National Gallery under fire for using U.S. agency to develop brand identity

The National Gallery of Canada is facing criticism for a comprehensive new brand identity it says is “rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being,” but was developed by a design firm operating out of Brooklyn and Paris.

According to the National Gallery, the new visual identity, developed by Area 17, is inspired by “Ankosé,” an Anishinaabemowin word meaning “everything is connected.” The Gallery’s director and CEO, Sasha Suda, told the CBC that the new visual identity is intended to reflect a shift from Western and Eurocentric art towards a greater emphasis on work from Indigenous and underrepresented communities.

It unveiled the new visual identity on June 23, calling it the culmination of “four months of research, consultation, deep thinking and design” led by vice-president of corporate/public affairs and marketing, Rosemary Thompson (see the full release here).

The redesign includes a new logo that “moves from a square to a circle through nine secondary symbols that were created through the shapes of the mother brand”; a new typeface using the Founders Grotesk font; and a new colour palette designed to be reminiscent of the Northern Lights.

The National Gallery said the new brand identity is the result of consultation with more than 300 people, including Elders and Knowledge Keepers of the Algonquin Nation, strategic consultants NOBL, and the diversity consultants Elevate.

But some Canadian creatives and designers are questioning why a prominent Canadian cultural institution opted to use a U.S.-based agency to develop its new brand identity. They say the decision is especially galling given that so many Canadian firms have been left reeling by the pandemic.

Resentment about the country’s government and cultural institutions recruiting agencies from outside of Canada is not a new issue.

Just last year, members of Quebec’s ad community were upset when the provincial government awarded a chunk of business to Cossette, which was then majority-owned by the Chinese communications company BlueFocus.

And creatives with longer memories have likened it to the CBC’s controversial hiring of the U.S. agency Razorfish to rebrand its English-language services in the early 2000s. That work included an update of the public broadcaster’s famous “pizza” logo designed by Burton Kramer, with some in the design community saying Area 17’s new brand work is reminiscent of some of the famed Canadian designer’s work.

Michael Murray, one of the founding partners of Toronto’s Berners Bowie Lee, called the National Gallery’s decision “insulting,” first and foremost to Canada’s Indigenous creative community, but also to its “world class” creative community.

“The government and public institutions have to decide, if they’re going to use taxpayers’ money, why are they using it abroad instead of plowing it back into the local economy and supporting local talent that has been proven to be world class?” he said.

In a letter sent to Suda (a copy of which was provided to The Message) Graphic Designers of Canada president Mark Rutledge said he was “beyond disappointed” the Gallery did not seek assistance in hiring a Canadian firm for what he called an “important and prestigious project.”

“There are in abundance of 50,000 communication designers in Canada. There is no shortage of talent in the country,” he wrote. “What shall I tell these tens of thousands of designers and the thousands that graduate with [bachelor of design] degrees annually? That the National Gallery of Canada does not believe that a Canadian designer or firm is qualified to rebrand their Gallery?”

Rutledge, who is also a member of the Little Grand Rapids First Nation, said it was shocking that the National Gallery did not use an Indigenous-led design firm to develop a brand identity it proclaimed to be rooted in Indigenous thinking.

“What shall I tell the Indigenous-led design firms in Canada?” he wrote. “That the National Gallery of Canada did not even attempt to ascertain a listing of these firms to ensure the project [proclaimed to be ‘inspired by Indigenous ways of knowing and being’] fully represented, in every regard, the mission?”

The National Gallery said that Thompson was on vacation and unavailable for interviews. In an emailed statement to The Message, however, it said it invited five design agencies from Canada and the U.S. to respond to an RFP, with Area 17 chosen because of its “strong digital experience” across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The agency’s work page lists projects for The Getty, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of the American Revolution.

The National Gallery also pointed out that the agency was founded by a Canadian, Kemp Attwood, who was born in North Bay, Ont. and whose work as a producer and senior designer with CBC Radio 3 in the early 2000s garnered awards from Communications Arts, the Art Directors Club and the New York Festivals.

Attwood did not immediately respond to The Message‘s interview request, but in an interview with, Area 17 strategy director Carolyn Centeno Milton said that the work reflects the National Gallery’s desire to “decolonize, reframe their collection and activate community belonging.”

“The money is still leaving the country,” said BBL’s Murray. “I’m born in Ireland, but I would like to hope that the Irish government would give the business for any Irish museum to an Irish agency, and not use the justification that Michael is born in Ireland. I think that’s an excuse.”

Among the major reasons the National Gallery selected Area 17, said the statement, was that it “really understood the moment in time that the world is living in” and “fully embraced and leaned into” its consultation with the Indigenous Elders.

“As much as I appreciate the overall sentiment and research that has gone into Canada’s National Gallery brand identity initiative, it really disappoints me that this design was commissioned-out across the border,” said Alek von Felkerzam, a freelance art director whose career has included stops at Publicis Canada and Yield Branding.

“This was a prime opportunity to ‘connect’ our nation’s roots, culture and creativity,” he said. “We have plenty of talented resources on this side of the border, so let’s use them more often, and celebrate Canada made by Canadians.”

Chris Powell