There is good news in Ottawa, home to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), a city that has been under a state of emergency in the past due to the ongoing Freedom Convoy protest. The gallery, which had closed due to the rise of Omicron but delayed its reopening due to the protests, announced on February 8 that it had created a department of indigenous ways and decolonization, appointing Steven Loft as vice president of the department. Michelle LaVallee will assume the role of director starting March 21. The service will focus on reviewing and redesigning the gallery’s programming and policies to better reflect Canada’s diversity and its Indigenous peoples.
“This will build on the work of Indigenous gallery staff who have brought to life historic exhibitions such as the Alex Janvier retrospective and In badakonewhile building a rich collection of contemporary international Indigenous art,” Sasha Suda, the gallery’s director and general manager, said in a statement.
Loft, who is Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and also of Jewish descent, most recently served as Director of the Canada Council for the Arts, responsible for strategic initiatives for Indigenous arts and culture. He will work with Angela Cassie, the gallery’s vice president of strategic transformation and inclusion. “I’m thrilled to join the gallery team at such a transformational time,” Loft said during the announcement. “For Indigenous peoples and others who have not seen themselves in the stories of this land, it is time their stories were at the forefront of our shared journey of decolonization and building society.
LaVallee, who is Anishinaabe (Ojibway) and a member of the Neyashiingamiing Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Cape Croker, Ontario, with Canadian settler heritage from her mother, is currently the Director of the Center for Indigenous Art at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada in Gatineau, Quebec. Upon joining the gallery, she will work closely with Loft and other senior staff, as well as the curatorial department, including the Indigenous Art team.
“My career is dedicated to promoting Indigenous art and artists within institutions,” she said. “I believe the gallery is a site for telling stories and sharing knowledge with and in service of Indigenous peoples. I am invested in change and working to challenge historical relationships with art and history museums towards respect, trust, reciprocity and responsibility towards a new way of engaging with people, space and earth.
Loft has extensive experience as a curator, scholar, writer and media artist. In 2010, he was named a Trudeau National Visiting Scholar at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has been curator-in-residence of Aboriginal art at the National Gallery and has served as director or curator at galleries in Winnipeg (the Urban Shaman Gallery) and Hamilton (the Art Gallery of Hamilton). He has also written extensively for magazines, catalogs and arts publications and has co-edited two books.
As Director of the Center for Aboriginal Art, LaVallee was responsible for the development, maintenance and management of Canada’s oldest and only federal heritage collection devoted to Aboriginal art. She was curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina for a decade, winning numerous honors during her stay, including three Saskatchewan Book Awards. Among the artists she has worked with are Kent Monkman, whose work was recently featured in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Last year, across Canada, the Royal British Columbia Museum closed its galleries dedicated to local history, including Indigenous artifacts and architecture, to undertake what museum officials called “process of decolonization”.