Arts & Culture

Will Gauguin be the blockbuster show the National Gallery needs?

For the first time since 2012, the National Gallery of Canada is offering timed tickets to see their summer exhibition Gauguin: Portraits. It’s a sign of good things to come, they hope: the team at the gallery expects hundreds of thousands of people to visit this exhibition over the summer. 

More than 132,000 people came to see Impressionists Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection in 2018, while Van Gogh: Up Close of 2012 attracted 230,146. And while the Gauguin exhibition has popular appeal – after all, his name is one that immediately invokes images of South Seas splendor and vibrant colour, post-impressionist daring and high auction prices – this exhibition also furthers scholarship in the field. After all, it’s the first exhibition to focus uniquely on the portraiture aspect of his work, bringing together close to 70 works in sculpture, print, painting, and drawing from around the world. Gaugin: Portraits, aims to please one and all in an effort to keep visitors streaming through the doors of the museum. 

Left: Paul Gauguin, Young Christian Girl 1894, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Acquired in honour of Harding F.
Bancroft, Institute Trustee 1970–87; President 1977–87 (1986.22) W518. Right: Paul Gauguin Self-Portrait with Idol, c. 1893 McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay (1950.46)

According to the new CEO and Director of the National Gallery, Dr. Sasha Suda, there’s a perceived tension between so-called “blockbuster” exhibitions and those with more academic aspirations, “but that tension does not exist in a museum of the 21st century. Curators, educators, and programmers of today’s generation can do both – they can be smart and program to a wider audience,” she says. “It’s perfectly possible to explore complex ideas within the exhibition context and to unpack that for a general audience.” 

Reactions to Gauguin: Portraits have been polarized. Comment cards hanging on a wall at the end of the show have sung high praise, while others bluntly point out that this exhibition does nothing to acknowledge the darker side of the artist. Gauguin was a man fraught with contradiction and tension. His attitude to women, relationships, sex, and other cultures would be considered totally inappropriate in today’s climate. So the gallery is adding a panel to to explain how we have evolved in our understanding of these issues. 

“I believe that it is important that we take advantage of our Canadian context, this pluralistic climate that we live in, to address this difficult topic,” says Suda. “You don’t lose anything by bringing it into discourse. In fact, you create rich, textured conversations.” 

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848 – 1903), Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière, 1888 or 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1985.64.20

And that is one of Suda’s important goals in taking over leadership at the gallery; to create more conversations and context for the collection held in Ottawa. Presently, a large part of the gallery’s programming is created by outside curators. In fact Gauguin: Portraits, was co-curated by Cornelia Homburg, a freelance guest curator, and Christopher Riopelle, a curator at the National Gallery in London, where the show is headed in October. “Over the next five years, I’d like to see 75 percent of our programming generated internally, from ideas that give our collection more context.” 

Paul Gauguin Melancholic (Faaturuma), 1891 The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (38-5) Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand

Another goal, of course, is to encourage more visitors. Last year, 434,834 people walked through the doors of the gallery. That figure stands in contrast to the 1.34 million people who went to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and 950,841 to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. In its first year of opening, the new Ottawa Art Gallery, which has no admission fee, welcomed over 350,000 people. “One of the greatest lessons learned this past year, is that building an accessible cultural destination that is rooted in the community, works! When you remove barriers to participation, a diversity of people will not only visit the gallery, but take pride and ownership of it,” explains Alexandra Badzak. “When you frame a patron’s relationship with art beyond one paid circuit through the exhibition spaces and instead see it in terms of a repetition of touchpoints, conversations and experiences on site and online, you see the larger role that an art gallery can play within a city.”

“There’s no doubt that if you are free, more people will come,” says Suda. “It removes a barrier, assuming that one barrier is financial. If you are free, you encourage people to drop in.” 

Stephan Jost, CEO and Director of the AGO, is betting that this is the truth. Recently, he announced a one-year pilot project whereby the gallery will be free for those under 25 years old, and an annual pass for the over 25 crowd will cost just $35.  He’s hoping to make the AGO a habit and attract hundreds of thousands of new visitors. 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is headed in a similar direction. In 2017, the MMFA was $16 for those 16-30. In March 2019, in a move to simplify ticket pricing, they made admission free for those under 21.  

Entrance fees at the National Gallery are lower than those at the ROM, the most visited museum in Canada. “I believe that the only way to make art more relevant to a younger audience, is to make it more accessible,” explains Suda.

“One of our greatest gifts here in Ottawa is this amazing building, but we need to animate it more, to make the experience more immersive, so that it grabs you on entry. This is a great space to meet and to commune and we’ll be looking at ways to fill the public spaces with art, new ways to engage our audiences.”