National Gallery moves toward decolonization with new strategic plan – Ottawa Citizen

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Author of the article:

Lynn Saxberg

Sasha Suda is the Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada.
Sasha Suda is the Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

A strategic plan is often something that can be knocked out by a team of executives on a two-day retreat.

But for an institution such as the National Gallery of Canada, with a wish list that included justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and decolonization, the process was far more inclusive, and involved listening to a lot of different voices. 

Released this week, the gallery’s first strategic plan in its 141-year history is the result of more than a year’s worth of work, begun shortly after director Sasha Suda joined the organization. The youngest NGC director in more than a century, she was determined to transform the glass palace on Sussex Drive into a “nimbler, more responsive, modern institution,” and make it relevant to Canadians of all backgrounds. 

The strategic plan is designed to embed the new values into the institution’s DNA, she said. “If we bake it into everything we do, then we’re going to set ourselves up for success,” Suda said. 

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In all, a team of more than 60 staffers participated in working groups to identify strategic pillars, while consultations were conducted with four Indigenous elders from the region. Statements on the gallery’s purpose, vision and mission were also composed. 

Angela Cassie. (Photo by Thomas Fricke)
Angela Cassie. (Photo by Thomas Fricke) Photo by Thomas Fricke /Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada

Angela Cassie, who joined the gallery last December as VP of strategic transformation, was tasked with the job of bringing the voices together to finalize a strategic plan unlike any other. Entitled Transform Together, it starts with five pillars that pledge to emphasize connections — with the community, the collection and the staff — along with a focus on Indigenous ways and investment in operational sustainability.

For her, the value of the work became clear during the second meeting with elders from the Algonquin nation, where they gifted the gallery with a word from their language to describe what officials were striving to achieve. The word, Ankosé, means “everything is connected.” 

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“I have to say it was one of the most profound moments because it provided such clarity to what we were trying to achieve,” Cassie said in an interview. “I often talk about these pillars as not being silos but as threads that we will weave together. Ankosé speaks to the strategy of how we want to collaborate.” 

Upon further reflection, she realized the word also reflects the connection between the building and its picturesque setting on the shores of the mighty Ottawa River, the unceded ancestral homeland of the Algonquin people. 

“It refers to our relationship to the land, the water and sky, as well as each other,” she said. “And when we talk about investing in operational resilience and sustainability, it’s connected to the efficiency of the building and the resources we consume. I think these teachings will inspire many areas of our work.” 

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A separate action plan to support the strategic vision is expected by fall, but visitors can see the newly formalized concepts and values in play when restrictions are lifted and the gallery reopens, likely next month. 

For example, this summer’s blockbuster summer show, Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition, not only explores the rise of the Dutch master but also features works that give a wider perspective, including contributions from Joana Joachim, a Black feminist art historian, Indigenous artist/curator Gerald McMaster and Six Nations knowledge keeper Rick Hill. Their work will examine the impact of the Dutch colonial project on Black and Indigenous peoples.

“This is an important step forward in how we integrate, not segregate, these voices in an exhibition, and we’ll continue to learn as we move forward so that it becomes part of our deeper practice,” said Cassie, a Winnipegger formerly with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 

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She also plans to establish an Indigenous advisory council, starting with representatives from the local community and working to include First Nations across the country. 

Despite the collaborative nature of the strategic planning process, Cassie refrains from describing the gallery’s efforts as groundbreaking, partly because people have been clamouring for institutions to be more inclusive for decades. Change is long overdue. 

“As a national institution, I think it’s part of our responsibility to share the learning. It comes from listening carefully, learning from others and understanding where we got it wrong so we can ensure that we continue to move forward on this journey,” she said. 

“If this inspires others to really centre Indigenous ways and practice anti-racism and anti-oppression, it will fundamentally change how we do work, and I think that’s really exciting.” 

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The National Gallery of Canada’s 5 strategic pillars

Strengthen community connections through transformative art experiences

Build a collection and program that inspires human connection

Empower, support, and build a diverse and collaborative team

Centre Indigenous ways of knowing and being

Invest in operational resilience and sustainability

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