Opening Doors at the National Gallery of Canada
Last November, Ottawa was abuzz with positive chatter as the National Gallery of Canada made history in announcing local steward Denise Siele as their new Senior Communications Manager. The fact that she is the first Black person in this role marks the latest chapter in what has already been a remarkable career by one of the Black Community’s home-grown trailblazers. Well wishes for the Gallery and its newest employee came from near and far, including via social media and a featured an interview on the evening news telecast.
“Yes, the celebration may be justifiable,” Siele explained. “But I am more excited about the wonderful opportunity to perhaps diversify the channels through which we interpret, share and engage a more robust, more complete story of Canada.”
As far as career milestones go, the last two years have been a dizzying pace for Siele, the 2011 recipient of Black History Ottawa’s Community Builder Award. It began with mobilizing to contest a high-profile nomination in 2018; bringing 338 young women representing every province and territory to Ottawa to take a seat in Parliament in 2019; accepting a top job at one of Canada’s leading advocacy firms later in 2019; then earlier this 2020 year becoming the first-ever African-Canadian to serve as Press Secretary to the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; and closing out the year at one of the brightest jewels among Crown agencies.
Along the way, Denise continued making time for her service on both the Algonquin College and Telus Foundation boards; providing regular political analysis on Canada’s top television and radio programs; as well as chairing the Province of Ontario’s Lincoln M. Alexander Award committee, which rewards young people who have shown strong leadership in eliminating racial discrimination.
When asked about her pace, Siele laughed, “Yes, that probably would have made my grandfather gasp back in his day. But today, career dynamism is almost par for the course. For me, the driving thread has always been about how best I can make a difference. As a life-long history and culture buff, the Gallery is the ideal fit for me.”
Only days later, the National Gallery of Canada’s trend of good news continued, as it reported having just reached record-breaking attendance during the pandemic. Since mid-July, over 50,000 visitors had toured the Gallery’s nearly 1,200 works of both historical and contemporary art spanning Indigenous, Canadian, European and international. This includes ‘Middle Passage’, 1970, a monumental painting by Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling who in 2005 became the first Black artist to be elected a member of England’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.
“Obviously, I bring to the job a perspective and sensibilities shaped by my experience as a Black woman in North America,” Siele continued. “That is why I am also looking forward to the Gallery showcasing the work of Vancouver-based Black artist Stan Douglas at the 2022 Venice Biennale. His 2013 video installation, Luanda-Kinshasa, is presently on view at the Gallery in Ottawa, and I think we can all take pride that Mr. Douglas will be representing Canada on the international stage of the Biennale which remains the art world’s foremost event.”
When asked about how success should be measured regarding her new role, the 2015 recipient of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Forty under 40 Award responded, “I believe that is a powerful conversation that we are already having. I am now part of a dynamic team who together understand what we need to do. But as the mother of a young son, success will have more to do with not only the smile on the faces of people who come through our doors; but perhaps a prideful gait in their step as they walk out these doors a wee bit taller, imbued by an understanding that they too are part of something truly special. Yes, Canada’s story is also their story.”
Denise and her partner Fred Sherman are proud parents to a teenage son.