High-powered group formed to push for national Gallery of Canadian Identity

Detail from Douglas Coupland's National Portrait. The work of art is being used to symbolize the effort to build a new portrait gallery called the Gallery of National Identity. Photo: Lawrence Cook

A proposal for a new national portrait gallery is back on the table largely thanks to Ottawa lawyer Lawson Hunter, who was the driving force in realizing the decades-long dream of the new Ottawa Art Gallery.

Hunter supported locating a portrait gallery in the former U.S. embassy at 100 Wellington St. even after Stephen Harper’s Conservative government killed the project originally planned by Jean Chretien’s Liberals. With the election of Justin Trudeau, a committee was formed to decide the fate of the vacant building.

Hunter served on that committee, simultaneously twisting arms non-stop at Ottawa City Hall and the local business community to create the much enlarged Ottawa Art Gallery beside Arts Court.

In the end, Trudeau decided two years ago to repurpose the beaux-arts building as an Indigenous Centre rather than a portrait gallery. So, Hunter and Liberal Senator Patricia Bovey, former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, formed a group of high-powered individuals to make the case for a portrait gallery elsewhere in the national capital area. The tentative name is the Gallery of Canadian Identity.

Beverley McLachlin is honourary chair of the group. Photo: Jean-Marc Carisse

This “advisory group” has largely been toiling behind the scenes but once the Oct. 21 election is over, expect to be hearing a lot more about the project.

The honourary chair of the advisory group is Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Hunter, a former Bell Canada executive and senior federal bureaucrat, is the chair. Other high-profile members include artists Douglas Coupland and Robert Houle, Senator Bovey, Ottawa consultant Bob Plamondon, Robert Tombs, president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Gaetane Verna, director of Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Gallery and Joanne Charette, a former public affairs executive with the National Gallery of Canada, Rideau Hall and Canadian Museum of Nature.

The group is officially eyeing three possible sites: LeBreton Flats, the Library and Archives headquarters on Wellington Street which will be partially vacated by 2024 and an old monastery in Hull across from Jacques Cartier Park. Other possible sites, not included in promotional literature being circulated by the advisory group but mentioned by Hunter, include the downtown Confederation Park and the space between the Supreme Court and Library and Archives on Wellington Street.

Whatever site is chosen, it is to be a “technology-drenched space” and contain far more than the traditional paintings of elites – the people Hunter calls the “usual dead white guys.” Instead, Hunter and friends want the space to tell the story of ordinary Canadians.

“This is about the people of Canada and not just the elites,” says Hunter.

An image of the artwork, The National Portrait by Douglas Coupland, is displayed prominently on the advisory group’s promotional literature. Coupland’s large work contains images of dozens of portrait-like photographs of Canadians from across the country reproduced by a 3-D printer. The work was commissioned by the Simon’s department store chain and now serves to show that a new portrait gallery will embrace high-technology and include ordinary Canadians.

The advisory group privately raised money for a Phase I study by Lord Cultural Resources, THE international firm for museum consultations, to clarify a “vision, mandate and concept” for a new portrait gallery to be financed by both the private sector and government.

That report is expected to be complete by “early fall,” Hunter said in a recent interview. Then, the group moves into high gear, initially with a national media campaign to raise awareness of and interest in the project. That will be followed by some political lobbying. Getting politicians onside is perhaps the greatest challenge, says Hunter.

“This is going to take some effort. I think we want to use the Lord study as the basis for then getting out more into the public, through social media or whatever, to try to demonstrate, to the government, support.”

If there is enough encouragement from the public and the government, Hunter’s group will then raise funds for Lord to do a Phase II study on the operations of the portrait gallery.

It is difficult to know exactly what the government thinks of the project at this stage. Hunter was vague. However, Senator Bovey, in a speech last Oct. 14 to a meeting of the Canadian Craft Federation in Halifax, spoke of the portrait gallery proposal.

“I am involved, and a year ago summer received a letter from the prime minister confirming his interest that the work and discussion continue,” said the senator.

Hunter has met with officials from the Heritage Department and Privy Council Office. One senior bureaucrat told him: “You need to be ready when the window is open.”

The best time to approach government on new ideas is “early in the mandate,” says Hunter. That would mean making the case to government, whatever party it is, some time after the Oct. 21 election. He can only hope the window will be open.

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