Hallelujah! the National Portrait Gallery of Canada is born again!

Recently, my inbox received the always informative newsletter put out by Lord Cultural Resources in Toronto which drew my attention to a recent article published in The Art Newspaper concerning the re-emergence of plans to resurrect the Portrait Gallery of Canada. The lede began: “More than a decade after a previous attempt fizzled out, a new institution is on the prowl for prime real estate in Ottawa.” 

The article then went on to enumerate the various efforts being made by the principals involved with this renewed effort and concluded by noting that: “Such a project is not without precedent. Plans were underway for a Portrait Gallery of Canada around two decades ago, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister.”

Sadly lacking in this account was any reference to the late Lilly Koltun, the indefatigable cultural warrior who was the last person to actually hold the title of Director General, National Portrait Gallery of Canada before the government of Stephen Harper finally laid it all to waste in the fall of 2009.

Writing in the business section of the Globe and Mail in September of that year, James Bradshaw observed that the bulk of the collection, is currently held in storage by Library and Archives Canada and contains more than 20,000 paintings, drawings and prints, four million photographs and thousands of caricatures. “But it is also known for its variety and its populism, featuring images both of and by average Canadians as well as the requisite major figures,” wrote Bradshaw.

The breadth of the collection, especially in regard to class, gender and ethnocultural inclusivity was especially important to Koltun, who also taught art history at the University of Ottawa.

I met Dr. Koltun while attending an academic conference in Ottawa in the spring of 2009. By that time, the soon to be past director general of the National Portrait Gallery was already engaged in a rearguard action to save the institution that the Harper government had actually killed in 2007. 

With the prospect of a permanent gallery booted to the street, it was, ironically, in the street that I encountered a guerilla-exhibition curated by the amazingly resourceful Koltun, that saw portraits and photographs (digitalized reproductions for this outdoor exhibit) literally hung on the side of a building that brought attention to this breathtaking collection portraying the country’s cultural heritage in a representational way that I would not have anticipated.

Lilly Koltun and friends. Photos by Robin Breon

The Portrait Gallery is not a collection of images that depict only royalty, the political classes and the credentialed elite of civil and academic society. It is a rich amalgamation of the working class as well as the upper class. Those whose praises have been sung as well as the unsung. It is a national treasure that belongs to all Canadians and hopefully, Lilly Koltun’s dream may finally have a chance to be realized.

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