Working closely over the last two year to help lead the charge through an extraordinary journey of ups, downs, changes, and more changes for our notable visual arts institutions in Ottawa, Alexandra Badzak, Director and CEO of the Ottawa Art Gallery, takes a moment to reflect and look forward with Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Ottawa.
If we don’t [rise to the occasion] then we should expect a fast drift from the collective imagination of society. This is our moment!
– Sasha Suda, Director and CEO, The National Gallery of Canada
Alex: So Sasha, it has been quite the roller coaster ride over the last two years, as we have navigated our galleries through the pandemic, significant societal shifts and “the convoy.” I think we can safely say that we learned some great lessons that we can take forward. What stands out for you?
Sasha: I sincerely believe that the pandemic revitalized societal engagement with our sector – visual arts provided something bigger than us to contemplate, and our organizations provided a respite for our local communities. We also learned that not everyone feels welcome, safe, or included in our organizations and, more than ever, visual art museums have been challenged to walk the walk. This level of engagement is, in my view, unprecedented—it provides so much amazing encouragement for our teams and Boards to rise to the occasion. If we don’t, then we should expect a fast drift from the collective imagination of society. This is our moment!
Alex: Exactly! We run unique and vital spaces. I think we are now acutely aware of the powerful, curative role art plays. However, as you say, it has also afforded us the opportunity to work differently and address major inequities through our institutions. At OAG, we have flexed new muscle in working with equity-seeking communities on shared, long-term initiatives and we have found new ways of supporting artists.
Sasha: In this vein, we had time to work on ourselves – to stop travelling (!!!) and invest in the work culture that we want to see. Thanks to the time together afforded by COVID, we launched our first-ever strategic plan: Transform Together. It was amazing to see the team’s commitment to broadening the impact of the work that we do – to establishing shared values and committing to sticking to them in everything that we do.
Alex: These are pivotal, foundational changes, Sasha, well done! I know that this is not easy to do in a large institution like the NGC, but you have done it collaboratively and with aplomb! What new practices or initiatives have resulted?
Sasha: When COVID hit, and our doors closed, we realized quickly how much more track we had to lay to better support our partners across the country. We are on the cusp of launching an incredibly important outreach program, which will become a permanent part of our curatorial, loans, and acquisitions program. It is based on the fundamental principle that the National Collections needn’t and shouldn’t live just within our city limits. It will challenge us, and it will help us to stretch to become an institution in service of the communities for which it exists.
Alex: Great news! I know we share a belief in the importance of collaboration and I am particularly pleased that we will be partnering on presenting Yinka Shonibare’s work at the OAG. His magnificent piece, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads from the NGC’s permanent collection, allows us to bring an international voice in dialogue with two powerful exhibitions by regional artists Jobena Petonoquot (Kitigan Zibi) and Stanley Wany (Chelsea/ Montreal).
Sasha: We are also continuing to work hard to loan the extraordinary works that are in the National Collection and thrilled to be working with the OAG on an upcoming loan. The OAG has been extraordinarily responsive in these difficult times – and we love being able to lend to your amazing projects. We hope to do more of this, with less red tape (!) as time goes on. The team has developed much more nimble processes and innovative virtual options for collection travel.
Alex: I will say that one positive take-away for me is the support we have seen with our colleagues across the country and internationally. In particular I have valued our regular chats; a safe space to voice challenges and to have a laugh!
Sasha: Alex, we started by speaking weekly during the pandemic! I got to know you through those early morning calls – you were always fully prepped and sitting at your desk, while I was hiding somewhere still in my pjs hoping my family wouldn’t interrupt us! I was so excited to meet you for lunch, finally, last summer. We had such an honest and vulnerable conversation – I thought, I love talking to another female leader. I have so much admiration for what you and the entire OAG team do for the people and artists of Ottawa and beyond. The OAG is so clearly an institution in service of its city. The whole sector is playing close attention and happy that you are doing what you do.
Alex: Thanks Sasha, same back at you!