At the recent opening of the new Indigenous and Canadian Art Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Director Marc Mayer made a fascinating throwaway comment. Due to the inclusion of historical objects and artifacts made by Canadian indigenous people NGC had to redraft its legal purposes. In other words, the Gallery is acting ultra vires — beyond its powers — by displaying indigenous artifacts.
For starters, I must say I completely support for this act of curatorial civil disobedience. It serves a higher human, artistic and national purpose. Professionally, however, I’m interested in the problem of organizations that outgrow their stated charitable purposes. Let me provide background on NGC’s situation and then reflect briefly on the issue of outgrown charitable purposes.
Reconsidering What is Art
Including historical art/ifacts of indigenous people at the core of the Canadian experience is blindingly obvious in this moment of reconciliation. The new NGC galleries, done in time for Canada’s 150th birthday, represent the first major rethink and reinstallation of our national collection since the late 1980s. Time makes it clear that the traditional English-French narrative needs to be reconsidered to include art of First Nations and Inuit people.
It all comes down to the definition of art. The National Gallery of Canada Act (1913) put the focus on collecting and displaying “fine art”. The Museum Act (1990) updated the NGC purpose to add photography. In 1913, NGC’s sister museum, which partially evolved to become the Canadian Museum of History, focused on ethnography and anthropology. Art, by contrast, was an outgrowth of the European tradition. Everything else was ethnography, and so didn’t belong in the national art gallery.
The various acts of Parliament that created and shaped the NGC didn’t imagine a world that broadly defined art to include birch bark canoes, ancient rock carvings and beaded jackets alongside oil paintings. Ever since 1917 when Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it art, artists have been smashing and redefining what can be considered art. But in the rush to embrace abstraction, collage, photography, video, conceptual, performance and environmental art (to name but a few), indigenous objects were forgotten. It’s a shocking insight into the rigidity of our cultural constructs and the place of Canada’s indigenous people.
Charities often have a similar conundrum as the NGC. Sometimes the response to urgent social needs is done in advance of a change in charitable purposes. First “do good” and then speak to the lawyers.
While it is rare for a registered charity to lose its status for operating outsides its charitable purposes, it is a risk. The message to charity executives and boards is be mindful of well-meaning mission drift. The conundrum for donors, especially estate donors, is how do they know charity is acting ultra vires? It’s not a primary due diligence question, but it may be worth asking in certain situations.