By Paul Gessell
The folks at the National Arts Centre were all smiles this week because of their newest acquisition, Glenn Gould’s Steinway CD 318 grand piano, which is surely one of the most important cultural artifacts in the country.
The NAC’s gain is a loss for Library and Archives Canada, a federal institution that once was a major cultural force in the national capital but, through a mixture of bad management, federal belt-tightening, and petty politics, is becoming a mere has-been.
What was formerly known as the National Library of Canada acquired Gould’s favourite piano in 1983, a year after the musician’s death. Part of the old National Library’s mandate was to collect all aspects of musical Canadiana — sheet music compositions and, in the case of famous musicians, their personal belongings, including their instruments.
Since being acquired, the piano has been on public display at the Library and Archives headquarters on Wellington Street. There, the piano was used frequently for concerts and receptions, sometimes on a weekly basis.
Staff there were so fond of the piano they had a good-bye party for it before moving the instrument to the NAC where, now and possibly forever, it sits on the mezzanine level behind a little fence and will be played occasionally for receptions and during intermissions of performances in Southam Hall.
The piano is not the first or last instrument to be given away by Library and Archives. The Canadian Museum of Civilization already has been given a collection of guitars from rock legend Randy Bachman. As well, there are a couple of historically significant Greta Kraus harpsichords Library and Archives is hoping to place in a good home somewhere.
Perhaps this is all a good thing. Library and Archives is not exactly a vibrant institution these days and simply may not be capable of preserving our cultural heritage.
The budget and staff of Library and Archives continues to shrink. The institution no longer stages exhibitions in its Wellington Street building. And, one must remember, this is the institution that now has presided over the death off three museums put in its care: The political caricature museum that lived briefly in the Byward Market in the building now housing the Karsh-Masson Gallery, a proposed history museum in the old downtown train station and, most famously, the Portrait Gallery of Canada that was to be in the former U.S. embassy on Wellington Street.
Now, one can’t blame Library and Archives bureaucrats for totally bungling those three museums. Some prime ministers past and present must also shoulder the blame. Nevertheless, Library and Archives seems jinxed. Frankly, it may not be the best place to go if you have some historically significant documents or objects that should be preserved for eternity.
I do not know how far Library and Archives plans to go in downsizing. But, keep your eyes on eBay. Surely, someone viewing that online shopping site would offer a good price for a couple of harpsichords owned by the late Greta Kraus, the Canadian woman considered one of the best harpsichordists of the 20th century.