THE BIG PICTURE: Why are foreign museums only interested in Group of Seven or Aboriginal art?
Artful Musing

THE BIG PICTURE: Why are foreign museums only interested in Group of Seven or Aboriginal art?

By Paul Gessell

This miniature chest, by Skidegate artist Thomas Moody, was modelled after the wooden chests designed to hold ceremonial objects in a chief’s home. 1900-1925 Thomas Moody (about 1877-1947). © McCord Museum, M5922.1-2 Photographer: Marilyn Aitken

The Canadian Museum of Civilization recently announced it is making plans to tour an exhibition of West Coast aboriginal art around several European countries during the next few years.

The exhibition — titled Haida: Life. Spirit. Art — previously appeared at Civilization and at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Most of the artifacts are owned by the McCord Museum but Civilization is spearheading the travelling project because of expertise developed over the years in forging foreign partnerships.

The announcement of this deal raises important questions: Why do foreign museums only seem interested in Canadian aboriginal art? Or is that all we offer them?

Civilization has, over the years, struck deals with China, Japan, Mexico, and other countries to give them aboriginal art exhibitions in exchange for exhibitions from those countries.

Aboriginal art seems to be the subject of practically all exported exhibitions by Canadian museums, with the exception of occasional travelling Group of Seven shows, usually organized by the National Gallery of Canada. One Group of Seven show just ended in London and was next to appear in Oslo, Norway.

Why is that? Don’t we have much more to offer than aboriginal art and gaudy landscapes? Such questions were recently put to Mark O’Neill, director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

O’Neill says that foreign interest in Canadian aboriginal art remains high but he would like to see other types of travelling exhibitions, such as shows on Canadian design and shows harvested from the 13,000 artworks in the collection of the Canadian War Museum.

Foreign visitors are often amazed at the size and quality of that war art collection, says O’Neill. Surely our allies from the two world wars would be interested in seeing how our artists depicted battles on their homelands. Has anyone ever tried to organize such a show?

The Dutch, for instance, see Canadian soldiers as their liberators. They treat Canadian war veterans with great respect and affection. Surely, they would also embrace our war art, including paintings by superstar Alex Colville done in The Netherlands.

O’Neill also says that all the national museums, including the National Gallery, should be co-operating in creating travelling exhibitions of art and artifacts in their respective collections.

“I think we can do more,” says O’Neill. “I think we need to do more.”

He is right. The National Gallery especially could do more to tour Canadian artists. A-list contemporary artists such as Janet Cardiff, Jeff Wall, David Altmejd, and Brian Jungen are frequently the subject of solo exhibitions abroad. But those tend to be organized by foreign institutions. Surely, the federal Foreign Affairs Department could do more to promote contemporary artists abroad. Instead, the department has decreased its aid over the years. Such retrenchment hobbles any attempts to rebrand Canada, so it is perceived as something more than a land where the only art worth viewing is aboriginal art.