Action on creating a much-needed cultural institution is long overdue — the time has come for Canada to have its own national portrait gallery.
Since the 19th Century, the National Archives of Canada has accumulated, and continues to accumulate, the world’s second-largest collection of portraits. These are portraits of Canadians from all walks of life and periods in our history. If they were put on display, they could tell a profound story about our nation through the people who have called this vast land home.
Many countries, including England, the United States and Australia, have permanent national portrait galleries that are prominently featured in their capital cities. Interestingly, young people make up the majority of attendees: in London and Washington D.C., almost half are under the age of 35 years. These galleries are exciting, open to all, and are active participants in the life of their respective nations.
When we consider a national portrait gallery for Canada, the Archives’ collection should be its base. But this gallery could also be so much more — a vibrant place that not only shows the past and the present, but that can offer a glimpse into our future as well. It should reflect the artistic works of all origins and cultures that make up Canada today. It would put front and centre who we are, as well as the richness and depth of our diversity.
A national portrait gallery of Canada would support Canadian artists, enhance our collective knowledge and enshrine all aspects of portraiture. These works must not be lost to Canadians in vaults or closets in artists’ studios. They deserve to be accessible to audiences of today, and the future, generating pride, knowledge and debate.
To this end, in April, I teamed up with senators Serge Joyal, Patricia Bovey and Paul McIntyre to pen a letter of support for the creation of such a gallery. We also asked the rest of our Senate colleagues if they would consider lending their support and were overwhelmed when we received an additional 59 senators’ signatures.
Canada 150 is the perfect opportunity to get these portraits out of the vaults and in front of the eyes of Canadians. We call on Canadians to share their support for such an initiative. The time is now to cement the legacies of our heroes — creating excitement, honouring artists and our enriching national fabric.
Doug Black is a senator representing Alberta. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, as well as the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.
This article appeared in the May 19, 2017 edition of the Ottawa Citizen.