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Jean-François Bélisle appointed new director and CEO of National Gallery of Canada

Jean-François Bélisle, the new Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, poses in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - National Gallery of Canada

The new leader of the National Gallery of Canada says his first order of business will be "to listen and connect" with staff and the art community as the institution enters a new chapter.

"Stepping out of your own shoes and looking at things differently, I think, is a key element," Jean-François Bélisle said in an interview Wednesday. "And the only way that can happen is if you have more people around the table that confront your ideas, that ask questions, that propose things."

Bélisle will take over as director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) on July 17. In announcing his five-year appointment Wednesday, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez touted Bélisle's "wealth of experience" at art institutions in Canada and abroad.

Most recently, Bélisle served as executive director and chief curator of the Musée d’art de Joliette (MAJ) in Quebec.

Bélisle is stepping into his new role during a transition period at NGC, which was criticized last year by former staff members who suggested a series of departures led to instability at the institution. Some also raised concerns about the gallery's approach to Indigenous art curation and decolonization.

Previous CEO Alexandra Suda left her post last June after three years on the job. The NGC says interim director Angela Cassie is leaving this Friday for a new leadership position in Winnipeg.

Bélisle said he's not able to address the reported turmoil of the past year.

"To get a better understanding, I need to listen — and listening might solve some of the problems in itself," he said.

When it comes to decolonization, reconciliation and inclusion of marginalized communities in art, Bélisle said it's not just a priority for the NGC, but for the entire museum sector and beyond.

"It's also a society-wide priority," he said. "I'm really proud to be Canadian when addressing those issues because ... I travel internationally as well and I think we've made a lot of headway in Canada. There's tons of work to be done, but I think we've made a lot of headway compared to most other countries."

Bélisle said he's always been "highly motivated" by the idea of "building bridges" across Canada, and he thinks the country's vast geography can sometimes hinder collaboration and exchange of ideas between artists in different provinces.

"I think the National Gallery is ideally positioned to play a role in there, to increase and enhance the level of dialogue between artists of different geographical areas and art institutions and cultural venues ... to foster the national arts scene," he said.

The NGC said Wednesday it was "thrilled" to welcome Bélisle, who has curated many national and international art exhibitions, and held managerial positions in visual arts in multiple countries since the mid-1990s.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press

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