Canada Day, 1 July, ushers in a new era for the presentation of Modern and contemporary Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. The 13,000 sq. ft. J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous and Canadian Art—which added the "Indigenous" to its name just last year when the museum established a Department of Canadian and Indigenous Art—is due to open reimagined galleries that give primacy to First Nations and Inuit art for the first time.
The message—correcting what indigenous art curator Wanda Nanibush calls "a historical inequity"—begins at the museum's entrance. "Right away, in the main court, you see an installation of Inuit art," said Georgiana Uhlyarik, curator of Canadian Art, "and then when you walk up the stairs to the second floor, where Canadian art is featured, you see a new installation of indigenous art, two sculptures."
In each McLean gallery, "contemporary indigenous art starts the conversation with Canadian art", says Nanibush, who became the AGO's first curator of indigenous art in 2016. Nanibush and Uhlyarik have designed the centre's display of about 75 works around six themes dictated by works in the collection: origins, self, land, water, transformations and "indigenous2indigenous".
They avoided a chronological installation that would have moved through the decades and styles of Canadian art, on the grounds that "Canadian art [would decide] where indigenous art fits in", Nanibush says. "It doesn't allow for indigenous art to speak on its own terms."
The new galleries do show works by such Canadian artists as Lawren Harris and Joyce Wieland, but they don't dominate.; they're usually paired with indigenous artists.
Works by Canadian artists such as Emily Carr and Florence Carlyle, to name two, are hung in dialogue with works by indigenous artists including Carl Beam and Rebecca Belmore, who will have her largest ever solo show at the museum this summer (12 July-21 October). For instance, in the "self" gallery, Belmore's Rising to the Occasion (1987-91), a dress that the Anishinaabe-kwe artist wore in a performance responding to a royal visit to Ontario (above left), is paired with Joanne Tod's painting Chapeau Entaillé (1989) of a woman in a similar dress (at right).
All told, the centre has increased the number of gallery spaces dedicated to Inuit art from one to three, and contemporary indigenous art fills a large new gallery of its own. Labels in the McLean Centre are now written in indigenous languages (either the local Anishinaabemowin language or Inuktitut), as well as English and French.
Other museums have used similar approaches in special exhibitions, but the curators believe this is the first time a permanent collection has been installed this way.
The AGO is not neglecting other Canadian art. Its Thomson Collection is present in 16,000 sq. ft. of galleries in a traditional, chronological way. "That's not being touched," says the museum's director, Stephan Jost. "In any healthy, successful museum, you have to allow for multiple narratives."