The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, has recently announced their upcoming exhibitions in hopes to drum up interest. Included in the list is “Monet: A Bridge to Modernity” opening on 29 October 2015 and running through until 15 February 2016. The show is supposed to showcase Monet’s experiments with the bridge motif in his paintings with accompanying illustrations, Japanese prints, and nineteenth century photographs. Goodness. How many times have we seen curated shows of Monet with these comparative pieces and long-winded explanations of how the light is captured in his brushstrokes? It is basic art history and theory. That gentle moan and exhale are the yawns heard round the world.
To be clear, this is not a slant on Monet or his work. Personally, I am a fan. What I am not a fan of, however, are supposed world-class museums and galleries consistently taking the easy route with their exhibitions and offering little more than entry-level exhibitions contributing little challenge to accepted art historical notions. Which brings me to the seminal question for government-funded institutions: just how far will they let government involvement dictate their curatorial strategy? How much will they compromise major special exhibition opportunity in favour of, frankly, boring shows conforming to political ideology or agenda?
In Canada, public art institutions function similar to public institutions in the UK in that they generally operate at an “arms length” from the government. The government helps fund the institution and has a certain influence over the curatorial approach and overall company strategy. The NGC operates as a Crown Corporation in Canada and as such, supposedly has less interference from government agenda allowing more freedom. Crown Corporations in Canada blossomed after the First and Second World War as a strategy for nation-building in an increasingly divided country between French and English speaking demographics from diverse ethnic backgrounds. With government involvement, both at the provincial and federal level, Canadian government could have a certain amount of control over the direction of numerous public companies. For the NGC, its status dates back to 1990 as a federal Crown Corporation meaning that the federal government has involvement with the organization. This federal versus provincial distinction is significant considering the current leadership.
Governed by the Conservative Party of Canada, the nation has seen huge government funding cuts across the liberal arts field including scientific research, art galleries and museums, and arts education programs at all levels over the past nine years of conservative dictatorship…oops, I mean governance. For the NGC, we can see year after year, fewer and fewer thought-provoking exhibitions as government subsidies are whittled away and the company resorts to basic shows accessible to the general public in an obvious effort to bring in larger crowds. Token famous artists on exhibition equals a larger draw, is the general rule of thumb, it seems. It is truly a shame. As mentioned in earlier articles, this is not to argue that there are not talented curators and individuals running these major institutions (evidenced by many smaller peripheral exhibitions by leading artists), rather there can be an argument made for these galleries being the victim of circumstance. In Canada where there is hardly a contemporary art scene at the public level like that in London, institutional validation could make the world of difference for the larger art market. But with safe shows consistently being exhibited as a result of dwindling government funding and visitor numbers, there continues to be slow growth in taste and validation in the market with another boring fall exhibition season on the horizon in Ottawa.