National Gallery of Canada: Meet Sasha Suda change agent and CEO

Sasha Suda sits infront of Rebecca Belmore's Biinjiya'iing Onji (From Inside), 2017, Marble. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 2018. The artwork welcomes visitors into Àbadakone, the exhibition of global Indigenous art. Photo: Peter Robb

When Sasha Suda started her work as the 11th executive director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, she entered the building by the front door.

Right away she had a question. Where was the art?

There was none in the area round the entrance, none along the concourse to the Great Hall and when she finally got to her office, it too was empty of art.

“I walked into storage and pulled out Louise Bourgeois’s bronze Arch of Hysteria” and put it in the office.

Louise Bourgeois’s Arch of Hysteria. The National Gallery has a version of this sculpture and it’s now hanging in the CEO’s office.

When she walked into that storage area, “I saw that and a Rothko and I thought, there are huge treasures in the storage units here. Storage is a tough one for us because the collection is growing and we need more space. But we also need to get things out and visible. This is an 800,000 square foot facility, we need to maximize what we have going on here.” The gallery has more than 93,000 works of art and 270,000 books catalogues and periodicals. Sometime this spring, the gallery will welcome its 50 millionth visitor.

So she is determined to get more of the collection out in the building.

“This is an art gallery. The building is a work of art but I think if you have trouble with  storage and you have this very academic persona in the public sphere the great way to shift that is to show what we are best at which is art.

“How do you give art agency. We have essentially taken away art’s agency in engaging with audience by not making it available.

“I love Bourgeois. When I got here I saw there was a lot of light coming through the windows but the bronze is pretty robust. And there hadn’t been art in this office since the ’90s,” she said.

Part of her job is to meet with foreign dignitaries and she thought there should be some art from the collection. She has also hung a painting by Pegi Nicol MacLeod far from the windows.

“We have been talking about doing a show on (Nicol MacLeod). I wanted something more optimistic too, so it’s a counterpoint to the Bourgeois.

The Arch of Hysteria says something about her, she admits. “I’m an objects person at heart and it’s extraordinary object.

“There is something nice about the inversion of the male body into this female archetype of hysteria. It gives me strength on some days to know (Bourgeois) was a strong, independent feminist. I admire her as a person and an artist. It’s good to have that energy here.”

Bringing more of the art of the collection out so it can be seen, is part of a push that Suda wants to bring to the gallery … to be more accessible and also understandable.

“There are huge strengths and detriments to having spent a decade in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” You aren’t as well known in Canada, but “on the other hand you gain an amazing network of colleagues.”

And you learn that an audience “can be interested in everything and will be interested if you tell a great story.”

Accessibility and audience development as a priority “is just me. In some ways I am a very traditional curator. I am a museum person and I have certain beliefs in what museums do. I believe art museums should stay art museums.”

She knows that art museums “in all of their esotericism … they still can be relevant and inspire reflection and hope and creativity in just what they are. They don’t have to try to be something else, but they have to be able to share what they do with the world in a much more transparent and open way.” She learned that at the Met.

She worked in the medieval department there and one time “we were doing a show on medieval Prague and there was a van Gogh show up at the same time. The Prague show was in a space on the second floor. Van Gogh was on first floor. Every morning I was sent out by my supervisor to move our stanchion advertising the Prague show nearer the entrance.”

In New York, she said she learned how to deal with the packers, the legal team, the immigration people.

“Museums are amazing. They are their own ecosystems of passion, interest and commitment to things that most of the world doesn’t know exist.”

At the National Gallery, Suda believes, not enough has been done to be entrepreneurial.

“I have been pretty open with the staff about that. I think that our program has been heavy on borrowed exhibitions. And those aren’t always resonating with our audience. Our audience and its expectations are changing dramatically.”

An example of this is the Gauguin Portraits exhibition intended to be a blockbuster this past summer.

“It fits all the criteria of a traditional museum show. It should just tear the doors off of the place and it fell significantly short of our expectations by a good 50,000 people (about by a third).

“You look and ask, Is it a bad show? Absolutely not. Should we be doing Gauguin? For sure.”

She would love shows such as this to be incubated by staff.

“It was great show, if done by our staff would it have been a better show? It would probably have been a different show.”

Suda believes that in Canada we are in a unique position to engage with social and  political issues.

“Let’s face it we are the National Gallery. Coming from the AGO which is where the accessibility piece got drilled into my DNA.”

She has experience curating shows that bring in other galleries.

For example, she did an exhibition of highly ornate 15th and 16th century prayer beads that “couldn’t have happened anywhere else. We did it with the Met and the Rijksmuseum (in Amsterdam). That was the kind of show that to convince the director you have to have a couple of good partners. The collection is amazing and we had leverage to get good partners.

“By that point in my career at AGO I had realized that there is more to the story that doing the research and writing the wall text. I had colleagues in education and conservation and I realized the audience was more interested in hearing from them about the science of the art.”

She said she learned how to give people space and not be insecure “that as the curator you are giving up all your power. … If you want the audience to be engaged with the past and sometimes the long forgotten past you have to let go of certain monologues.

The winds of change are already blowing at the gallery. The ticket station has moved upstairs to the Great Hall. Other changes are afoot.

“I think first of all we have a curatorial staff of upwards of 20 people and that group has to be in the calendar, period.

“We have to hear from that group. They know about the collection. Many of them have built the collection. They have reasons and we need to hear them. These aren’t always scholarly reasons. There are also deep personal reasons and passions.”

She also wants to present a new public image for the gallery.

“I would say certainly the public face of the organization is that we are an institution.”

She wants to humanize that.

“When you come into the place for a couple of weeks it is a collective of people with different talents and quirks and expertise. All of those things make this place more human and fun to be in.

“Making the place more accessible is not dumbing it down. That’s actually engaging in a dialogue. This is the era of the podcast. People love a good story and they will put in the time to listen to one.”

Would she start one? “I’d love to.” She certainly wants to share the highlights of the collection and the crazy stories.

She has met the new Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault.

“I found him to be great. He said he loves art.” Enough to help give the gallery more operating money?

“That’s what we are waiting to find out. We have put in our budget asks and acquisitions was in there.” At present the gallery has $8 million a year for acquisitions of new work.

“I’m trying to understand what we are not buying with that $8 million. I think the public hears $8 million and that’s a lot. But we know that a Leonardo sells for $450 million.”

Free admission to the gallery is something that came up during the federal election, raised by the Tories. “Right now with our budget, we can’t do it. I’ll be honest I wouldn’t want to commit to it today simply because we would have to back stop the revenue from attendance with some kind of fund.

“Our operating funding has been the same since 1988.” To make a case for more operating cash, Suda said the gallery is also beginning its first ever strategic five year plan that she says will create priorities and more of a narrative.

It would say to the public that “we are here and we are offering this to Canadians and our community. That kind of engagement will help build stronger case for more support. Capital funding is always easy especially if there is a leak. Operating money comes from a vision for a direction of where going.”

It is important that the building is maintained. The gallery has recently replaced the the windows in the concourse and Great Hall. And just now the National Capital Commission is revitalizing Nepean Point.

“I’d like to connect the cafeteria to the park and have the gallery be a more permeable building. If you have a bridge coming from Major’s Hill Park to Nepean Point then I want to have access to that.” She was asked to take part in the Nepean Point project by NCC CEO Toby Nussbaum.

One of the recent bright lights for the gallery is the exhibition of global Indigenous art called Àbadakone.

“It should and will be a cornerstone of our program. We are the only ones doing it. The first such show Sakahàn set stage for something profoundly different. We upped the ante this year when we invited all the artists to the opening. Some 3,600 people showed up.”

Sakahàn’s attendance numbers weren’t great but “Àbadakone has out-performed our expectations. It’s getting us back on track” in terms of annual expectations for attendance. Who would have thought Àbadakone would be picking up the slack for Gauguin. To me that is super exciting.” (As of Jan. 9, Àbadakone had attracted 30,944 visitors).

Museums today are finding themselves and realizing that people do want to learn about things, she said.

“People are interested in the unknown and … I feel that has huge ramifications for the museum world. People are actually open to being surprised, being challenged and being educated. That means we can do anything if you take some risks.

“You have to latch on to what ever your first instinct is. and try to find ideas that can’t break through. What are the risks that we are not taking? Where is the creativity that isn’t palpable? How do you give life to those things?”

This is why she thinks the gallery should do more European shows in house.

“We have a strong collection. When is the last time we took a risk and told a new story with that collection?

“I just did a Rubens show at AGO. One could ask what’s new about that. On the other hand there has never been a Rubens show, pulled from international lenders in North America.

“We can do that here and scratch the scholarly itch. But as a museum we need to do more than that. We need to start other conversations. For us, Gauguin was a challenge. It was a very good show, but it left a few explosive issues on table without touching them such as Indigeneity.”

Three other women have led the National Gallery. For Suda, that past is an encouragement.

“My bigger challenge has been my age.” At 38 when she was hired, she was the youngest person to lead the gallery in decades.

“Being a first time CEO, combined with my age, can be challenging. I am a good curator. Am I the best, probably not, but I am a curator who became more and more aware of the constraints to creative work within large institutions. They came out of management. As a curator was always putting pressure upwards.

“With time I realized I would like to be the boss. I’m interested in how institutions can create enough space to be creative and to do things that society needs more than ever.”

There are some jobs that need to be filled starting with the head of the Canadian Photography Institute.

“Kitty Scott will drive that hire. I feel it’s the Chief Curator’s job. Our photography program is so important.”

She said processes have been streamlined already. One result of that will be the announcement this year of an exhibition plan for the next five years.

It sounds like it’s about to get very busy inside the National Gallery.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.