community,” she said. “What we hope is that there’s something for everyone, not necessarily all the time but that over the course of time, the program has a rhythm that’s inclusive and diverse.” 

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

READ: The changing face of art: How Canada’s arts institutions stay relevant in the digital age

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Pandemic shutdowns create a ‘triple whammy’ for Western Canada’s arts community – The Globe and Mail

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The redesign concept for the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Glenbow Museum

In another lifetime, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stood in front of John Hammond’s oil painting The Three Sisters at Calgary’s Glenbow museum, talking up philanthropy. He recounted the generosity of Eric Harvie, who founded the museum, and had once owned the painting. Harvie, who eventually made a fortune, began dabbling in Alberta’s oil and gas industry at a time when “a lot of dry wells were drilled and a lot of hopes were lost,” Kenney said. The Premier then pledged $40-million to Glenbow for major renovations. It was Feb. 21.

“We felt at that moment that the sky was the limit,” Glenbow CEO Nicholas Bell said during an interview this week. “I think if you look at the calendar, that was, like, five weeks ago. Honestly, it feels like a decade ago.”

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Catastrophe is not a word to be used lightly, but the coronavirus pandemic is worthy and arts institutions were among the first to take a hit. Performance venues were immediately affected, with shutdowns ordered in certain cases just hours before showtime. What followed has been a raft of cancellations and layoffs, with no idea when the lights can be flipped back on. At the same time, in Alberta, the price of oil has tanked.

Handout photo shows Nicholas R. Bell, CEO of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary. The Alberta government announced a $40-million pledge for major renovations to the Glenbow on Feb. 21, 2020. “Honestly, it feels like a decade ago,” Bell says.

Chelsea Yang-Smith/Glenbow Museum

For cultural organizations in Western Canada, the difficulties in rebuilding may be amplified. There is a smaller population – and thus donor base – and more distance from most head offices and their vital sponsorship dollars.

“The whole corporate fundraising aspect of arts is a big challenge out west,” says Tom Wright, now Vancouver Opera’s general director (he had been interim director). “That is why we do a lot of corporate fundraising in Toronto.”

The problem is particularly acute in Alberta, which is dealing with what Janice Price, president and CEO of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, calls a triple whammy: the devastated energy sector compromising a major source of philanthropy, cuts in provincial government funding, and now a pandemic.

The Banff Centre’s temporary layoff of 400 people – 75 per cent of its staff – is a stark example of what has been happening at arts and cultural organizations. At institutions including Glenbow, Alberta Ballet, the National Music Centre, the Calgary Stampede – all of which have temporarily laid off about 80 per cent of their workforces – job losses have been an ugly necessity.

“It’s tough sledding in Alberta; very, very tough sledding,” says Annemarie Petrov, president and CEO of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Winspear Centre. “I think not-for-profits are relatively resilient, but there is a breaking point.”

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra president and CEO Paul Dornian projects a $2-million loss in earned revenues between the March shutdown and the end of the CPO’s season, June 13.

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“Two million dollars is a lot to make up; in fact, there’s no way to do it in this type of climate.”

At different companies, the numbers vary, but the experience is universal: unprecedented gravity and uncertainty.

“The one thing we do know for sure is that things are not going to go back to what they were three weeks ago,” says Patti Pon, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development, which has created a $1.1-million relief fund for artists.

“It is unlikely to me that all of the companies that came into this crisis are going to come out the other side.”

Rose Ginther, associate dean of the faculty of fine arts and communications at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, agrees some companies will likely fold. “Arts organizations run very close to the bone,” she says. “There isn’t an ounce of fat.”

Fundraising has never been so critical, and yet it has never been so fraught. Oil and gas companies, once Alberta’s leaders in arts sponsorship, have made their own cuts. Many donors have lost jobs, or seen their financial holdings tumble.

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Soliciting funds right now to support an orchestra or art gallery could be perceived as insensitive.

“It’s not the best time to bombard people with a lot of asks,” says Stephanie Raynor, chief advancement officer at Theatre Calgary. “We know our donors will be there when the time is right,” Raynor says.

Will they, though? There is a danger of Alberta’s philanthropic wells running dry.

For now, organizations are reporting heartening generosity. Patrons are e-mailing with messages of support and often donating the cost of tickets for cancelled performances rather than asking for refunds.

The Banff Centre says it received some 50 donations the week after laying off 400 people. “Many of our major donors said … they’re going to continue to fund us no matter what,” says vice-president of marketing and development, Rosemary Thompson. “They want the Banff Centre to survive.”

The Glenbow is confident in the promised funding for that renovation.

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The CPO, after issuing temporary layoffs, this week recalled musicians and staff, but with reduced hours. “That leaves us in a much better position to, when this ends, come back with some strength.”

For groups that can’t come back, Pon vows to recognize their contributions.

“In my experience when a company closes, all we remember about it is its closure. And all we associate with it is its failure,” she says. “We’ll work as hard as we can to honour them and make sure that they exit with grace and dignity and celebration.”


Farther west, in British Columbia, among the big cancellations this spring is what would have been Vancouver Opera’s final festival. Next year, unrelated to the pandemic, it will revert to a regular season, scrapping its unpopular festival experiment – something it had hoped to announce at this season’s closing event.

Other big questions surround the Vancouver Art Gallery. Neither its interim director nor board chair was available for an interview this week, but it’s hard to imagine its nearly $400-million new gallery project — which has been in the works for years but never broken ground — proceeding as planned. The project has been seeking $100-million from Ottawa and $50-million from the province, in addition to $50-million already granted by the province project in 2008.

“I can’t see that in the next 48 months being a priority,” says Bob Rennie, a philanthropist and collector who has long been openly critical of the project.

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Rennie says there’s an old adage that has guided him through his own business dealings: “a man who adheres to a position previously stated when times change is a fool.”


At the National Music Centre in Calgary, president and CEO Andrew Mosker believes Canadian arts organizations have a responsibility right now: to keep the country’s spirits – and hopes – high as we await what he calls “the next normal.”

Artists’ responses to the crisis were almost immediate. Jann Arden was among the first to livestream a performance, from her southern Alberta home. Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre has launched a Stuck in the House series. Contemporary Calgary will launch an initiative on Monday called Art Where You Are, with an online interview with Luke Jerram, whose Museum of the Moon, hangs suspended under the dome – and in time – in the closed gallery. Jerram will discuss a new work in his Glass Microbiology series: a glass sculpture of COVID-19.

But the pandemic presents an opportunity for more than some cool livestreams.

“I think this is a watershed moment,” Price says. “I think there will be a lot of dialogue when this is over about ‘what did we learn?’ and ‘how do we manage our organizations differently in the future?’”

Resilience has always been a theme when it comes to Alberta. Floods, fires, economic downturns – the province has emerged from it all, not unscathed, but standing. Resilience is also a forte for artists. Through the worst of times, there is creation. Nobody knows what the cultural landscape will look like on the flip side of this staggering event. But for sure, there will be art at the end of it. And along the way, to help ease this grim journey.


Banff Centre for Arts temporarily lays off 400 staff via email

File photo shows an aerial view of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Paul Zizka Photography/Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

That Thursday was an excruciating day on the mountain for all: senior management making difficult decisions; hundreds of employees learning they were out of work. The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity temporarily laid off 400 employees on March 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Banff Centre has never faced a layoff of this size,” spokesperson Rosemary Thompson said.

“We can’t deliver our programs online,” Banff Centre president and chief executive Janice Price explained to The Globe and Mail the next day. “We are about being on this campus, in this location, where we also house you and feed you, which of course is something we should not be doing now, putting people into close quarters with each other.”

But some employees felt the layoff was mishandled. (They spoke with The Globe on the condition of anonymity, as they say they’re worried about not being called back from their layoff.)

The notices were not communicated personally but delivered by e-mail – and those e-mails did not arrive at a uniform time, so in some cases, employees in the same office spent hours waiting to learn if they had lost their jobs after their co-workers had received their notice.

Laying off staff is a brutal duty at the best of times. But the coronavirus pandemic forced arts organizationsto lay off staff in large numbers and with little warning. Still, when implementing a mass layoff due to an unforeseen catastrophe, are there ways to make the ugly process a little more humane? And safe?

At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, for instance, where 112 people were temporarily laid off, the layoffs were communicated in person or by phone calls, followed by an e-mail. At the Stratford Festival, which laid off nearly 500 people, a virtual town hall allowed artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney to address everyone. “It was clear, direct and quite moving,” actor Miles Potter says. Directors and managers then personally called everyone who was affected. That evening, there was a follow-up by e-mail. Staff were given a week’s notice.

“Even in the worst of times, even when you have no choice but to let people go because there is no business option, how you do it matters,” says Kanina Blanchard, a leadership development consultant and lecturer at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario.

Blanchard was speaking about best practices in general and not about the Banff Centre, which she declined to comment on.

The Banff Centre says it chose to inform employees by e-mail in order to adhere to social distancing measures, which it mentioned in the e-mails.

Thompson told The Globe that the senior team will reduce or donate their compensation during the crisis to support the Banff Centre’s recovery – 20 per cent of base salary for Price and 15 per cent by the other members of the senior leadership team.

The union says there was nothing illegal or grievable about how management handled the layoffs.

“It may rub some people the wrong way and that’s fine,” says Lou Arab, communications representative for CUPE. “They’re entitled to feel how they feel.”

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

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David Driskell, prominent authority on black art, dies at 88 – Times Colonist

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FALMOUTH, Maine — David Driskell, one of the nation’s most influential African American artists and a leading authority on black art, has died. He was 88.

Driskell was a multimedia artist who used the trees around his Falmouth, Maine, cabin home as a feature in his work. A spokeswoman for the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland said he died on Wednesday. The cause of his death, in a hospital near his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, was not disclosed.

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Driskell went to Maine in the 1950s to study at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He was part of a wave of artists who came to the state from New York, the Portland Press Herald reported. He would go on to become the author of several books and more than 40 catalogues, and curated “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1970s. The show was pivotal in paving the way for the study of African American art history.

Driskell once said of Maine: “I dream about it when I’m not there.”

The spokeswoman for the Driskell Center said services are not planned at this time due to concerns about coronavirus, which has disrupted funeral services around the country.

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David Driskell, prominent authority on black art, dies at 88 – Powell River Peak

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FALMOUTH, Maine — David Driskell, one of the nation’s most influential African American artists and a leading authority on black art, has died. He was 88.

Driskell was a multimedia artist who used the trees around his Falmouth, Maine, cabin home as a feature in his work. A spokeswoman for the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland said he died on Wednesday. The cause of his death, in a hospital near his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, was not disclosed.

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Driskell went to Maine in the 1950s to study at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He was part of a wave of artists who came to the state from New York, the Portland Press Herald reported. He would go on to become the author of several books and more than 40 catalogues, and curated “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1970s. The show was pivotal in paving the way for the study of African American art history.

Driskell once said of Maine: “I dream about it when I’m not there.”

The spokeswoman for the Driskell Center said services are not planned at this time due to concerns about coronavirus, which has disrupted funeral services around the country.

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