In the edited conversation below, Alexandra Suda discusses the path she’s taken to become the National Gallery of Canada’s next director and CEO.
Q: Tell me a bit about your background and childhood.
A: My parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants. They came in 1968 to Canada … I was born in Orillia, where my grandparents lived, and then I moved to Toronto almost immediately. My parents had just moved to Toronto and we lived in a neighbourhood called Crombie Park, which was a kind of progressive neighbourhood built in the late ‘70s. We relocated to Toronto, but still very much had roots in Orillia throughout my childhood.
As a high school student, I went to a school called Loretto Abbey, which was a Catholic girls school in Toronto, and I was quite an avid athlete at that time. I went to Princeton University and joined the rowing team there, eventually becoming the captain of the heavyweight women’s crew team, and also was an all-American, for what that’s worth.
Q: Did you go to Princeton to row or to study art history?
A: I went there with the objective of studying one of the humanities. I knew it would either be literature, history or art history. When I started taking courses in art history in my first semester, it became very clear to me that that’s what I would be doing. Princeton is the place where I fell in love with art history. It has one of the great collections of art in its museum and one of the most wonderful faculties as well.
Q: You’ve risen quickly in the art world, from completing your doctorate to working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then the Art Gallery of Ontario to taking the helm at the National Gallery before you’re 40.
A: It strikes me as the right opportunity for me right now … I’m blazing trails, I think. I see that in some ways. But there are incredible men and women who have come before me who have done much more impressive things that have created a foundation making my situation possible.
Q: What appeals to you about taking on this role?
A: I’ve always felt, from the early days, there’s an urgency to the need for art. It’s not a ‘nice to have.’ It’s a ‘need to have.’ I took on that kind of responsibility to share that urgency very early in my career. Whenever I have had the opportunity to do that, to amplify what artists are saying or doing, in the past I’ve taken that opportunity to advance the ideas.
I characterize myself as a deeply passionate and curious individual, and those two things were driving forces within my own desire to advance within museum administration.
Q: Your specialization is in European art. Will that be reflected in your leadership?
A: I would say that a director doesn’t play favourites. I certainly have no kind of European agenda in my role. I want to learn about everything else, too. Being a director is such an amazing privilege … you get to learn about all the other areas within the arts that you are not as familiar with.
Q: It’s been reported that you are not bilingual. What efforts will you make to learn French?
A: I see that as one of the great perks, being able to learn that language and function in it fluently. I’ve had training in French as an art historian since my undergraduate degree, and have been reading and functioning in French within the art market for some time. One of the great opportunities of this job is to work in that language.
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