The Beleaguered Biennials

Katie Cholette


Between 1955 and 1968 the National Gallery of Canada organized seven touring biennial exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art. The juried biennials, which claimed to show the best Canadian art produced in the preceding two years, served as the main method by which the National Gallery purchased works by living Canadian artists. While the premise of the exhibitions seemed straightforward, the reality of them was anything but. Over the course of thirteen years organizers at the National Gallery wrestled with a number of issues: Was there such a thing as Canadian art, and, if so, what did it look like? Did the best Canadian art come from the country’s major art centres, or was it spread out proportionately across the regions? Most importantly, who would decide what the “best” Canadian art was?

During a period of rising cultural nationalism, and as the country sought to assert her independence from Britain and the United States, one might assume that decisions governing the selection of the best art in the country could easily have been made by Canadian experts. This was not the case, however. In fact, most of the biennials relied on the “expert” opinion of foreigners to lend credence to their selection. Drawing on primary research from the National Gallery’s archives, and using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework, this paper examines the planning and execution of the gallery’s biennial exhibitions at a politically potent time in the nation’s history.


National Gallery of Canada; Canadian Visual Culture; Collective Identity; Role of the Artist; Representation; Cultural Policy Canada; Art and Nation Building

Full Text:

PDF PDF (Français)

© Universities Art Association of Canada / Association d'art des universités du Canada