We asked RGD Members from across the country to weigh in on the National Gallery of Canada's procurement of a US agency for their rebrand. This is a complex issue involving a national institution, Indigenous cultures, taxpayer funds, global ambitions and our own Canadian identity.
As a first step in unpacking this, the RGD reached out to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) directly for clarification on their procurement process: six firms were contacted, four of which were based in Canada. The winning agency, Area 17 (NY/Paris), has three partners, two of whom are Canadian. Below is the full statement from the NGC, along with statements from nine RGD Members. Opinions vary, but it is clear that these issues about Canadian design talent and global procurement will not disappear any time soon.
This piece was inspired by our own Members raising questions about our national design talent and protectionism. Should RGD and the Canadian design community be doing something to ensure Canadian agencies are hired for these sorts of projects in the future? Have your say and contact the RGD at .
- Kemp Attwood, Founding Partner, CCO at AREA 17 in New York City
- Matthew Clark RGD, Founder & Creative Director at Subplot in Vancouver
- Franziska Erlebach RGD, Design Director at Sid Lee in Toronto
- John Furneaux RGD, Principal at B3 Strategy in Toronto
- Dave Hollands, Head, Creative at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto
- Vida Jurcic, CGD, RGD Founding Partner at Hangar 18 Design Continuum in Vancouver
- Diti Katona RGD, Chief Creative Officer at Concrete in Toronto
- Eric Pellerin, Head of Scenography and Media Production at Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa
- Howard Poon RGD, VP of Design at DDB in Edmonton
- Ashlea Spitz RGD, Principal / Creative Director at Pixsoul Media Inc. in Vancouver
- Laura Stein RGD, Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto
- Jennifer Taback RGD, Principal at Design de Plume Inc. in Sudbury
- Rosemary Thompson, Vice President Corporate, Public Affairs and Marketing at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa
Video produced by AREA 17 showing the new National Gallery of Canada's branding and animated logo | Video published by NGC, June 23, 2021.
Matthew Clark RGD, Founder & Creative Director at Subplot in Vancouver:
“Although the agency lead is Canadian, given the gallery’s diligence and consultation, it would seem obvious that a Canadian firm would be the logical choice. Canada boasts world-class Branding Agencies but to many Canadian companies, there is an “inferiority complex” about being Canadian. We see this time and time again: local and national Canadian companies going stateside for creative. Somehow, using a US or international firm makes Canadian organizations feel bigger and better. More “global.” But a simple survey of leading Canadian firms shows many with global client rosters and great creative in their portfolios.
Maybe that’s the double-edged sword of globalism. In the same way we at Subplot certainly have US and Global clients in our portfolio, should it be equally acceptable for a US firm to have Canadian clients? Is “good work” the point, wherever it comes from? Maybe. But in my opinion, a Canadian firm absolutely should have been awarded this contract, not for some symbolic tokenism, but because it aligns with the Gallery’s vision AND because there is plenty of talent to choose from right here at home.”
Let’s take a step back for a moment. The purpose of the National Gallery of Canada “...is to nurture interconnection across time and place, to amplify the voices of the communities that they exist to serve.” With that in mind, the NGC selected the most suitable partner that they felt would guide them and collaborate in bringing their vision to life. Why should they restrict themselves based on artificially created territories to make the selection process harder than it is already, in particular when we talk about government-funded institutions, where the selection process is more complex? Certainly, cultural institutions may make a conscious decision to work only with firms located in their own country, even locally, but should that be the standard for all?”
Howard Poon RGD, VP of Design at DDB in Edmonton:
John Furneaux RGD, Principal at B3 Strategy in Toronto:
“I had mixed feelings when I heard that the new identity for the National Gallery of Canada had been created by Area 17. On the one hand, as many Canadian design firms, including my own, do work for clients based in the US and Europe, it would be hypocritical of me to say that all design work done in Canada must be done by Canadian firms.
HOWEVER, the National Gallery is an important Canadian institution; it helps define and influence how we see ourselves. While Area 17 is a top-tier firm that specializes in cultural institution branding, the hiring of a US firm to without a Canadian design firm on the team seems at odds with the gallery’s stated strategy of inclusion.
While large public institutions need to be free to hire the best firms no matter where they are, there are ways to do this while still ensuring that Canadian talent are present at the table throughout the creative process. One possible solution is the requirement that, on large publicly-funded branding projects any design firms based outside of Canada must partner with a Canadian run (and owned) firm on the project. This practice is common in other design-based professions such as architecture, where commissions are often joint ventures that produce a number of benefits.
So, while I think that the end product that was developed is well thought through and well executed, we have missed the opportunity for underrepresented Canadian designers to have a voice at the creative table when ideas are being developed. Just imagine, if Area 17 had partnered with an up-and-coming Canadian design firm, this Canadian firm would have received amazing experience and exposure to allow them to expand their practice. And for now, that’s all we can do, just imagine.”
Ashlea Spitz RGD, Principal / Creative Director at Pixsoul Media Inc. in Vancouver:
“The National Gallery of Canada is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Canadian art, so it came as a surprise that a US agency was selected to redesign the face of a Canadian core brand. By proclamation of the Museum’s Act, the National Gallery of Canada is a Crown Corporation of the federal government which has strict procurement policies in place. However, an exception to their procurement policy is that these policies “do not apply to any design services or work” (sec. 3.3 b).
The National Gallery of Canada has a mandate to protect and promote Canadian culture so choosing an out-of-country agency to design the face of their brand seems to contradict the core values that the Government of Canada’s “Creative Canada” promotes. Creative Canada defines the blueprint for federal policy tools that support our creative industries. The vision and approach to creative industries is to build on success and position Canada as a world leader by putting its creative industries at the centre of its future economy and to grow the creative economy collectively. Museums have always been key partners with our creative industries. So investing in our designers not only helps to promote Canadian designers, it creates an impact for Canada’s identity on a national and international stage. However, having a US firm head the branding of a Crown Corporation, uniquely positioned in the creative space with a vast audience, undercuts the significance and growth of our Canadian creative communities.
If we know that the economies of the future will rely on creativity and innovation to create jobs and foster growth, then we must support our creatives and emphasize that creatives are ambassadors for our country. If we are not practicing these principles then where do we go from here?”
Eric Pellerin, Head of Scenography and Media Production at Canadian Museum of History
"The National Gallery of Canada, like all other Crown Corporations, falling under the Museum Act, must abide by many obligations and regulations. Like others, they are also under the Financial Administration Act, which dictates how they control and administer their finances. For the in-house managerial staff in charge of the rebrand, this means that there are many important considerations to be made when tackling such a capital project.
Financially and contractually, it means that there are a certain bureaucratic set of strict rules that will take place during the procurement process. A thorough comprehensible scope of work was written, vetted internally by decision makers. These are publicly published on a platform (think MERX for instance), so that anyone can have a chance at making a proposal. Their responses is a lengthy document that follows the process highlighted in the scope of work, where all details matter. These firms have to pass through an evaluation that will examine everything, and I mean everything: credentials, portfolios, bios of key members of their teams, description of their creative process, comprehension of the project, ventilation of their fees, proposed development calendar, etc., etc., etc.
As someone who works in a national museum, I often take part in such evaluation committees. While our processes ensure a fair look at all proposals, it can also look like a vacuum where fundamental aspects of a project are overlooked. Was the chosen firm the most creative? Did they have an innovative approach to consultations? How big is their staff that would work on the project? Were they the most affordable? Could they deliver faster than anyone else? These are likely only a few of the many other evaluation points that set the winning proposal’s final score. Given the importance of the project at hand, being a Canadian firm cannot be the evaluation point that can trump all.
Knowing the process from within, I have full trust that the choice was fair and that the firm worked hand in hand with the National Gallery to consult with all stakeholders. The end result is a brand that works, beautifully."
Dave Hollands, Head, Creative at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto
"Canadian cultural institutions funded in whole or in part by taxpayers are mandated to procure services that optimize the outcome for their users and funders. This begins with a fair and open process that weighs talent, experience, cost and other factors. I believe Canadian suppliers must always be given equal access, but not always to the exclusion of casting a wider net. In the same way Canadian designers ought always to be able to pitch their services and win projects on the global stage.
From the NGC
Kemp Attwood, Founding Partner, CCO at AREA 17 in New York City
“I've always seen Canada not as a melting pot, but as a mosaic and quilt of cultures that is ever-changing. This was key to the expression of the National Gallery—ensuring we didn't project a monolithic view of Canada. We were inspired by the diversity of voices that come together to make something larger and dynamic. Moving the National Gallery of Canada from a square to a permeable circle was at the centre of the rebrand, providing a space for all perspectives to be seen and heard. So this dialogue is healthy. It is at the center of what the National Gallery of Canada represents — how art crosses time and place and shows the limitless connections that exist beyond the frame of one perspective. As a Canadian, this is one of the proudest moments of my career. I was personally thrilled for the opportunity to help one of Canada’s most preeminent institutions represent all of Canada on the world stage.”
Rosemary Thompson, Vice President Corporate, Public Affairs and Marketing at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa
Ankosé - Brand film | Video published by NGC, June 23, 2021.