Canada's airy shrine to art. New National Gallery a symbol of maturity

`WE are going to open on May 21,'' states Brydon Smith with a certain calm firmness. He is speaking of the new building for the National Gallery of Canada. Mr. Smith is in charge of moving thousands of art pieces from the gallery's former officelike home in the Lorne Building to this spectacular $117 million (Canadian; US$93.6 million) structure designed by Moshe Safdie, a Canadian architect who gained early fame for his Habitat at Expo 67 in Montreal.

Right now the new building, one of the largest art museums in the world, is virtually complete structurally. Some of the art is already hanging from the walls. But many exhibits have yet to be completed.

`It is going to be a mad dash to the end,'' says Deborah Tunis, new-building coordinator.

Old dream finally realized

The first director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown, dreamed in 1912 of ``the building of a building of a beautiful and worthy National Gallery of Canada, where there will be room for permanent and loan collections, where the history and progress of Canadian art in its entirety, and that of the world in a lesser degree, can be studied and appreciated.'' That dream is now coming true, 76 years later.

This new building on Sussex Drive will have more than twice the art display space of the old gallery - 14,350 square yards versus 6,060 square yards. It will enable some of the gallery's 39,252 works of art (paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, silver, prints and drawings, and photographs) to be moved out of storage and onto display.

They will be shown in a structure built for art, with proper climate control and lighting, not a refurbished office building.

The new gallery itself is a work of art. From the spectacular, soaring entrance pavilion, the visitor proceeds up a long, glazed concourse overlooking a garden of Arctic grasses, stunted pine, boulders, and lichen and mosses, resembling the northern tundra.

At the end of this ramp is the stately glass pavilion of the Great Hall, with a view of the river side of Canada's handsome parliamentary buildings. Triangular, sail-like white blinds roll out to block the sun when it becomes too hot.

From there, the visitor can proceed to the various galleries on two levels. Mylar-lined shafts bring natural light down to some of the galleries on either the upper or lower levels, with photoelectric cells automatically adjusting motorized blinds to control the amount of light. On dark winter days or at night, quartz lights will provide illumination close to that of natural light.

Museum of Civilization also planned

The building also contains a restaurant and cafeteria, a museum store, underground parking, a reference library, an auditorium, and a curatorial wing. The walls of the exterior and public places are clad in pink-gray flamed granite, quarried north of Tadoussac, Quebec.

The new gallery sits on a point of land where the Rideau Canal enters the Ottawa River. Across that river in Quebec another expensive structure, the Museum of Civilization, is under construction. Expected to cost C$143 million (US$114 million) it will not open until July 1, 1989. It, too, sits on a spectacular site overlooking the river.

THESE two structures are seen as national monuments, symbols of Canadian nationhood and maturity, much as the Smithsonian Institution buildings in Washington are treasured by Americans.

Arthur Wilson, vice-chairman of the government-owned Canada Museums Construction Corporation, expects the gallery and museum to be the second most popular tourist attraction in the nation's capital, after the Parliament buildings.

He also hopes they ``will bring the Canadian people together a little more'' - a people scattered across 3,300 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The gallery is expecting a tripling in attendance to some 750,000 visitors in its first year in the new building. They will be an entrance fee charged for the first time - $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and $8 for a family.

Opening day, May 21, will be marked by special festivities, including a ceremony at 11 a.m. Then magicians, clowns, and musical groups will entertain visitors as they explore the new galleries. The day will be capped off with a fireworks display at 11 p.m. The first special exhibition will be a co-produced international exhibition of works by Degas, June 16 to Aug. 28.

As might be guessed, the gallery will contain the largest and most important collection of Canadian art anywhere. Work will range from early Quebec's 18th-century religious sculptures, through the well-known ``Group of Seven,'' to the avant-garde works of the 1960s.

The largest ``artwork'' will be the interior of the Chapel of the Pensionnat Notre-Dame-du-Sacr'e-Coeur, better known as the Rideau Street Convent. This chapel, completed in 1888, was rescued from demolition, cut into pieces, stored for 16 years, and then restored here, complete with its life-size statues of saints, soaring vaults, iron columns, three altars, and splendid windows. Two Polish artisans helped in the work. A chamber music concert will be broadcast nationally from the chapel May 27.

Permanent exhibition of Inuit art

The gallery will also feature a collection of Canadian silver. For the first time, there will be a permanent exhibition of Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) art, including about 160 sculptures and 200 prints and drawings. A selection from the gallery's large collection of Canadian prints and drawings will be on display.

Finally, the gallery will show over 400 works of art representing ``the core and substance of artistic tradition and innovation in Western culture'' - paintings by Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt, Pissaro, Monet, C'ezanne, Klimt, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, and more.

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