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News / December 27, 2018

Roundup: Canada’s Top Art News Stories of the Year

A repatriation push, a deaccessioning scandal, and a federal court upset: these are some of the stories that led national art news in 2018
The Royal BC Museum's repatriation efforts gained more staff, and wider media coverage, in 2018. And are set to do more in 2019. Photo: Facebook / Indigenous Royal BC Museum. The Royal BC Museum's repatriation efforts gained more staff, and wider media coverage, in 2018. And are set to do more in 2019. Photo: Facebook / Indigenous Royal BC Museum.

Repatriation Efforts Gained Momentum

February 1, 2018, saw the first reading in the House of Commons of Bill C-391: “An Act respecting a national strategy for the repatriation of Aboriginal cultural property.” The bill was introduced by Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey. As CBC has reported, Casey created the bill after realizing a Mi’kmaq robe from the mid-1800s on display at Millbrook Cultural Centre was a copy—the original was in Melbourne, Australia. Though repatriation efforts have been underway in Canada for some years—particularly at the Royal BC Museum, which began offering repatriation grants in 2016—the new bill put repatriation back on the national media’s front burner. Stories followed: about some museums’ concerns about the bill, given existing provisions for repatriation in past legislation; about an expansion to the repatriation staff at the Royal BC Museum; about the Royal Ontario Museum’s work with Rainy River First Nations to return human remains and cultural objects; about the return of Inuit remains to Umiujaq and Kuujjuaraapik from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; about former MLA Manitok Thompson viewing hunting equipment and clothing belonging to her relatives currently kept in Washington; and much more. Dovetailing with stronger international pushes on repatriation, including many Easter Islanders’ wish that a moai be returned from the British Museum, and a French report recommending cultural objects in museum collections there be returned to African nations—not to mention a stellar scene about museums’ cultural theft in the blockbuster movie Black Panther—this long-term issue is something we are due to hear more about in 2019 and beyond.

Indigenous Public Art Projects Grew

From the Resilience project curated by Lee-Ann Martin that put art by Indigenous women on billboards across Canada this summer to ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ in Edmonton featuring permanent sculptures by Indigenous artists curated by Candice Hopkins, more emphasis was put this year on Indigenous art in public space. Both projects captured national and international attention, with more such projects hopefully to come in future. CBC also reported this year on the fact that there are an increasing number of murals and public artworks by Indigenous artists in Winnipeg—including a large-scale reproduction of Daphne Odjig’s Thunderbird Woman. Also in Winnipeg this fall, a nine-metre-tall metal sculpture named Nimamaa, meaning “my mother” in Cree, Ojibway and Michif, was installed by the Forks. Notable, too: The Calgary Public Library dedicated $500K to Indigenous public art at its new central branch, and Ottawa installed four public murals by Indigenous artists in July.

A New Indigenous Biennial Was Announced

The first Winnipeg Indigenous Biennial, themed on water, climate change and sustainability, is to commence in 2020. That’s the same year the Winnipeg Art Gallery is opening an Inuit Art Centre. “To Draw Water” is being curated by WAG curator of Indigenous art Jaimie Isaac and WAG/University of Winnipeg Indigenous art history chair Julie Nagam. The exhibition’s title drives from an Anishinaabegmowin concept, and the show will reflect on “issues of sustainability, climate change, and the environment,” says a release. It will feature emerging, mid-career and established Indigenous artists based in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

A Chagall Was Deaccessioned (and Not) at the National Gallery

Wider publics and media outlets rarely pay attention to Canada’s art scene the way they did in March, April and May of this year, when it came to light that the National Gallery of Canada was planning to sell one of its two Chagall paintings for an estimated $6 to $9 million USD at a New York auction—and do so with no public consultation or communication. Early inquiries to the gallery about the reason for the sale (inquiries made after Christie’s publicized the offering as a sale highlight) were returned with the intriguing statement that the Chagall was being sold in order to purchase a work of great national heritage value that was in danger of leaving the country. Two public petitions against the deaccessioning quickly began to circulate. After much speculation, Agence QMI journalists discovered that that work the NGC intended to acquire with Chagall-sale funds was a canvas by French neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David that had been in the collection of a Quebec City church for decades. What followed was even more drama—the refusal of the National Gallery leadership to consider co-acquiring the David with other Canadian museums; the Quebec government intervening to ensure the David stayed, for the time being, within the province, and therefore not move to Ottawa even if funds existed to purchase it; and a heated NGC board meeting, replete with several new board members, where the prior board-and-administration decision to sell off the Chagall was reversed. That reversal came with an estimated $1 million penalty to pay to Christie’s, a fee reportedly provided by BC patron and collector Michael Audain. In June, Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel returned to the National Gallery of Canada display galleries, where it will likely remain on view for some time.

An Auction House Took On Canada’s Cultural-Property Decision Makers

Another unexpected upset happened in June, when a federal court judge ruled in favour of Heffel auction house in a dispute the Heffel was having with the Cultural Property Export Review Board, or CPERB. Heffel had sold a Caillebotte painting from a BC collection to a foreign buyer, and it applied for an export permit. That export permit was denied by the expert examiner assigned by the Canada Border Services Agency, so Heffel appealed to CPERB, as is typical in such cases. CPERB, too, denied the export permit, judging the painting to be of significant value to Canadians under the guidelines in Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act. That resulted in the an export hold being put on the Caillebotte for a few months, until the Art Gallery of Ontario offered to buy it for its auction price. But then, in a fairly unprecedented move, Heffel filed a suit in federal court to contest CPERB’s ruling—and in an unusual decision, the judge in the case rejected the expert board’s judgment, agreeing with Heffel’s lawyers that CPERB and the expert examiner before it had evaluated the Canadian heritage value of this French Impressionist painting too loosely.

And Museums Suffered as a Result of That Same Court Ruling

By August, the Attorney General had filed an appeal in the Heffel decision, and leading Canadian museums were sounding the alarm bell on the ruling’s implications too. The leaders of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario and other art galleries sent a letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez; it stated, “Urgent action is required: Already, donations that were in progress – even from recognized Canadian collections – have been frozen, preventing our institutions from acquiring major works.” The museums also pointed out the narrowness of the original ruling in matters of national identity. “How can we exclude the cultures of the world from the building of our Canadian society, when that society is characterized by its very diversity?” said the letter. “Will we have to explain to the coming generations that international works of art … are to be banished from the Canadian imagination from now on?” Some museum leaders also debated the ruling with art dealers at the Art Toronto art fair in October. By December, a number of museums had earned the right to be intervenors in the appeal, which is slated for February 2019. (We asked: Is the problem really a narrow interpretation of the law? Or is it that the law itself, somewhat anomalous by international art law standards, needs to change?)

Some High-Profile Museum Leaders Departed

This year, some high-profile museum leaders affirmed their intentions to leave their institutions—and in some cases, the country. Marc Mayer, CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, said he would not renew his contract when it came up in early 2019. Heidi Reitmaier, CEO of MOCA Toronto, came on staff in January 2018 and in December announced her plans to leave—this time for the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a job more aligned to her past work in public programming and learning. (It seemed like a tough announcement for the MOCA, whose last CEO before Retimaier, Chantal Pontbriand, left after only 8 months in 2016.) Gregory Burke, leader of Saskatoon’s Remai Modern since 2013, and director of Toronto’s Power Plant before that, recently announced he would return to New Zealand to become director of the Auckland Art Gallery. Some long-time curators retired as well—such as Ian Thom of the Vancouver Art Gallery after three decades on the job.

The Biennale de Montréal Went Bankrupt

There are a decent number of biennials in Canada, but of late, the Biennale de Montréal was likely the best-known internationally. Its edition opened in 2016 featured works by Anne Imhof and Kerry James Marshall, to name just a couple of international luminaries. But in early 2018 the news came that it had gone bankrupt after failing to pay its workers for several months. Though debt amounted to just around $200,000, a Deloitte report stated “Since the 2016 fiscal year, the [biennale] has not been not able to create the balanced budget required to produce its events. According to its leadership, the realm of philanthropy is very competitive and projects needing support are numerous; the financing for the production of these fixed-cost events therefore represents a significant challenge.”

A Few New Museum Buildings Arrived

The wake of Canada’s cultural building boom continued in 2018, with the Ottawa Art Gallery opening its new facility in April and MOCA Toronto launching after repeated delays in September. The Royal Alberta Museum, now Western Canada’s largest museum, opened in October. Plans were announced for a new museum in Burnaby as well, though that won’t be complete until 2022. And the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal is closing for renos soon, due to reopen in 2021.

Art Museum Prescriptions Captured Attention

The Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal made international headlines this fall when it announced a pilot project permitting certain Quebec physicians to write prescriptions for a free museum visit. Though the idea of “social prescriptions”—prescriptions where doctors can recommend community activities for wellness—has been around for many years, particularly in the UK, the museum’s announcement seemed a big surprise for many in the North American context. The announcement was followed in December by one from the Royal Ontario Museum, which will be working with more than a dozen community health centres in the Toronto region on another museum-prescription pilot.

Canada’s Art and Museum Sectors Floundered on #MeToo

In January 2018, then Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters, “I’ve asked my department to make sure that our grants and contributions are linked to making sure that there’s zero tolerance for harassment in workplaces in our arts and cultural sector.” And yet, as the year played out, it became less certain how zero tolerance could actually play out in the art and museum sector specifically. In a welcome move, a Creative Industries Code of Conduct was released in March 2018. But that code was only signed by organizations in the acting, screen, broadcast and media sectors—not, notably, by art-, museum- or curatorial-focused organizations in Canada. In July 2018, the Royal Ontario Museum did put together a small “#MeToo & the Arts” exhibition—but the survivor whose story prompted that exhibition revealed that the museum didn’t listen to her wishes and recommendations. Also in July 2018, the Gardiner Museum was advertising a fundraising luncheon talk by lawyer Marie Henein titled “#MeToo, TimesUp… What’s Next.” That move surprised those who have worked with the Gardiner on a clay group for sexual assault survivors for over a decade, given that Henein’s successful defense of Jian Ghomeshi has concerned many contemporary Canadian #MeToo activists. (Following complaints, the museum changed the title of the talk to remove reference to #MeToo and TimesUp.) In September 2018, the Cultural Human Resources Council of Canada launched the beginning of its Respectful Workplaces in the Arts campaign, which is helpfully intended to provide useful resources for arts sectors in terms of sexual harassment and assault. But will be enough? Or what resources will join it? It’s one of many issues to keep following in 2019.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via