From Neglect to Splendour

A dazzling work of scholarship dissects the tumultuous history of Canada’s premier art institution.

A half century ago, when I first went to Ottawa from Oxford University to join the Canadian foreign service, I still remember the shock. The city was so damn ugly. There were the marvellous neo-gothic Parliament buildings and the rest was an eyesore.

I was barely aware of the existence of the National Gallery of Canada. Although I had become interested in art while a student overseas, and had even begun to be a modest collector of prints and drawings, the National Gallery was not a place I had thought of as a destination. I knew from my travels that in Paris you went to the Louvre, in New York to the Met, in Washington to the National Gallery. But in Ottawa … well, that was a different matter.

My colleagues and I in the public service of the Government of Canada in the decades following World War II were educated, reasonably cultivated and interested in culture. But the National Gallery was hardly visible on our intellectual or physical landscape, tucked away as it was in the Victoria Museum on Metcalfe Street. The ink on the 1951 report of the Massey Commission on Arts and Letters was not long dry. There was no National Arts Centre or any adequate venues for theatre, music and the arts. Ottawa was strictly a political town, and an insular one at that.

During the 1950s, however, the winds of change finally began to blow, although quite gently and in varied directions. A proposal to build a new gallery on the Rideau River on a site now occupied by the Ottawa City Hall came to naught. In 1960, the Gallery moved from its off-centre location to prime real estate just off Confederation Square. The Lorne Building, a newly constructed office box, squat and graceless, was meant to be only a temporary home for the Gallery, but in this marvellously accessible new location, the Gallery was coming in from over half a century in the cold.1

Also, an exceptionally glamorous, gifted and exciting man, Alan Jarvis, had just been appointed the Gallery’s third director. His predecessor, H.O. McCurry, had, in the few preceding years, been successful in obtaining government support to buy a group of important Old Master paintings from the collection of the Prince of Lichtenstein. The Gallery’s annual report at the time stated that these acquisitions “lifted the National Gallery of Canada from the status of an interesting smaller collection into the company of the world’s most important collections.” This was far from the truth, but the acquisitions gave at least some people in Ottawa a sense of what the National Gallery could or should be, but was not.

Even with these developments, the presence of the National Gallery was still barely discernable. That it impinged on the collective consciousness of the Ottawa community at all was largely a result of exploding tensions between the Diefenbaker government and Jarvis. These provided theatre for the local population, myself included, who were astonished by the government backing off from commitments for further purchases from the Lichtenstein and other collections, and by such antics as the denunciation of Picasso as a communist by the Minister of Finance, Donald Fleming. (The Gallery had just purchased Picasso’s “The Small Table of 1919.”) Jarvis was driven from the land of the Philistines, a broken man. The humiliations he had received at the hands of the government, including being pushed out shortly before the opening of the Gallery’s new home on Cartier Square, led to a long and sad decline in his health and his early death in Toronto a dozen years later.

The truth was that the National Gallery had no champion in government. It was not a priority on anyone’s political agenda, not a source of national pride for Canadians and not a centrepiece in the cultural life of our country; on the contrary, it was a marginal institution. Its tragedy was to be located in Ottawa. The Gallery was regarded with indifference by the local population and hostility by politicians who resented spending on showpieces far from their constituents.

The Gallery suffered a terrible setback when Charles Comfort replaced Alan Jarvis after he was chased out of Ottawa. Comfort made Ottawa the venue for a disastrous exhibition in 1962—that of the Chrysler collection—which was exposed as full of fakes. This did not help put the National Gallery in “the company of the world’s most important collections.” But it did mark one of the only two occasions in a decade that Canada made the front page of the New York Times (the other being de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre” speech).

There is no precise date I can pinpoint for when the fortunes of the National Gallery began to turn around. But it was certainly during the Trudeau years and owes much to Trudeau personally. He and his closest political advisor, Michael Pitfield, understood that, in the political environment of Ottawa, a home to display the national art collection would never be built unless resources were set aside in an independent Crown corporation created for the sole purpose of building the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilization. As it was, two attempts by Trudeau’s ministers to question the project had to be overruled. It was Trudeau who believed that a century of paralysis was long enough. The appointment of Jean Sutherland Boggs as director of the Gallery in 1966 was also of immense significance, because she brought impressive credentials and a reputation that far surpassed any of her predecessors, as well as an awesome determination and independence of mind.

Great changes were also taking place in the post-Expo 67 cultural environment in Ottawa. Political attitudes toward culture began to shift as Canadians increasingly recognized that it is difficult to build national pride on second-class institutions. Within the federal government, the role of museums in our national identity led to the creation of the National Museums of Canada and the search for a national museums policy. By act of Parliament in 1968, the National Gallery and three other national museums were absorbed into this new administrative body, which had the status of a Crown corporation, a development Jean Boggs vigorously opposed. The National Gallery legally ceased to exist, and Boggs, while remaining director, lost her status as a deputy minister. A short-lived and controversial institution that self-immolated in the midst of bureaucratic warfare after only two decades of existence, the National Museums of Canada helped, even through its failure, to focus attention on the importance of museums in our national life.

When Moshe Safdie’s glorious building opened on Sussex Drive in 1988, at a cost of $123 million, its effect was transformative. Sussex Drive became the grand ceremonial route it was always intended to be and the city, perhaps for the first time, began to take on the aura of a significant cultural and architectural centre. Thanks to Safdie, Ottawa was experiencing the “Bilbao effect” more than a decade before Frank Gehry created that phenomenon.

One wonders whether Douglas Ord would have written his immensely learned and encyclopedic book on the National Gallery had Safdie not built that structure. A very large portion of his lengthy text (some 250,000 words in all) is devoted to the architecture of the building. As when one enters the Gallery itself, with its monumental ramp that leads to the collections (much analyzed by Ord for its metaphysical meanings, references, symbolism and theoretical underpinnings), the reader does not get into the story of the National Gallery as an institution without first working through Ord’s dense discourse on the building’s architecture and its interpretation.

But one should not be discouraged, because when Ord deals with the history of the Gallery and its various directors—Eric Brown, H.O. McCurry, Alan Jarvis, Charles Comfort, Jean Boggs, Hsio-Yen Shih, Joseph Martin, Shirley Thomson and Pierre Théberge—his account of their struggles, weaknesses, successes and failures is gripping, insightful and highly informative. His book is a product of dazzling learning. He has done the cultural history of our country great service by the seriousness of his ambition, his exhaustive research and analysis. The result of immense labour and erudition, Ideas Art Architecture will be a scholarly source of information for decades to come.

Ord is not generous in his judgements about those at the helm of the National Gallery for much of its history. Nevertheless, given the philistinism and obscurantism that were the hallmarks of Ottawa at the time, and given the downright hostility toward spending on the visual arts, it is not surprising that the careers of some of the directors were tumultuous and that those directors often felt defeated and despairing. The treatment they received from the government helped destroy the health of two directors— Alan Jarvis and Hsio-Yen Shih (neither has Ord’s sympathies)— and made most of the others miserable.

If there is any hero in Ord’s book, it is Jean Sutherland Boggs. The “very existence of a National Gallery Building,” he writes, “would be in many ways a function of Jean Boggs’s will, subtle influence, and—at times—even manipulative ruthlessness.” But even if she had the most positive impact, her career was also, to put it mildly, very tumultuous.Her resignation took place after years of battle over the site of the new National Gallery (there was a plan to erect it at an inaccessible location near the Ottawa River and then on Wellington Street near the National Library) and she felt marginalized throughout that process. After a decade of bureaucratic warfare, Boggs left her native land to spend many years in the U.S. as a professor of art history at Harvard and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, before returning, at Trudeau’s request, to head the new corporation that was to build the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilization.

Ord is particularly interesting when he describes the Christian Science beliefs of several of the key figures in the early history of the Gallery. Eric Brown, director from 1910 to 1939, and his successor, H.O. McCurry, director from 1939 to 1955, were devout Christian Scientists, establishing, as Ord puts it, “a forty-four year rule by Christian Science directors.” Sir Edmund Walker and Harvey Southam, both chairmen of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees during the 44-year rule, were also Christian Scientists.

Ord makes much of this, asserting that the Christian Science directors introduced “into the developing history of the National Gallery a sense of mission that conflated the national interest with ‘spiritual’ improvement via art and, following from this, a pattern of exclusions based on principles that were as much metaphysical as aesthetic.” Of Eric Brown, for example, he writes: “his legacy was also one of excluding these works of art that did not conform to his metaphysical principles and to his implicit adaptation of Plato’s goal of a ‘salubrious region’ where people might ‘receive benefit from all things about them.’” In other words, Christian Science was a factor that led the directors to exclude for the most part experimental and avant-garde artists from the collection, even extending this ban to U.S. art at mid century. They thus ensured the Gallery’s “utter marginalization from the major trends in art” at the time.

But after Ord’s repeated deconstruction of texts to demonstrate the Christian Science directors’ commitment to “spiritual goals” and after much discussion of Mary Baker Eddy, Platonic idealism, theosophy and Mme. Blavatsky, one is left wondering about the significance of all this. Would the directors have been less conservative or more venturesome in their acquisitions if they were not Christian Scientists? Would they have bought more Picassos, Pollocks and Matisses? Would they have collected fewer paintings by the Group of Seven? Would the collections have taken a markedly different form if the directors were atheists or Catholics? One may be forgiven for doubting.

One finds oneself asking if the author is not prone to over-interpreting or over-reading the texts that he relies on to support the profusion of opinions, arguments, themes, ideas and conclusions that abound throughout the book. I found myself constantly wanting more story and fewer metaphysical principles. The facts themselves are so gripping that one regrets the freight of theory and opinion they carry on almost every page.

The over-reading invades even the marvellous photographs that accompany the text. A photograph of McCurry carries the following caption: “McCurry’s own off-centre placement in this photograph, along with the sheets on the floor and the shrouds on the furniture, convey a subtle sense of the recessiveness of the National Gallery during his tenure.” Not to this reader. The caption under a photograph of Jean Boggs at an exposition of works by Dan Flavin at the Gallery refers to the expression on Boggs’s face and says the photograph “suggests she was reaching the limit of her patience with contemporary art.” I know that face and you could have fooled me. A photograph of Trudeau congratulating Boggs on her appointment in 1982 to head the new corporation to build the Gallery is described thus:

The dense subtexts of a relationship between two deeply private, complex, and powerful people that stretched back nearly four decades are suggested in the facial expressions of Boggs and Trudeau themselves as they reached to shake hands.

Subtexts there may be, but they entirely escaped me.

Even more bizarre is Ord’s description of a picture of Trudeau and Boggs at the Gallery exhibit opening of Jacob Jordaens Tapestries in 1968, an image, he writes, “fraught with innuendo.” “Trudeau and Boggs,” he continues, are “seated beneath a tapestry in which a muscular male knee seems to thrust from behind her head like a phallus, even as the corsage above the breast, and the folds of drapery behind Trudeau’s head, are densely feminine. Was Trudeau whispering only about the tapestries?”

In fairness, I should say I am sure that Ord would not agree with my comment that his discussion of ideas, thinking and ideals of the leading players in the history of the Gallery, in particular Lawren Harris, Vincent Massey and the Christian Science directors, has the effect of adding unwanted freight to his story. Referring to doctrine shaped by Plato’s metaphysics and other spiritual influences, the author explains: “How this pattern [of influence] shaped the history of the National Gallery between 1910, when Brown became the Gallery’s first full-time curator, and 1988, when Safdie’s building opened, makes for a story whose currents are so outside the mainstream of public discussion in Canada as perhaps to explain why it has for so long gone ignored.”

Ord might well be right. These currents are certainly outside the range of my discourse. It is true, of course, that the “spiritual” sense, perhaps triggered by the horrors of the Great War, was part of a North American and European phenomenon that ranged from admirers of Thoreau and Emerson to Blavatsky, and infected poets, painters and novelists in many lands including Canada. Here it influenced virtually all our leading painters of the day from Emily Carr and David Milne to the Group of Seven. (The mystical sense seemed to have a particular attraction to northerners.)

Yet I can’t suppress the urge to doubt whether these “metaphysical” principles are so fundamental to the story of the National Gallery as to necessitate their infusion into page after page of Ord’s history.

To my mind, what is most surprising about the National Gallery is not the metaphysics and mystical ideals but the fact that, with all the turmoil, indifference, neglect and hostility, it has still managed to achieve such an outstanding reputation in the world. This is true both for the quality of its collections and for the exhibitions it has mounted in conjunction with some of the world’s leading museums. It has benefited from outstanding scholarship, serious research and highly competent expertise. In the shadow of all the dark forces at work, this is the true miracle of the National Gallery.

More than architecture and ideas, the National Gallery is the story of unappreciated people whose commitment to the highest standards of excellence led to the creation of one of the finest art galleries in the world. Ord does justice to many of the deserving curators, but could have told us more—for example, about brilliant past curators such as Kathleen Fenwick and Douglas Druick, to name only two who made the National Gallery a true international destination.

Regrettably, most Canadians do not appreciate the superb quality of the collections and the curatorial achievements of our National Gallery. I believe this is due, in part, to the fact that the directors and the curatorial staff of the National Gallery have for decades hidden their light under a bushel. There was something almost hermetic about the institution in its devotion to its collection and its mission, an aura of reclusivity, of turning inward to protect itself against the barbarians of the day. But somehow the priests bought great art on tiny budgets. They built the collections without the Mellons, Fricks, Kresses, Huntingtons, Havermeyers, Annenbergs and other private patrons who so enriched the great U.S. institutions through their gifts. This is the Gallery’s greatest achievement.

While serving as Canada’s ambassador to Washington in the mid 1980s, I was approached by Carter Brown, celebrated director of the National Gallery in Washington, and its eminent chief curator Sidney Freedberg, both great admirers of the collections of the National Gallery. They requested that while the new National Gallery in Ottawa was being built it lend some of its great paintings for a major exhibit of “Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Canada.” The exhibition would have been held in conjunction with the opening of the new Canadian embassy being built across the street from the Gallery’s main building. Notwithstanding all efforts and, for reasons I will never fully understand, the National Gallery in Ottawa said no. An exhibition of master drawings from the Gallery’s collection was sent instead.

Now, with the Gallery’s dazzling new building on its magnificent site, home of splendid diplomatic events and official receptions, the days of inwardness are past. But there is still much work to be done to help Canadians understand that our National Gallery is the greatest national cultural asset in our public domain and deserving of strong and consistent financial support.

Douglas Ord’s book, notwithstanding the theorizing and metaphysics, goes a long way toward helping Canadians appreciate why we should celebrate it.


  1. The National Gallery of Canada began life with an 1880 exhibition at the Clarendon Hotel. In 1882, it moved into a two-room workshop on Parliament Hill, which it shared with the Supreme Court. In 1888, it was transferred to rooms over the Government Fisheries Exhibit on O’Connor Street. Its next home, starting in 1911, was three floors of the Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street, where it shared space with the Department of Mines and the Geological Survey. In 1960, it took up residence in the Lorne Building on Elgin Street, and in 1988 it finally moved into its own home.