Monday, March 1, 2010

An Open Letter to Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada

Dear Mr. Mayer,

In October 2009, the National Gallery of Canada hosted Camp Kabeshinàn, a conference organized by the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC). Aboriginal curators from Canada, North America and Australia gathered to discuss the state of Aboriginal curating in the world today, and they were joined by many alliance members of different ethnic backgrounds who support this important organization. It was an exciting time, energized by the opening of The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition, the first solo exhibition devoted to a First Nations woman at NGC, curated by Bonnie Devine, a respected Anishinaabe curator and artist. Bucking out-dated Gallery policy, Devine was the first curator to ever have her name appear at the entrance to the exhibition she had organized. In this aura of first things, you addressed conference attendees with the assurance that “things were changing at the National Gallery.” At that time, you also mentioned Canada could look forward to an international quintennial of Aboriginal art organized and hosted by the National Gallery.

On February 2, 2010, after watching your appearance in “Diaspora Art,” a spot aired on CBC’s The National, Canadian cultural producers realized how badly we had been duped. Standing in the First Nations Galleries surrounded by the work of Aboriginal artists, you told the Canadian public that, unlike the nation itself, the National Gallery of Canada is blind to cultural diversity: it only sees “excellence.”

This begs the question: Whose excellence? This is what women and ethnic minorities have been asking for centuries. In the 1960s, when cultural institutions like NGC only showed the work of white men, we were told it was because there were no women or people of colour making “good art.” Today you tell us that NGC doesn’t show ethnic minorities because they are not achieving “excellence.” The simplistic notion that connoisseurs know "good art" was thoroughly discredited by 20th-century feminist and post-colonial writers, artists and activists. Indeed, listening to your comments on The National was like watching a caricature of Clement Greenberg: “I know good art when I see it.”

Well, we know “excellence” when we see it, and today we prefer to call it hegemony.

As the Director of a major art museum you might like to read up on this concept. You could start with Linda Nochlin’s pivotal work "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971), and then move on to more contemporary, fulsome texts, such as Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) and bell hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). At the very least you could try reading Fuse Magazine.

There is a difference between being blind and just shutting your eyes. Ours have certainly been opened. After you left the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s conference there was a heated discussion concerning the differences between eurocentric curatorial practices and those of Aboriginal curators. Robert Houle took the podium and addressed a younger generation of curators in the audience. He urged them to watch out for people in positions of power who only wanted to capitalize on their work.

We now understand the real purpose of an Aboriginal quintennial, and we understand why the National Gallery is still so sadly out of touch. Thank you for showing us your true colour.

  • Emily Falvey, Independent curator and art critic, Montréal
  • Milena Placentile, Independent curator, Winnipeg
  • Ryan Rice, Curator, Kahnawake, Québec
  • Scott Stephens, Artist/Anishinabe (Lac Seul FN), Winnipeg
  • Diana Thorneycroft, Artist, Winnipeg
  • Jayce Salloum, Artist, Vancouver
  • Oliver Ressler, Artist, Vienna, Austria
  • Jamelie Hassan, Visual Artist, 2001 recipient of Governor General of Canada Award in Visual & Media Arts, London, Ontario
  • danielle drew belsky, Artist, MA candidate, Interdisciplinary Studies, York University, Toronto
  • cam bush, Visual Artist, Winnipeg
  • Leslie Supnet, Artist, Winnipeg
  • Jeff Thomas, Photo-based Artist & Independent Curator, Ottawa
  • juan carlos noria, Artist, Barcelona, Spain
  • Stefan St-Laurent, Curator, Galerie SAW Gallery / Guest Curator, 28e Symposium international d'art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul, Ottawa
  • Justin Wonnacott RCA, Artist and teacher, Ottawa
  • Dr. Aisha Jamal, Instructor in the Humanities at U of T and Media Arts Instructor at Sheridan College, Toronto
  • Steve Loft, Executive Director, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, Toronto
  • Ron Benner, artist, London, ON
  • nichola feldman-kiss, Artist, Ottawa
  • Ingrid Mayrhofer, Independent Curator, Hamilton
  • Clint Enns, Video Artist, Winnipeg
  • Chris Poulsen, Collector, Winnipeg
  • J.K. Shishido, artist/educator, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Maggie Flynn, Artist, Toronto
  • Jessica MacCormack, Multidisciplinary Artist, Montréal
  • Claire Carew, Painter and Sculptor, Toronto
  • Tomoko Takahashi, Artist, UK
  • Ken Harasym, Graphic Designer, Winnipeg
  • Sally Frater, Independent Curator and Arts Writer, Hamilton
  • Camille Turner, Independent Artst, Curator, Toronto
  • Sandra Brewster, Independent Artist and Art Educator, Toronto
  • Cathy Mattes, Curator and Art History Lecturer, Manitoba
  • liz garlicki, Artist and Gallery Coordinator at aceartinc., Winnipeg
  • Kwame Younge, Arts supporter, Toronto
  • Monika Vykoukal, Curator and Writer, Birmingham, UK
  • Jennifer Matotek, Independent curator, Toronto
  • Lana Lovell, Documentary Director, Toronto
  • Dr. Abigail Schoneboom, Assistant Professor of Sociology, City University of New York, New York City
  • Dino Koutras, Arts Supporter, Montreal
  • Liz Park, Curator, Vancouver, BC
  • Uta Riccius, Artist/Educator, Winchester
  • Stephen Fakiyesi, artist, Toronto
  • Jennifer Bisch, Independent film curator and curator of the Costume Museum of Canada, Winnipeg
  • michèle provost, artiste en arts visuels, Gatineau
  • Amy Thompson, Artist, Ottawa
  • Judy McNaughton, Northern Artistic Director, Common Weal Community Arts, Prince Albert, SK
  • Mikaela Bobiy, PhD (Art History), CEGEP Professor (Humanities and Philosophy), Montreal
  • Brendan Tang, Artist, Kamloops
  • Laura Margita, Executive Director, PAVED arts, Saskatoon
  • Petra Halkes, Independent Curator / Artist, Ottawa
  • Deborah Margo, Visual Artist, ON
  • Johanna Mizgala, Curator and Art Critic, Ottawa
  • Su-Ying Lee, Curator, Toronto
  • Wahsontiio Cross, Artist and M.A. candidate (Art History, Concordia University), Kahnawake, Quebec
  • Alice Ming Wai Jim, Assistant Professor, Contemporary Art, Concordia University, Montreal
  • Glenn Alteen, Program Director, grunt gallery, Vancouver
  • Jennifer Dales, Arts Writer, Ottawa
  • Cindy Baker, interdisciplinary artist, Saskatoon
  • Megan Morman, Visual Artist & Arts Volunteer, Saskatoon
Signatures added as of 8:31 a.m. CST on March 2
  • Lee-Ann Martin, Curator of Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec
  • Janet Lumb, Artistic Director, Festival Accès Asie, Montreal
  • Freda Guttman, Artist, activist, Montreal
  • Aubrey Reeves, artist/curator, Toronto
  • sue goldstein, artist and writer, toronto
  • Cynthia Girard, visual artist , Montreal
  • Freddie Arps, Illustrator, Toronto
  • Marc Côté, Publisher, Cormorant Books Inc., Toronto
  • Chief Lynn Acoose, Board Member, Sakewewak Artists' Collective, Sakimay First Nations, Sakimay-Shesheep-Little Bone-Minoachak
  • Dr. Pauline Wakeham, University of Western Ontario, cultural and literary studies scholar, London, ON
  • Christine Conley, independent curator, art historian, Ottawa
Signatures added as of 6:47 p.m. CST on March 2
  • Roewan Crowe, Artist /Assistant Professor Women & Gender Studies, University of Winnipeg
  • Paul Robles, Visual Artist, Winnipeg
  • Mathieu Beauséjour, artist, Montréal
  • Laura Paolini, artist and cultural worker, Toronto
  • Carmen Victor, University of Toronto, Toronto
  • Angela Rebeiro, C.M. (former publisher Playwrights Canada Press), Toronto
  • Reena Katz, Artist, Toronto
  • Elizabeth MacKenzie, artist, Vancouver
  • hannah_g, cultural worker and artist, Winnipeg
  • Gomo George, Visual Artist, Writer, Toronto
  • Elle Flanders, Filmmaker, Photographer and Phd Candidate, York U,Toronto
  • Izida Zorde, Editor, Fuse Magazine
  • Maria Victoria Guglietti, PhD candidate, cultural studies, Calgary
  • Jessie Caryl, arts supporter, Vancouver
  • RM Vaughan, writer and artist, Toronto
  • Andrea Mortson, Artist, Sackville
  • Dawn Dale, artist and sculpture instructor, Ottawa School of Art
  • Marion Bordier, Artist and Teacher, Gatineau
  • Howie Tsui, visual artist, Ottawa
  • Niki Little, Artists & Program Coordinator, Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Winnipeg
  • Adrian A. Stimson, Artist/ Independent Curator, Saskatoon
  • Mikiki, Artist, Toronto
  • Matthew Molnar, musician, Winnipeg, MB
  • Marie Lopes, Arts Programmer, Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre
  • Nancy Baele, art critic, Ottawa.
  • Steven Leyden Cochrane, artist and instructor at the School of Visual Arts, University of Windsor
  • Carol Williams, Canada Research Chair in Gender & Feminist Studies, Peterborough
  • Francisco-Fernando Granados, artist, Vancouver
  • Sadira Rodrigues, Director, Continuing Studies, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver
  • Carol Camper, Artist, Writer, Activist, Toronto
  • Viviane Gosselin, Doctoral Candidate, UBC Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness Faculty of Education, Vancouver
  • Hakili Don, Visual Artist, OCAD, Toronto
  • Jennifer Webb, Communications Manager, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver
  • Jonathan Middleton, Director/Curator, Or Gallery, Vancouver
  • Kim Nguyen, Curator, Vancouver, BC
  • Amber Landgraff, curator/artist, Toronto
  • Chloe Lum , Artist , Montreal
  • Joshua Schwebel, artist, Montreal
  • Marlene Milne, free-lance arts facilitator, Winnipeg
  • cheyanne turions, Curator, Vancouver
  • Edwin Janzen, artist, writer and editor, Ottawa
  • Leah Decter, artist, Winnipeg
Signatures added as of 8:45 a.m. CST on March 3
  • Makiko Hara, Curator, Centre A, Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
  • Romi Chandra, anti-oppression educator, Vancouver
  • Zool Suleman, Writer/Editor/Lawyer, Vancouver
  • Jennifer Flower, Edmonton, Alberta
  • Cyndy Chwelos: Community Arts Programmer, Moberly Arts & Cultural Centre, Vancouver, BC
  • Gail Bourgeois, artist, Ottawa
  • Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Vancouver
  • Colwyn Griffith, artist, Toronto
  • Patricia Palulis, University of Ottawa, Ottawa
  • Randy Lee Cutler, Artist/Associate professor, Emily Carr University
  • Sally McKay, artist, writer, curator
  • Darsha Hannah Hewitt, Artist, Instructor, Montreal
  • Jennifer Smith, Art History Student, Winnipeg
  • Mosa Neshamá McNeilly, Independent Artist, Educator, Guelph, Canada
  • Lorna Mills, Visual Artist, Toronto
  • George Walker, Associate Professor - Faculty of Art, Ontario College of Art and Design, Faculty of Art, Printmaking, Toronto
  • Michael Maranda, artist, curator, editor, Toronto
  • Shauna Thompson, Independent Curator, Toronto
  • Thirza Jean Cuthand, Video Artist/Filmmaker Saskatoon
  • Eve Rice, musician/DJ, Winnipeg
  • Romi Chandra, anti-oppression educator, Vancouver
  • Anthony Easton, writer, artist and curator, Toronto
  • Leila Armstrong, artist, Lethbridge, Alberta.
  • Michael Anthony Griffiths, Writer & Art Patron, Toronto
  • Bogdan Luca, artist, Toronto
  • Rachel Gorman, artist and lecturer, University of Toronto, Toronto
  • Aaron Cain, artist, Toronto, ON
  • John Murchie, writer & artist, Sackville
  • Adriana Contreras, Vancouver BC
  • Juan Pablo Munoz, visual artist, Vancouver
  • Lorna Brown, artist and curator, Vancouver
  • Elwood Jimmy, Curator/Artist/Program Director, Sakewewak Artists' Collective
  • Roy Mitchell, Arts Administrator, Media Artist
  • Anar Ali, writer, Toronto
  • Erik Edson Assoc. Professor, Mount Allison University Department of Fine Arts
Signatures added as of 5:55 p.m. CST on March 3
  • Lori Blondeau, Executive Director, Tribe Artists Collective, Saskatoon
  • Carole Condé + Karl Beveridge, artists, Toronto
  • Jill R. Baird, Curator of Education & Public Programmes, Museum of Anthropology UBC, Vancouver
  • Heather Haynes, Executive Director of Toronto Free Gallery, Publisher of Fuse Magazine and Associate Programmer at Hot Docs, Toronto
  • Michel Boutin, Canadien/metis artist, cultural animateur, Artistic director for IPAC (the Indigenous Peoples Artist Collective), Prince Albert, Sask. Acting chair for the Red Shift Gallery, Saskatoon
  • Amy Zion, Assistant Editor of Fillip, Vancouver
  • Douglas Casimel, 2301 Toronto Street, Regina
  • Kelaine Devine, artist/educator, Lethbridge
  • Lindsay MacDonald, MFA student, Calgary
  • Gabrielle Moser, writer/curator, Toronto
  • Amir Shingray, An Afo-Canadian Artist, Toronto
  • Karen Connelly, Writer, Photographer, Toronto
  • Robert Chang, Architect, Photographer, Toronto
  • Nancy Richler, writer, Vancouver
  • Solomon (Salman) Husain, Social Service Provider, Plateu Montreal/resident West End Vancouver
  • Victoria Moufawad-Paul, Programming Coordinator, A Space Gallery, Toronto
  • Ghazal Mosadeq, writer, Toronto
  • Catharine Marr, Arts supporter, Vancouver
  • Karen Whaley, York University, Toronto
  • meredith walsh, PhD Candidate, London Consortium
  • Lydia Kwa, writer and psychologist, Vancouver
  • Tim desClouds. Artist / Teacher -Canterbury HS, Programme for the Arts, Ottawa
  • Rina Liddle Visual Artist, Programming Director, Balcone Art Society, Vancouver
  • Jennifer McMackon, visual artist, Toronto
  • Melissa Wastasecoot, artist, Winnipeg
  • Rafael Lopez-Ramos, artist, Vancouver, BC / Miami, FL
  • Vincent Chevalier, Artist, Montreal QC
  • Anne Patterson, Social researcher, Ottawa
  • Daisuke Takeya, artist, Toronto
  • Marnie Fleming, Curator of Contemporary Art, Oakville Galleries, Oakville
  • Melanie O'Brian, Director/Curator, ARTSPEAK, Vancouver
  • Robin Pacific, Artist, Toronto
  • Sarah Hatton, visual artist, Ottawa
  • Julia Lum, Arts Writer, Toronto
  • Pamila Matharu, artist, Toronto
  • Reona Brass, Artist/Educator, Regina,
  • Maj(Ret) Denis M. Falvey MA MD FRCSC CD, Ophthalmologist, Mathematician, and arts supporter, Rose Bay, NS
  • Bernie Miller, visual artist, Winnipeg
Signatures added as of 8:35 a.m. CST on March 4
  • Stephen D Fowler, President, Nelson & District Arts Council, Actor, Writer, Nelson BC
  • Amy Fung, Art Critic, Edmonton, Alberta
  • Diana Sherlock, Freelance Curator and Arts Writer/Educator, Calgary
  • Evan Tapper, Artist, Toronto
  • Rita Kamacho, artist, Toronto
  • David Khang, Artist, Adjunct Faculty, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver
  • Joyce Lindemulder, Art Practitioner, Courtenay
  • Cristina Usubiaga, Filmmaker and Arts/Culture Consultant, Winnipeg
  • Rahul Varma, playwright and artistic director, Teesri Duniya Theater, Montreal
  • Alyssa Stryker, Graduate Student, Vancouver
  • Rob Brownie- Teacher and Writer, Vancouver
  • peter cole, stl'atl'imx
  • Erin Kelly, Arts Administrator, SAW Video, Ottawa
  • Akim Adé Larcher, The Larcher Group, Toronto
  • Sam Rudolph, visual artist, Vancouver
  • Antonia Hirsch, artist, Vancouver/Berlin
  • Elia Eliev, Artist-researcher, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Martha Langford, Associate Professor, Concordia University Research Chair in Art History, Montreal
  • Philippe Hamelin, artiste et enseignant, Gatineau
  • Mary Millen, arts supporter, Ottawa
Signatures added as of 8:21 p.m. CST on March 4
  • Rinaldo Walcott, Associate Professor, OISEUT and Research Fellow, John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, University of Texas at Austin
  • Catherine Sicot, Director of Education and Public Programmes, Oakville Galleries, Oakville
  • Pablo Rodriguez, Art history student, Montreal.
  • Charles Campbell, artist, Victoria BC
  • Peter Conlin, writer, organizer, artist, Montreal/London
  • Joanne Bristol, artist, Winnipeg
  • Jean-Pierre Caissie, Cap de Shédiac, NB
  • Olivia C. Pipe, artist and Master's candidate at Concordia University, Montreal
  • Sheila Spence, artist, Executive Director Martha Street Studio, Winnipeg
  • Charles Gagnon, sculptor, Montréal.
  • Rosika Desnoyers, visual artist, Montreal.
  • Supriya Tandan, Likes all kinds of art, Montréal, Québec
  • Alan McConchie, geographer and artist, Vancouver
  • Richard Pickard, Senior Instructor, Dept. of English, University of Victoria, British Columbia
  • Sid Chow Tan, arts supporter/media producer Vancouver
  • Julien Geoffroy, architecte, MOAQ
  • Larissa Lai, writer and professor, Vancouver
  • Johan Lundh, curator and writer, New York and Stockholm
  • Kyra Folk-Farber, D.Mus, Toronto
  • Maria Noel Secco, MA candidate, Art History, Concordia University, Montreal
  • Philippe Guillaume, photographer, Montreal
  • Jesse R. McKee, Independent Curator and Writer, Montreal
  • Maya Soren, MA Art History candidate, Concordia University, Montreal.
  • Dale Smith, director/curator of DALESMITHGALLERY, Ottawa
  • Michael Rattray, PhD Student Concordia University, Art Historian and Visual Artist, Montreal
  • Natalia Lebedinskaia, M.A. candidate in Art History, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec
  • Ian Patrick McAllister, Multidisciplinary artist, Toronto
  • Chelsey Lichtman artist and programmer Toronto
  • Adrienne Connelly, Librarian, Montreal
  • Robin Simpson, MA Candidate, Art History, Concordia University, Montreal
  • Stephanie Springgay, Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies and Art Education, OISE/University of Toronto
  • Jim Logan, Artist, Curator
  • Anna Khimasia, PhD Candidate in Visual Culture, institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, Carleton University.
  • Cam Forbes, Artist, Winnipeg
  • Christopher Smith, Writer, Cultural Critic, Scholar (UofT) Toronto
  • Aparna Mishra Tarc, Assistant Professor, York University
  • Laura J. Thrasher, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies, UT
  • Eugenio Salas, Artist, Toronto
  • Deanna Bowen, Artist, Educator, Toronto
  • Angela Robinson, PhD Student, York University, Toronto
  • Gordon Hatt, Curator, Ontario
Signatures added as of 8:03 a.m. CST on March 5
  • Michelle Jacques, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Ontario
  • Jason St-Laurent,Director of Programming, Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival
  • Karen Tam, Artist, Montreal. Thanks.
  • Brenda Goldstein, Artist, Toronto
  • Tomas Jonsson, Program and Outreach Coordinator, EMMEDIA
  • Sarah Wilkinson, Free-Lane Writer and M.A. Candidate, Concordia University
  • Britt Gallpen, Art History, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Signatures added as of 5:48 p.m. CST on March 5
  • Amber-Dawn Bear Robe Director of Urban Shaman Gallery: Contemporary Aboriginal Art
  • Joanne Hui, Artist and doctoral student, Montreal
  • Darren O’Donnell, Artist, Toronto
  • Karen Jordon, artist, Ottawa
  • Ruth Anita James, Artist and Lawyer, St. Catharines
  • Becky-Lynne Thiessen, Artist/Community Art Faciliator, Winnipeg
  • Nicholas Brown, Curator, Red Bull 381 Projects, Toronto
  • Jean Gagnon, Independent curator/commissaire indépendant, Montréal
  • Pat Beaton, Artist, Vancouver
  • Robert Waters, artist, Mexico City
  • Jessica Wyman, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Liberal Studies, OCAD, Toronto
Even more signatures...
  • Joe Mckay, multimedia artist, Assistant Professor SUNY Purchase
  • Jennifer Rudder, Independent Curator, Toronto; Instructor, Brock University, St. Catherines, ON
  • Alia Toor, Artist + Educator
  • Sara Koopman, PhD Candidate, Geography, University of British Columbia
  • Jewell Goodwyn, artist, London, ON
  • Emiko Takeda, NSCAD Universtiy graduate
  • Fana Seife, Ethiopian-Canadian Arts Adminstrator
  • Kelly Price, Media Artist & Designer, Gabriola, B.C.
  • Ulysses Castellanos, artist/curator, Toronto
  • Ariane De Blois, Doctorante en histoire de l'art, McGill, Montréal
  • Dr. Annette Bhagwati, curator and professor adjunct at Concordia University, Montreal
  • Shirley Clark, Director, Radionics & Dowsing Institute of Canada, Newfoundland
  • Erandy Vergara, Ph. D. Candidate in Art History, McGill University, Montreal
  • Will Kwan, artist, educator, Toronto
  • Danielle Lewis, MA Candidate, Art History, Concordia University, Montreal
  • rosalind hampton, artist, educator, Montreal
  • Juana Awad, media artist - performer, Toronto
  • Nadijah Robinson, artist, activist, educator, Ottawa/Toronto
  • Erika Pipe, Master's Candidate of Art History at Carleton University
  • Kati Campbell, artist, cultural theorist, Vancouver
  • John Devenish, Board Member Wychwood Barns Community Association, Annex Jazz Festival Board Member, Committee Member (Sub-Committee of Diversity Committee - AGO)
cc: National Gallery of Canada Board of Trustees


To watch the video featuring Mr. Mayer's inflammatory statements, please click here:

------------------> Update: As of March 4, we have noticed this video is no longer available online. If anyone had the foresight to make a copy for archival purposes, please consider making it available here for purposes of discussion.

------------------> Update: As of March 5, we found and posted this version of the report online. Please note the audio/video are not perfectly in-synch. We are working to source a better copy. Thank you!

------------------> Update: As of March 23, the CBC has reported that the technical problem preventing access to the archived video has now been fixed. The video can be viewed here:

PLEASE NOTE: Additional co-signers are always welcome by contacting:

Also, please visit our facebook group to view/join the growing list of 500+ members there:!/group.php?gid=354576594872&ref=ts

The trouble with 'excellence'

Posted on March 5, 2010 at 8:20 a.m.


The trouble with 'excellence'

Scores of people have signed a letter criticizing National Gallery director Marc Mayer for saying he wants the institution to be full of 'excellent' art. Paul Gessell explains why that's a problem.

By Paul Gessell, The Ottawa CitizenMarch 5, 2010

National Gallery director Marc Mayer is getting flack from Canada's art community for saying he wants to fill the federal institution with "excellent" art.

That's a problem? Yes, say some artists, because who decides what is "excellent?"

Should it be the same old gang that has filled the National Gallery with Monets, Rembrandts and the Group of Seven, or a new type of curator with a specific mandate to be more sensitive to Canadian art that is increasingly influenced, not just by European traditions, but by those from Asia, Africa and Latin America?

These are the questions at the heart of a growing controversy sparked last month when Mayer told the CBC he is colour blind when it comes to acquiring art and is only concerned with "excellence."

More than 150 people, many of them influential artists and curators, have lined up to sign a letter highly critical of Mayer. "There is a difference between being blind and just shutting your eyes," says the letter.

In an interview Thursday, Mayer said he got "goosed" on CBC, which he said tried to tackle an immensely complex issue in just a few minutes. The National Gallery collection contains hundreds of works representing diverse cultures and the works of new Canadians, he said.

"Every significant artist who was not born in Canada or whose parents were not born in Canada is pretty much already in the collection of the National Gallery and, if they're not, it's because we couldn't get our hands on the right one yet or we're looking for it," Mayer said.

"We're not a racist institution and diversity is Job 2 after making sure we have the right amount of money to do what we have to do."

The letter of protest directed at Mayer was penned by Emily Falvey, former chief curator of the Ottawa Art Gallery, and Winnipeg-based independent curator Milena Placentile. The signatories include such prominent Ottawa-area artists as Jeff Thomas, Howie Tsui, Marion Bordier, Nichola Feldman-Kiss and Michele Provost, Colwyn Griffith of Toronto, Diana Thorneycroft of Winnipeg, Jamelie Hassan of London, Ont. and Jayce Salloum of Vancouver. More names are added hourly.

This is not just a question of sour grapes by these signatories. Hassan and Salloum, for example, are of Middle Eastern origin and are both represented in the National Gallery's collection. Thomas is aboriginal and has had some of his works exhibited in the National Gallery.

Several of the country's top curators of aboriginal art have also signed the letter of protest. They include Lee-Ann Martin from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ryan Rice, an independent curator formerly of Carleton University Art Gallery, and Steve Loft, who recently completed a year-long curatorial residency at the National Gallery.

"I think the point of this letter is to bring to attention that artists from diverse communities have been largely excluded from the programming at the National Gallery," says Tsui, a Hong Kong native who has exhibited widely in Ottawa and beyond. "And this needs to change in the 21st century. Perhaps the hiring of a curator who specializes in art produced by minority populations would be a good start."

That suggestion is made by several other artists and curators. Currently, the National Gallery has a special curator for indigenous art but not for other minorities. And all artworks recommended for purchase by the gallery must be approved by the chief curator or the gallery director.

The furore started Feb. 2 when the CBC broadcast a feature on "diaspora art," or art produced by people in Canada who are not of European ancestry. The thrust of the story was that such artists are not well represented in major art institutions such as the National Gallery.

Questioned on camera by the CBC, Mayer emphasized that the gallery is only interested in "excellent" art and not the skin colour of the artist. As well, he suggested there is a paucity of excellent multicultural art because immigrants from non-European countries have to struggle financially when they come to Canada and simply cannot afford to be artists -- better paying jobs being necessary to feed their families.

Those comments prompted Falvey and Placentile to circulate the letter of protest.

"Whose excellence?" the letter asks. "This is what women and ethnic minorities have been asking for centuries."

In an e-mail exchange, Falvey said she is less concerned with who decides what should go into the National Gallery than with how those decisions are made.

"Curators working in institutions are guided by the mandate and policies of that institution," Falvey said. "I suspect that the curators currently working at the (gallery) have the professional wherewithal to seek out and exhibit the work of artists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, in a way that is sensitive to cultural diversity and the many social and political issues associated with it. Unfortunately, the existing 'policy of excellence' dissuades and even prevents them from undertaking this research in the first place."

Thorneycroft, an artist who has works in the National Gallery collection, said gallery curators should "seek out excellence in every realm."

"The decision about what a gallery collects should not be the narrow opinion of one person. Institutions are supposed to be run by directors, not dictators," Thorneycroft said.

Ottawa-area photo-artist Marion Bordier said the National Gallery has some very good curators.

"We just need to hire more of them, especially in contemporary Canadian art."

The National Gallery has traditionally focused on European art and Canadian art, both historical and contemporary.

Most of this "Canadian" art has sprung from European traditions. This is in part because of a long-standing bias toward European art by the Canadian art world. But it also reflects the fact most immigrants to Canada, in the pioneer days, were from Europe.

The gallery had been slow to accept aboriginal art as "fine art" and not as some second-class "ethno-cultural art."

But in the last few years, that attitude has started to change.

There have been major shows by such aboriginal artists as Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjig and the addition of more historical aboriginal art in the Canadian galleries.

But art from the so-called multicultural communities is still widely perceived as being ignored. Municipal galleries and collections are often considered to be more inclusive.

The Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) for example, includes artists from various ethno-cultural backgrounds in its exhibitions. The gallery's mandate is, in part, "to explore and reflect cultural diversity and social change through a spectrum of visual art practices, focused on but not exclusive to the region, in a national and international context."

This has prompted the OAG to deliberately seek out "excellent" local artists of diverse backgrounds. The result has been the exhibition of the Asian-influenced work of Tsui, Venezuelan-born Juan Carlos Noria, aboriginal artist Jeff Thomas and many others.

The National Gallery's official mandate includes no reference to diversity, although Mayer says that is a distinct policy direction.

"In my opinion," says Falvey, "this mandate, and not the invented one that Marc seems to be talking about, needs to be changed to include cultural diversity and regional difference."

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

The article can be viewed at The Ottawa Citizen's website by visiting this link:

The Citizen's anonymous editorial, and our reply

Posted on March 7, 2010 at 11:22 a.m.

Maltreating Mayer
Ottawa Citizen March 6, 2010

Silly debates about the intersection of art and identity politics seem so 1990s. Those years were the heyday of protests against curriculums and canons that were over-represented by DWM -- Dead White Males.

In fairness to the activists, they did provide a service by showing that many neglected artists were unjustly neglected. The canon of great American literature, for example, was expanded, rightfully so, to include many African-American writers who were every bit as significant as Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

But in some cases the concern for diversity mutated into a fetish. This was the age, remember, of deconstruction and postmodernism, when scholars and students were discouraged from making objective aesthetic judgments. In the interest of diversity, professors should teach rap songs alongside Shakespeare because, after all, who's to say that one is better than the other?

We certainly hope that this old-style identity politics is not behind the attempt to intimidate Marc Mayer, the new director of the National Gallery.

As the Citizen reported this week, Mayer is "getting flack" from the arts community because, in a television interview, he dared suggest that as an art lover he is interested more in the "excellence" of the art than the skin colour of the artist. Mayer has now been forced to reassure angry multiculturalists that the gallery is "not a racist institution."

The National Gallery, and indeed most Canadian cultural institutions, bend over backwards to showcase the country's diversity, and Mayer has never suggested that the gallery do otherwise.

He was, however, suggesting in that brief interview that it's possible and maybe even desirable to judge art according to its objective merits. It's sad if in some quarters that remains a controversial idea.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

View the editorial at its source by clicking here:


Letter to the Editor, Ottaw Citizen
Submitted Sunday, March 7, 2010

Identity centered political struggles during the 1990s did not give rise to a perfect society in which all people are treated equally regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Indeed, the Ottawa Citizen reminds us of this daily with articles on issues such as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s removal of any reference to gay rights in a new study guide for immigrants. As such, the concerns we have raised through our open letter are not fads or fetishes, but real, contemporary social justice problems, and they affect us all.

With regard to the ongoing debate concerning cultural diversity at the National Gallery of Canada, this is not a case of “angry multiculturalists” picking on a defenseless person. It is a matter of holding an individual in a position of public trust to account. Our open letter, co-signed by numerous highly respected artists, arts professionals and academics, was prompted by our concern that the mandate of the National Gallery of Canada was, in the eyes of its director, focused on an uncritical and outmoded notion of “excellence,” one that has been used in the past to exclude people of diverse cultural backgrounds, therein perpetuating a dominant monoculture.

Canada is an ethnically and regionally diverse nation. We believe that this should be stated in the Mandate of NGC, just as it is for the Canada Council for the Arts. To suggest that challenging a Eurocentric worldview is an effort to "intimidate” a public official is absurd. Let’s try to focus on facts. We welcome NGC to issue a report outlining how it is “showcasing the country’s diversity” as part of an open and ongoing discussion in the public sphere about its role as a national institution.

Emily Falvey (Montréal) and Milena Placentile (Winnipeg)

"National Gallery eliminates 27 positions"

Posted on March 28, 2010 at 7:15 p.m.

The Ottawa Citizen's latest coverage of activity at the NGC notes that reduced attendance has led the gallery to “streamline” its operations by eliminating 27 members of its staff. This effort to save money is in response to what Mayer is quoted as calling "a historic moment" defined by all of us "living in a time when philanthropy will change".

Once again, Mayer’s choice is words is quite interesting.

As we’ve learned, as part of the cuts, the Gallery has eliminated *ALL* arts education programs. Yes, you read that correctly: ALL teen workshops, teacher workshops, studio workshops, special needs workshops, adult workshops, senior workshops, diversity programs, and even subsidized programming for children in low income families will no longer exist.

In our opinion, this move is a sure fire way to reduce future philanthropy because all of the people who will no longer be able to access education programming opportunities are now essentially *guaranteed* to care less about art, and the National Gallery of Canada, which means they will surely *not* be interested in making contributions to the organization in the future. From an educational and cultural point of view, this is clearly ludicrious, but from a strictly institutional development point of view, this is clearly ludicrious.

We can’t see the logic here… Can you see the logic here?

Please find the article below. And, in a few weeks – as soon as we can find the time – we’ll be posting a summary of our thoughts concerning Mayer’s comments on CBC’s The National, and the odd storm that followed…

+ + +

"National Gallery eliminates 27 positions"
By Joanne Laucius , The Ottawa CitizenMarch 25, 2010

OTTAWA — The National Gallery of Canada has eliminated 27 positions and restructured the role of its fund-raising foundation.

Nine positions are vacant or will soon become vacant. The remaining 18 employees have lost their jobs.

The jobs have disappeared because the Gallery has consolidated collections, research and education into a new structure designed to “streamline” the organization.

Most revenue-generating operations, including visitor services, membership, annual giving, sponsorship and facility rentals have been integrated under a new “institutional advancement” department.

Publications, web, bookstore, copyright and marketing have also been amalgamated into a combined new department.

Meanwhile, the foundation, established in 1997, is now to focus its attention on endowments and planned giving.

“We’re living in a time when philanthropy will change. It’s a historic moment,” said the Gallery’s director and CEO Marc Mayer, who added the change has the support of the gallery’s board of trustees and the foundation’s board of directors.

Six positions in the foundation have been eliminated and three people have been redeployed. Mayer declined to name the managers who were let go in the reorganization nor would he comment on the status of the foundation’s president and CEO, Marie Claire Morin.

The foundation was established as a registered charity to gain sustainable private support for the gallery. It has attracted $27 million in donations and has built an endowment fund of about $12 million.

The gallery receives annual federal funding of about $49 million a year, which has remained constant in recent years. It spends about $8 million a year in acquisitions.

In total, there are 255 full-time positions at the gallery. The layoffs and reorganization efficiencies are expected to save the gallery about $2.1 million a year, said Mayer.

Like art galleries all over the world, the National Gallery has weathered hard times. When the gallery opened in 1998, it attracted more than 900,000 visitors. By 2008-2009, it was less than a third of that.

Last year, Mayer warned workers in an e-mail that the gallery was facing declining revenue and offered unpaid leave or early retirement to avoid layoffs. In September, eight guides and three other employees were laid off. The gallery’s director of public affairs, Joanne Charette, was let go in January.

Of the 27 eliminated positions, 10 are members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said Daniel Kinsella, president of the national component of PSAC, which represents museum workers.

Half of those jobs are with the foundation, mostly program officers who seek private sector funding.

“It sounds like there will be skeleton of a foundation,” said Kinsella.

Four of the remaining jobs belonged to PSAC members who work in programming for the public and schools with a fifth job at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Kinsella blames uncertain federal funding for the cuts.

“They’re trying to do the best they can with the budget,” he said.

“Private sector funding has dried up. It’s been a real struggle. If you talk to the cultural institutions in town, the private sector is not putting money into institutions.”

Mayer says the museum has not given up on pursuing private sector sponsorships.

“We still have a very ambitious membership program and sponsorship program,” he said. “We are separating the workload, but the work will be done.”

Mayer added that workers whose jobs have been eliminated have been offered a generous severance package and most got six months’ notice.

“We go out of the way to make sure the burden for these people is not severe. We really liked working with these people,” he said. “No one is taking this personally.”

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

"National Museum Mandates"

Posted on May 19, 2010 at 7:15 p.m.

This conversation, originally aired on CBC Radio 1 Ottawa (91.5 FM), raises important questions about the nature of public patrimony and the circumstances via which it should be available to the citizens who own it collectively.

"May 18, The National Gallery is cutting somesummer camps and art workshops in favour of taking its national treasures out on the road. So should galleries and museums be inviting the public to Ottawa... or taking the works out to the people?

Length of audio clip: 11:17

To listen, click here:

Here we go again...

Posted on June 11, 2010 at 10:27 a.m.

In a recent interview with the National Post, Mr. Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, re-kindled discussion relating to our open letter issued in March. He states:

“It does sometimes get scary what some artists and artists’ representatives will stoop to to try to get into the collection,” he said. “There’s been a lot of controversies and a lot of petitions. It’s young artists. Artists who’ve been out of school maybe for about a month.”

A brief response was added to the comment section of this article as follows:

10:08 AM on June 11, 2010

Re: “It does sometimes get scary what some artists and artists’ representatives will stoop to to try to get into the collection,” he said. “There’s been a lot of controversies and a lot of petitions. It’s young artists. Artists who’ve been out of school maybe for about a month.”

As a co-originator of an open letter directed to Mr. Mayer in March, I am intrigued by Mr. Mayer's statements above, and I invite National Post readers to review the letter and list of co-signers so they may try to glean what about the letter is so “scary”. I also invite them to search for the names of young artists scattered amongst the names of respected senior artists and cultural workers.

It is precisely the condescending tone Mr. Mayer continues to espouse that prompted a large share of the national arts community to seek clarification for the remarkably outdated statements he issued on CBC’s “The National” in February.

- Milena Placentile (a curator not remotely interested in trying to “get into the collection”)

Please find the complete article right here:

In response to "Who deserves to be on the West's canon?"

Posted on November 11 @ 10:20 a.m.

On November 6, The Vancouver Sun published "Who deserves to be on the West's canon?" by Douglas Todd.

Our letter to the Editor in response to this article, submitted on November 8, was constrained by a particularly short word count. Please find that text below. Beneath it is the full-length version as we originally intended.

Submitted November 8, 2010:

As the co-authors of “An Open Letter to Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada,” we are disappointed by Douglas Todd’s recent article “Who Deserves To Be On The West’s Canon?” (November 6, 2010). According to Mr. Todd, the letter accused Mr. Mayer “of being ‘hegemonic,’ favouring dead white men over women, ethnic minorities, and aboriginals, thereby marginalizing them.” It claimed no such thing and did not mention “dead white men.” At no point in the letter was Mr. Mayer or NGC called “racist.” Instead, the letter focused on the notion of excellence, which, like the “Western Canon,” is both extremely powerful and dangerously vague. It is important to remember that these are the distinctions of an elite that seeks to maintain power, ignoring those who disagree with them or have different perspectives. The problem is not who has shown work at NGC, but who will show work. All we want is a public forum for a debate about this. Why is this so scary?

The original open letter can be viewed here:

Emily Falvey (Montreal) and Milena Placentile (Winnipeg)

Original version:

As the co-authors of “An Open Letter to Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada” (March 1, 2010), we are disappointed by Douglas Todd’s recent article “Who Deserves To Be On The West’s Canon?” (November 6, 2010). Unfortunately, it misrepresents our efforts to hold the Director of NGC accountable for disturbing comments he made in a CBC program called “DiasporART” (February 2, 2010).

For an illustration of how cultural institutions, such as museums and media outlets, create skewed hierarchies of merit and importance, look not further than the history of this open letter. According to Mr. Todd, as the authors of this petition we “accused the National Art Gallery Director of being ‘hegemonic,’ favouring dead white men over women, ethnic minorities and aboriginals, thereby marginalizing them.” In reality, we said no such thing and made no mention of “dead white men.” At no point in our letter do we call Mr. Mayer or the National Gallery of Canada “racist.” While race is certainly our central theme, what we are more concerned about is the idea of excellence, which, like the so-called “Western Canon,” is extremely powerful and dangerously indefinite. There is no single, centralized list of artists belonging to the “Western Canon.” Historically, these kinds of hierarchies have created problems for minority groups, whose work might, for any number of reasons, be marginalized. For example, according to Mayer’s logic of excellence, if contemporary artists from British Columbia are not being given solo shows at the National Gallery of Canada, it is because they are not excellent. Not only is this notion ridiculous, it is offensive.

The problem is not who has shown their work at NGC (although its record of diversity is by no means perfect), but who will show their work given this new mandate. Mr. Mayer has told his side of the story in the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, and The Walrus. Over 300 professionals signed our letter—many of them artists whose work is already in NGC’s collection—yet no one from a major media outlet has contacted us for an interview, and this includes Mr. Todd. Instead of hearing calls for a wider public debate and meaningful discussion, we have been called names. All we want is a forum for a balanced public debate concerning cultural diversity at the National Gallery of Canada now and in the future. Why is this so scary?

Emily Falvey (Montreal) and Milena Placentile (Winnipeg)