High-profile curators fired in National Gallery of Canada purge

The gallery’s interim director and CEO, Angela Cassie, announced the dismissals in an internal memo Friday afternoon, saying they were part of a restructuring.

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The National Gallery of Canada’s curator of Indigenous art, Greg A. Hill, and its chief curator, Kitty Scott, were among four high-ranking gallery staff dismissed Friday afternoon in a purge that shocked the Canadian arts community.

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The gallery’s interim director and CEO, Angela Cassie, announced the dismissals in an internal memo Friday afternoon, saying they were part of a restructuring “made to better align the Gallery’s leadership team with the organization’s new strategic plan.”

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Hill, who was named Audain Chair and Senior Curator of Indigenous Art in 2007 as part of a $2-million endowment from Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain, said he’s still trying to understand why he was sacked.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Hill, who has worked at the gallery for 22 years.

“For me to be declared surplus in a department that’s been chronically understaffed, holding a position that’s unique as it’s the only position that’s endowed within the entire gallery, it’s hard to make sense of that,” he said.

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“It was as sudden as the news release. You don’t get any advance notice of these things. You’re just called into a meeting and told, ‘This is what’s happening and these are the reasons’ ” — the same reasons Cassie listed in her memo.

Stephen Gritt, the gallery’s director of conservation and technical research, and Denise Siele, senior manager of communications, were also dismissed. One observer likened it to a “palace purge”, although in this purge the only one left standing was Cassie, who took over as interim director in July when former director Sasha Suda left for a job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In her memo to employees, Cassie said the gallery wouldn’t be saying anything more about the firings because of privacy concerns.

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Hill responded shortly after he was let go in his own Instagram post, which has been widely shared.

“I want to put this out before it is spun into meaningless platitudes,” he wrote. “The truth is, I’m being fired because I don’t agree with and am deeply disturbed by the colonial and anti-Indigenous ways the Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization is being run. Full stop.”

Hill was asked to elaborate in an interview Monday.

“The department has that title, Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, and it’s existed for nine months now,” he said.

“During this time, I’ve been trying to work with my management team to define that. What does that mean? What are ‘Indigenous ways’ at the National Gallery of Canada? What can they be? How do we move forward and how do we decolonize? These are questions I still have and there has not been a dialogue on that. Questions have not been answered, and it has not been appreciated that I would dare to raise these questions and continue to press these questions.”

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“Indigenous ways of knowing and being” is one of five pillars of the National Gallery’s five-year strategic plan, unveiled last year. It vows to make the gallery welcoming to the Indigenous community and to work with Indigenous leaders to incorporate Indigenous ways across the organization, internally and externally.

“There have been many words and our path was set out in the strategic plan,” Hill said. “What I’m trying to do is move beyond words to actions.”

He downplayed any conflict with Cassie, who came to the gallery in 2021 from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

“The media interest in conflict steers away from the main points,” he said. “Yes, an institution is dysfunctional in various ways, but I’m more interested in talking about ways that it can still move forward.

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“The thing that I see that’s so tragic is the loss of potential. Not for myself. I’ve had a good run. This is about the great potential of that place to really advance the promotion of Indigenous art and supporting contemporary Indigenous artists, and sharing that knowledge and experience of everyone in this country who is trying to move forward and understand each other and live in conciliation and, at some point in the future, reconciliation.”

Hill put together a 2006 exhibit of the works of Norval Morrisseau and the huge and successful 2013 show Sakahàn, an Algonquin word for “to light a fire” that brought together works from 75 Indigenous artists from around the world.

“This global momentum is leading to this exhibition here. … Having an exhibition like Sakahàn is a very strong statement of how far the National Gallery is going to recognize the vitality of Indigenous art,” Hill told the Citizen at the time.

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The gallery added more than 1,300 pieces of Indigenous art to its collection during its tenure.

Scott was the gallery’s curator of contemporary art from 2000 to 2006, when she brought the gallery’s iconic spider “Maman” to its prominent place outside the gallery’s entrance. After a stint at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Scott returned to the NGC in 2019 as the first woman to be named chief curator.

“It is exciting to have Kitty Scott return to the National Gallery of Canada at a moment when we are re-engaging with our mandate in new, bold ways,” Suda, the former director, said at the time.

“Kitty’s depth of experience, both nationally and internationally, and her future-forward vision for building collections and programs will enable us to resonate with our audiences across Canada and the world.”

Scott and Siele did not respond to requests for comment.

HIll, an Indigenous artist whose father is a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River and whose mother is French, said he’s looking forward to putting more energy into his “own artistic voice.”

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