National Gallery of Canada's Sakahàn International Indigenous Art Exhibition turns construction obstacle into design opportunity

Case Study by Stefan Canuel RGD, Senior Designer, National Gallery of Canada 


This project was brought to the design team as one of the most ambitious contemporary art exhibitions in the history of the National Gallery of Canada, at a time when the space was undergoing a large renovation project to change the main glazing in the Great Hall, a focal space that welcomes visitors and serves as site for gallery events. As such, one of our mandates was to make the transition seamless for the visitor as they entered the Great Hall and found the entrance to the exhibition, as well as making the construction disappear, from the outside and the inside.


The project 

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art was the first of a series of exhibitions dedicated to “diverse, complex and challenging artworks being made by indigenous artists in regions such as the Americas, Asia, Oceania, Europe and Africa.” It had to fill both floors of the National Gallery of Canada’s special exhibition spaces as well as the contemporary art galleries—not to mention several public spaces inside and outside of the Gallery.



The process 

At first we had to see how the curators wanted to approach the project. The curators proposed the idea of joining forces with an artist to come up with artwork to cover the outside construction scaffolding that was to be in place during the replacement of the glass. In the end, they opted to work with Greenlandic artist Inuk Silis Hoegh to create a large-scale mural in the shape of an iceberg that covered the exterior of the building. We had to outsource the work of designing the scaffolding to an architect, Tim Davis Design.


Working closely with both the architect and artist was crucial to bringing the large iceberg to life. We also had to work closely with the facilities department at the National Gallery to manage the workload and timeline for the interior scaffolding, the layout plans of the Great Hall, and the fit-up of all exhibition rooms. It was also important to work closely with the project manager and artists to make sure everything was going smoothly.



We developed several different graphic concepts for the visual look of the exhibition that would be used consistently throughout: panels and object captions, the catalogue, education kit and more. The idea was to create many different options before choosing the most viable one. With the help of the curators, these ideas were narrowed down to one or two for further development and refinement.


Only a couple of  solutions were presented regarding the fit-up of the space and the use of hoarding in the Great Hall. We targeted the problem at first and came up with two approaches with two different budgets. The idea of incorporating the large construction zone into the exhibition was well received by other team members on the project, to take advantage of the interior and exterior hoarding, scaffolding and temporary ceiling we had to install in the Great Hall. 


Once the general idea was in place we had to work on presenting elevations of different sections, including the use of materials and different approaches to problem solving for the space. At this point the client reviewed the designs and provided feedback based on their objectives and needs. 

Unique challenges

As is the case with most major projects, there were changes and alterations over the course of the process. At first, the plan from the Gallery was to have this project taking over three of the four exhibition spaces, leaving out the non-exhibition space (the construction zone). But at a certain point the Gallery realized that the construction zone would need to be considered in the scope, since visitors would be entering through that space. Some painted grey construction hoarding was already in place. Unfortunately, this hoarding did not work with the exhibition concept, which meant it had to be redone and relocated. This meant that the scope of the work got much larger without any change to the deadline.



A close working relationship with the curators, facility project officer and project manager of the exhibition was incredibly important in order to make this project happen. It also required outsourcing and managing all sorts of unusual outside suppliers for production, from large-format printing to fabrication.


In the end, the Great Hall of the National Gallery became more than an entrance to the exhibition: it was transformed into a social hub, and an icon for the show.

Key takeaways:


Build a strong team

As the lead designer on the project, my mandate was to conceive an exhibition that worked on a number of different levels. I had the responsibility of overseeing and implementing the layout and construction of the physical exhibition space and numerous purpose-built display cases, as well as creating all visual and didactic material, including marketing poster, invitation, billboard, and outdoor banners. I had to create a visual identity with aesthetic appeal that also communicated the client's message, concept and image to visitors, while meeting the limitations imposed by space and budget. All that was pretty challenging and it wouldn’t have happened without the team in place. It’s really important to build a good team around you, a team that you can trust, if you want to succeed. A great collaboration with other team members is valuable. Work hard and try to anticipate any unforeseen circumstances.


Pay attention to detail 

You have to be on top of every little detail while working with many stakeholders. When you make a change to any piece of the project with one stakeholder, you have to double check and triple check the overall project to make sure it doesn't change the scope of work with any of the other contributors involved. A good memory, a great design vision and a lot of focus will help you through the process. If any of these things do not come naturally for you, take a lot of notes and don't be shy to go back to them as often as you need.




Work closely with the project manager

You and the project manager will be the resource people. Make sure the project manager becomes your double, this way you will maintain the open communication with the other stakeholders. As much as you want you won't be able to be everywhere at all time, which is why it is so important to have a great project manager working with you. The project manager will be your extra head.


Know your suppliers 

When identifying suppliers to work with on a major project like this one, experience comes in handy. With over 20 years of experience as a multi-faceted designer, I've worked with all kind of different suppliers from large printing format, to steel work and upholstery, just to name a few. A good supplier will read you, not just what you say but what you are. By building good relationships over years of working together, you'll find that great suppliers will begin to understand you better, and you'll know what to expect from them. 


Prioritize the goals of the project

You'll have to determine what is your main priority within the project: time, cost or quality. Don't try for all three, or you'll be disappointed. Yes, the quality is very important for a designer but it's not always the main priority. A good example in this case is the large scale iceberg. Because it's not seen from a close-up distance, the quality is not the main concern, and it is not an issue for the colour to vary and not be completely accurate. In this case, timing and cost were more important for this piece of the project. Taking your priorities into account will help determine who the suppliers should be and choose those who will be the right fit for a specific need.