National Gallery delays next biennial of contemporary art by a year

The National Gallery of Canada announces cancellations of summer show and biennials of contemporary art.

The National Gallery of Canada is once again delaying by one year its high-profile biennial showcasing recent contemporary art acquisitions, says gallery director Marc Mayer.

Biennials are supposed to, by definition, be held every two years. A triennial is an art exhibition held every three years. Nevertheless, the gallery is sticking to the biennial name.

The last biennial opened in November, 2017, three years after the previous one. That allowed the gallery to make the 2017 biennial part of its Canada 150 celebrations last year.

The next biennial was subsequently to be held in 2019. Now, that is being pushed to 2020, meaning that exhibition will again showcase acquisitions from three, rather than two, years. The biennial delay has occurred because of the need to delay the scheduled international Indigenous quinquennial by a year, says Mayer.

Without elaborating, Mayer blamed “complications with staffing” for delaying the quinquennial, opening in the fall of 2019 rather than in 2018. A quinquennial is supposed to be held every five years. The first one, called Sakahan, was held at the gallery in 2013. It was massive and expensive, with curators scouring the globe to find the most eye-popping work by Indigenous artists from Canada, the rest of the Americas, Australia, the Arctic regions of Europe and elsewhere. Both the quinquennial and the biennial were started under Mayer’s leadership.

“We can’t do two very similar exhibitions (in the same year),” he says.

The gallery’s chief curator of Indigenous art, Greg Hill, and associate curator of Indigenous art, Christine Lalonde, have been exceedingly busy in the past few years helping organize various Canada 150 exhibitions and the massive selection of works and installation of the new, permanent Canada and Indigenous Gallery. In that gallery Indigenous works are presented alongside “settler” art from the equivalent time period, geographical region or theme. These two curators also play crucial roles in all the biennials and Indigenous quinquennials.

Mayer calls the new Canadian and Indigenous Gallery his greatest achievement in the nine years he has been at the federal institution and claims that new gallery as a first for Canada and abroad.

“We’re getting a lot of international interest.”

Mayer plans to leave the gallery when his second five-year mandate expires in January 2019.

“Time’s up,” he said. “It’s time to do something else for me.”

There does not appear to be any obvious successor within the current ranks of the gallery. The deputy director and chief curator, Paul Lang, has just left for a new job in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. Interviews will start soon among candidates hoping to replace Lang.

Mayer calls the gallery “fiscally sound” although it has weathered some lean years in which it tended to fill its galleries with exhibitions curated from its own collection rather than importing more expensive travelling exhibitions. That move saved the gallery money but it also stretched staff resources at times because they had to create shows rather than just oversee art picked by a curator in Europe or elsewhere.

The biennial, for the first time in 2017, was spread over two venues – the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton. The next Indigenous quinquennial may also be exhibited at multiple sites.

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