National Gallery of Canada’s new director aims to pursue accessibility and transparency

At the end of a long day, the incoming director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada’s voice was hoarse but her vision was clear.

In an interview Alexandra Suda, better known perhaps as Sasha, said Job 1 when she takes her post in April is to hire a chief curator for the gallery and a director of the Canadian Photography Institute. Then, she said in an interview late Wednesday afternoon with ARTSFILE, she would have the team around her to begin the march forward for the gallery.

“These are two positions that are going to be leaders of the national stage in terms of curatorial thinking programatic decision-making and until I make those hires I don’t want to make any declarative statements about programming,” she said.

She says her appointment has shifted the paradigm inside the gallery.

“I am European expert and a works on paper expert in the director’s post for the first time in a long time. It has in recent years been held by a person with a background in contemporary art.” She says that the gallery will most likely hire a chief curator with contemporary art expertise. That will “yield opportunities that we can’t really predict right now.”

Suda, a cross-country skiing mother of twins who will turn four in April, was announced as the replacement for Marc Mayer as the 11th director of the National Gallery on Wednesday morning. She will take her post on April 18, the gallery said. She is coming to Ottawa from the Art Gallery of Ontario where she is the curator of European Art and the the R. Fraser Elliott chair of prints and drawing. Before she leaves the AGO, where she has worked since 2011, she will finish launching a major exhibition of the early works of Peter Paul Rubens, which is being jointly curated with a gallery in San Francisco.

Alexandra “Sasha” Suda is the new director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada.

In her background is a passion for Medieval Art which was the focus of her study at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University where her PhD dissertation was on The Girona Martyrology and the Cult of Saints in Late-Medieval Bohemia.

She said, to begin the interview, that she regretted not bringing her skis to Ottawa but added that she looked forward to ticking a trek through the Gatineau Hills off her list.

With young children, the kids section at the Gallery will play a role in her life.

“It is certainly something I have appreciated at my current museum. I think museum’s are great places for kids.”

The idea of a more open National Gallery is something she is definitely thinking about, she said.

“I certainly am. In talking with the team even prior my arrival, there is a desire here to increase the momentum around audience engagement at the gallery and to think of the partnership between art, which is the core mandate and mission and the audience.

“What kind of energy can you get out of those two things in partnership. I think there is a huge amount of opportunity there with a local audience that is eager to have that kind of invitation.”

Her experience as an expert in Medieval and European Art does beg a question about her familiarity with Canadian art practice.

“I don’t have any concerns about that. I worked with an amazing team at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the last eight years in a really collaborative curatorial environment, learning from them and having an intimate exposure to the projects they were working on.

“I came to the AGO in the wake of the Thomson gift which really brought an incredible exposure to early 20th century Canadian art. Most recently the establishment of an Indigenous curatorial department within the AGO and an emphasis on Indigenous programming under the leadership of the curator Wanda Nanabush has really opened my eyes to what is possible. And also how this material is relevant to our immediate audience locally and nationally, but also the fact that we are leaders in this field. In 2019 the world is watching Canada and thinking about what we are doing.”

As that conversation develops, she said “it is a privilege to be part of it in a tangential way. As a curator you know what you colleagues need to pull off their projects. I did learn what is required to change the story to open and diversify our sense of a narrative.”

Her priorities include accessibility and audience and increasing and broadening the invitation to the community to come into the gallery. That, she said, is something she says she learned at the AGO where that has been an emphasis for a long time.

One area she knows she will have to try to figure out will be on Parliament Hill. Politicians and the national stage have caused problems for past directors.

When ARTSFILE’s Peter Simpson asked Marc Mayer what he would tell his successor he said:

“Hassle those people over there on the Hill. Tell them they need to be coming here more often, all those elected parliamentarians. And they need to be giving us more money, because we’re not just entertaining Ottawa here. What we do here in this building, what you see is the tip of the iceberg of service that we provide to Canadians.”

Suda is more careful.

“I think this will be a huge learning experience for me.

“The recent issues (surrounding the attempted sale of a painting by Marc Chagall called The Eiffel Tower) that have been public around de-accessioning and the export of works that are not Canadian, all say to me we have never been in a better position to talk about the arts and to talk about what museums do and to be more transparent about the decisions we make and the work that we do.”

And critics are thinking about the issues surrounding the gallery, de-accessioning and collecting in general.

“I think it is a great moment that part is impacting the whole country and beyond. In terms of Ottawa, bring it on. There is so much to learn and it’s such an amazing place. I can’t wait to meet everybody and to experience the growing pains if those exist.”

The arts can sometimes get aligned with elite culture which Suda is well aware of.

“In my view art is for everyone. Public art museums were founded on the aspiration that they would be for everyone. At the end of the day the National Gallery even pushes that idea farther because it is accountable to its stakeholders which are primarily the Canadian people. I think we have the opportunity to move forward and be really positive and open about what we are doing.

“De-accessioning is a big conversation that has been active in the museum community for a long time. I couldn’t name a single museum professional who hasn’t experienced that in North America.”

She said she is looking forward to a briefing on the gallery’s position on the issue along with an understanding of what happened in the Chagall case.

“How do we turn that in turn into a learning experience for ourselves and our audience.”

In her position as director she will be overseeing curators and approving projects.

“I’m chomping at the bit to be a person who can amplify the work my colleagues are doing. That has been something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I don’t think giving up curating is too big a price to pay.”

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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.