Raphael's Study for the Figure of Poetry, on loan from Queen Elizabeth, is in the exhibit The Art of Papal Rome. ((Royal Collection 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II))

In tough times, heading to an art gallery or museum can be "just what the doctor ordered," according to the National Gallery of Canada's new director.

Marc Mayer and chief curator David Franklin were among the small NGC contingent that travelled to Toronto Thursday to unveil details of the Ottawa gallery's 2009 exhibition program, including its major summer exhibit From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome.

With the average person struggling during this financial crisis, some might ask themselves, "why would I get involved in something I thought was just for the rich?" Mayer said in an interview with CBC News on Thursday.

"[But] museums are for people. They are for ordinary people. They're for the poor, they're for students, they're for young people who are struggling. It's an oasis of beauty in a world that is often very, very difficult — increasingly difficult these days."

Mayer, who took up the NGC director general post in late January, has worked in museums and galleries in Montreal, Toronto, Paris and in New York. He was just a few days into a new job at the Brooklyn Museum when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred.

"The museum was open on the 11th, 12th and 13th," Mayer recalled. "We got love letters from people who were so grateful that they had a place like that, to surround themselves with beautiful things made by people all over the world … and to feel good about humanity [at] a time where it was really, really hard to feel good about humanity."

Exploring 16th-century Rome

About four years in the works, the gallery's main exhibit this summer is From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome — an ambitious world-exclusive show that unites more than 150 paintings and drawings from 16th century Rome. The show includes work on loan from collections all over the world (including those of the Galleria degli Uffizi, the Louvre, the J. Paul Getty Museum and even Queen Elizabeth).

According to chief curator Franklin, following the success of the NGC's Renaissance exhibit in 2005, the gallery was interested in creating some kind of sequel or to explore another chapter in the same vein.


Annibale Carracci's The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (The Montalto Madonna) is part of the Ottawa gallery's exhibit. ((The National Gallery, London))

"I knew [this period] was really ripe to be explored," he said. "There was a lot of individual interest, individual expertise [about 16th century Rome]

, but no one had really brought it all together."

Inspired by the chronological, processional display at the Vatican's gallery, From Raphael to Carracci explores artwork commissioned by the popes of the era, spanning Julius II to Clement VIII.

"Each pope had a real identity. Each papal tenure had its own particular characteristics. Artists would come — favourites of the pope — and they would leave when he died," lending an interesting diversity to the artwork created in the city during that era.

The NGC exhibit also reveals how papal art commissions transformed over the passing years from a "civilized point at the beginning to closed orthodoxy then, at the end, a sort of confidence again," Franklin said.

As well, the showcased works reveal the tension between what the papal patrons requested and what the artists — including Raphael, Michelangelo, Titien and Greco as well as lesser known artists — eventually delivered.

"Artists are seeking to do something more inspiring for them, more creative and different. Patrons always want what they've seen. Patrons by nature are conservative," Franklin said. The key was to "respect the wishes of your patron [because] you want to succeed. But the artists [also] want to play, be virtuoso and explore their own interest and compete with each other as well."

From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome runs May 29 to Sept. 7.


Thomas Nozkowski, whose Untitled (8-55), 2003 is shown here, is known among contemporary art aficionados but has yet to become a household name. ((Thomas Nozkowski/Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York) )

New emphasis on contemporary work, artists

Mayer's first curatorial gig at the NGC will be a June-through-September survey exhibition of about 50 works by U.S. abstract artist Thomas Nozkowski — the largest show to date dedicated to the one-time production director of Mad magazine, he pointed out.

While known and celebrated by contemporary art aficionados, Nozkowski is not a household name, he said.

"Those are the kinds of artists that I'm interested in: the ones that [art aficionados are] talking about … because they're exciting, they're revolutionary, they're pushing the envelope as it were, but the public doesn't really know them well."

Thomas Nozkowski runs June 26 to Sept 20.

Other 2009 NGC exhibits include:

  • Nomads (April 17- Aug. 30), featuring the work of Vancouver-based artists such as Geoffrey Farmer, Gareth Moore, Myfanwy MacLeod and Althea Thauberger.
  • Paolo Veronese and the Petrobelli Altarpiece (May 29 to Sept. 7), a rare reunion of the fragments of the noted 16th-century painting by Veronese, including the NGC's own recently restored portion.
  • The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig (Oct. 23 to Jan. 10, 2010), a retrospective exhibition uniting nearly a half-century of the celebrated artist's oeuvre.

In addition to introducing more vibrant, living contemporary artists to the public, Mayer also wants to get out and talk to the public about the visual arts and make the NGC more inviting and less intimidating in general.

His plans include having contemporary work on display for longer and creating audio guides for them as well as producing extended labels for more pieces, to share "some of the issues the artist was actually thinking about" during its creation.

"I want people to think of us as a lively, innovative, dynamic institution," he said. "We'd just like people to relax about art as well."