Why Art Museums Matter. Visits to Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology, and Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario
Art viewed online can’t beat the sensuous and psychological whole-body-and-mind experience of moving through the spaces of an art museum, of standing up close and personal to original artworks and to cultural artefacts that bear their makers’ distinctive gestures—the luscious topography of brushstrokes gleaming under lights, the chisel marks, the stitching, the warp and weft. These wonders of imagination and skill were once touched by artists’ hands, and by the small breezes of their breath.
Public art museums are vital keepers of memory—preserving and conserving are core functions—reminding us of who came before, and of the universality of human preoccupations and narrative strands. Collections show how the past is connected to the present, and the present to the future.
Art reveals cultural lineages and evidence of each artist’s unquenchable yearning to make meaning both of the mysteries of existence and of the mundane—each work a potent personal response to the timeless questions of why we’re here and how we’re to live.
The word museum derives from the Greek mouseion, which means ‘seat, or shrine of the muses’. It’s fitting, because in this era, museums and galleries have become hallowed places of modern secular pilgrimage. People come looking for something deeper than first-glance aesthetic pleasure. A film-maker told me that art museums plug him into creative super-matrices where art’s blazing messages recharge him, inspire him, expand his ways of seeing and being.
Warning—art illuminates. Art matters.
The architecture of public museums and galleries matters too. If art is the building’s soul, the building is the body. Within the generous poetry of these spaces lies the capacity to inspire.
Early in September 2015, a friend and I drove up to the beautiful Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia near Vancouver. Founded in 1947 on traditional Musqueam land, it was purpose-built to exhibit a vast, themed collection; it displays hundreds of thousands of ethnographic and archaeological objects from world arts and cultures, but more particularly those of First Nation band governments of the Pacific Northwest. Inspired by the post-and-beam architecture of northern Northwest Coast First Nations peoples, and set among native vegetation, its present building was designed in 1976 by Arthur Ericson. The Great Hall houses majestic totem poles, and its soaring glass walls give dramatic views of distant mountains. The glass display cabinets and drawers in surrounding rooms are treasure troves bearing witness and paying homage to the complex history and continuity of Indigenous cultures.
Many older art museums and galleries built along classical lines are undergoing up-to-date exterior and interior transformations via architect-designed features that use local materials and pay homage to local settings.
In late September, I spent a spellbound day (could have spent a week) in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, home to 80,000 works dating from the first century to the present. Revamped in 2008 by celebrated Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry, a grand, swooping, wood-and-glass structure wraps the AGO’s north façade. From inside, the soaring glass wall seems to pull city streetscapes and skylines into the building, merging city with museum. I fell in love with British Columbia’s Douglas firs at the beginning of my trans-Canadian train journey. Gehry uses its fine-grained blond wood in the AGO in surprising and beautiful ways—his Baroque Stair is a marvel (see photos above and below). Although the museum’s collection includes art from all eras and all countries, I decided to feast only on Canadian art, both Indigenous and post-colonial, some of it pictured below. Fresh from gazing at the glories of Canadian landscapes on a recent Vancouver-to-Toronto train journey, the spectacular post-colonial landscape-painting collection gave me the glory all over again. The Indigenous art, as always, put me in reverent touch with other ways of ‘seeing’ connection with nature.
Be an art pilgrim. If you’re in Vancouver or Toronto, go—visit these inspirational storehouses of imagination and culture.
Below: A MOA and AGO photo essay—with captions.
1. Great Hall, MOA. From the MOA website: ‘MOA’s Great Hall displays huge totem poles, feast dishes, and canoes from the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Haida, and Coast Salish peoples, while smaller pieces in gold, silver, argillite, wood, and other materials are exhibited elsewhere in the galleries.’
2. Sculpture, The Raven and the First Men. Created over several years by Haida artist Bill Reid, and unveiled in 1980. The first large modern sculpture by a Northwest Coast First Nations artist to depart from the tradition of totem pole or monument carving—a blend of Haida form and mythic content, and Western naturalism. From Bill Reid: ‘The great flood, which had covered the earth for so long, had at last receded and the sand of Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii, lay dry. Raven walked along the sand, eyes and ears alert for any unusual sight or sound to break the monotony. A flash of white caught his eye and there, right at his feet, half buried in the sand, was a gigantic clamshell.He looked more closely and saw that the she’ll was full of little creatures cowering in terror in his enormous shadow. He leaned his great head close and coerced them to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world. These little dwellers were the original Haidas, the first humans’.
3. Haida house, totem poles and mortuary pole. Haida houses were built in village groups of up to twenty or more, and located facing the bountiful ocean. They were winter houses to return to after three seasons of temporary hunting and gathering camps. These plank houses were considered to be the dwelling of the living as well as of spirit ancestors. Life took place around a central fire below a roof smoke hole with movable planks. Built to withstand winter storms and wind, and to display wealth and importance, the construction used massive posts and beams, with walls of vertical hand-split planks fitted into slots. The main figures in Haida totem poles were crest symbols with which families identify their ancestry and privileges. These take the form of animals, humans and supernatural beings of significance in Haida cosmology. A Haida mortuary pole had a top cavity to hold the burial box. The remains of a chief or high ranking person were placed in the box a year after the death. The box was hidden by a frontal board, painted and/or carved with a lineage crest.
4. Great Raven Mask. This Kwakwaka’wakw people mask, called Walas Gwaxwiwe was made and danced in the years that Indigenous potlatching and ceremonials were illegal by federal law (1884-1951). It is rare, and only a few Kwakwaka’wakw families have a right to show such a powerful privilege. The right to this mask was acquired by hereditary Chief of the Kwikwasutinuxu, John Scow (1872-1934) as a dowry from his second wife T’lakwel
5. Haida stem-bent chest (yellow and red cedar 1850). These large chests were used to store the regalia, blankets and the treasured property of high-ranking Northwest Coast families. Some chests were used as coffins when the chief died. They were also regarded as holders of ideas. Chest were thought of as living beings, hence the stylised carved and painted eyes and faces on this chest.
6. Northwest Coast peoples’ carvings, Great Hall at MOA.
7. Inuit carvings, MOA.
8. Basket by Salish woman.
9. The Baroque Stair, by Frank Gehry, AGO. From the AGO website: ‘The Douglas fir-clad sculptural staircase rises from the second floor of Walker Court, through the glass ceiling and extends to the fifth floor of the Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art. It was one of the last architectural elements to be completed in the $276 million transformation of the AGO’.
10. Whalebone carving, by Manasie Akpaliapik, born 1955 at Ikpiarjuk, Nunavut, Baffin Island. Now based in Montreal and Ottawa, Manasie is known for ambitious bone, ivory and stone works that reflect a concern for the vulnerability of his homeland. They offer unflinching depictions of the social ills that have impacted northern communities and reflect the belief that humans must live in balance with and respect all things.
11. Galleria Italia, by Frank Gehry AGO. From the AGO website: ‘The outwardly most characteristic element of the [new] design is a new glass and wood façade – the Galleria Italia – spanning 180 metres (590 ft) along Dundas Street; it was named in recognition of a $13 million contribution by 26 Italian-Canadian families of Toronto.’
12. Oil landscape sketches, by Tom Thompson. Thompson became one of Canada’s most famous artists, despite little formal training. He connected with nature in a way no other artist had. Within a few years, his dark, moody scenes evolved into boldly expressive and passionate landscapes. This progress is most evident in his highly prized oil sketches. His brief career (he drowned, age 40, while canoeing) inspired the artists who became the Group of Seven, which formed three years after his death.
13. Douglas fir entrance counter, by Frank Gehry, AGO
14. Family. Full-rack antler carving by Jacoposie Oopakak. His art is rooted in Inuit traditions and involves multi-figure compositions. Like many senior Inuit artists, he makes work that explores the cultural past from the perspective of modern settlement life. In this carving, the curve of an antler becomes a family tree and memories are made physical as ancestors grow out of the skull below. These are rare works due to the challenge of carving this fragile material.
15. Battle for the Woodlands, mixed media installation by Bonnie Devine, born Toronto 1942, Anishinabe (Obibwe), member of the Serpent River First Nation. The Great Lakes have always held deep spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. Devine depicts them as five powerful spirit creatures, Bison, Otter, Turtle, Mishepishu (Underwater Panther), and Nanabush (Rabbit). The Atlantic Coast shows the point of first European contact which led to the colonial influx that forced Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Beaded ‘treaty belts’ border an area defined by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as ‘Indian Territory’. http://www2.ocadu.ca/feature/2563/bonnie-devine’s-battle-for-the-woodlands-on-view-at-the-ago Time-lapse video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chRD5znKCpY
16. Detail from a painting by J.E.H. MacDonald. From Wikipedia: ‘Born in England May 12, 1873 , died November 26, 1932. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 14, and was one of the founders of the Group of Seven who initiated the first major Canadian national art movement. In January 1913, MacDonald and Harris travelled to the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where they attended an exhibit of Scandinavian Impressionist landscape paintings. The two artists felt that the uninhibited approach to the northern Scandinavian wilderness could be adopted by Canadian painters to create on canvas a unique Canadian form of landscape art. Critics of his time attacked him for his use of bright colours. In the autumn of 1918, MacDonald, Harris, and other artists interested in their new Canadian approach to painting travelled to the Algoma district north of Lake Superior in a specially outfitted Algoma Central Railway car that functioned as a mobile artist studio. The group would hitch their car to trains travelling through the area, and when they found a scenic location, they would unhitch and spend time exploring and painting the wilderness.’
Feature and photography by Susie Surtees
Links to explore:
First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest:
First Nations peoples of the Toronto area: