Even if people aren't aware of it, they come in contact with a little bit of Reid almost every day. If you're in doubt, take a closer look at a $20 bill next time you're at a cash machine. On the side opposite Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, you can see images of several of his works including Spirit of Haida Gwaii and Raven and the First Men.
Of mixed Haida and Scottish ancestry, Reid has become a national icon. His Spirit of Haida Gwaii, with its cast of real and mythical characters travelling together on a canoe towards an uncertain future, has become one of those rare unifying national symbols since it was chosen to represent the country to the rest of the world at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. and at the Vancouver International Airport.The new gallery's location is significant too. Situated right in the heart of downtown Vancouver in the business district, it sends out a message confirming the importance of First Nations people to the future of the city and the province.
What's also revealing is its name. It's no coincidence that it's called the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art which makes it the first public institution in the country to permanently exhibit the work of the people of the Northwest Coast as art.That may seem like a small point but that little word is full of meaning and history when it comes to the works of the people of the Northwest Coast.
For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the work of First Nations was included in anthropology and natural history museums alongside fossils, minerals and skeletons. Collectors looked at native-made goods with a scientific rather than artistic point of view.
Among the gatekeepers in the art world, the objects created by First Nations weren't deemed to pass muster when it came to being allowed it into the hallowed realm of art.
There were exceptions. In 1946, none other than the American abstract artist and color-field painter Barnett Newman recognized the importance of the work of the people of the Northwest Coast. Just as the centre of the art world was shifting from Paris to New York, he organized the exhibition Northwest Coast Indian Painting at the Betty Parsons Gallery. He described the 20 historical works as "one of the most extensive, certainly the most impressive, treasures of primitive painting that has come down to us from any part of the globe."
In Canada, the first time the work of contemporary indigenous artists made it into an art context was in 1965-67 when Doris Shadbolt, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, organized the groundbreaking exhibition, Arts of the Raven: Master Works of the Northwest. Reid himself was a consultant for the exhibition.
Since then, the work of First Nations artists have faced an uphill battle for inclusion in the country's art galleries.
In Ottawa, the National Gallery started integrating First Nations art into its historical Canadian galleries in 2003. Three years later, curator Greg Hill organized Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist - the gallery's first solo exhibition by a First Nations artist.
Another important show took place two years ago when the VAG and the Council of the Haida Nation co-curated an exhibition called Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art. It was a major exhibition not only because it included Reid as well as Charles Edenshaw, Robert Davidson, Jim Hart, and Dorothy Grant, but also because it was the first time the Haida were actively involved in telling their own history and visual culture.
Last year, another milestone was reached for First Nations art. Vancouver's Audain Foundation for the Arts donated $2 million to the National Gallery to establish a new curator for indigenous art, one of a handful of such positions in art galleries anywhere in the world. Hill was appointed to the post, becoming head of the country's first department of indigenous art.
The opening of the Bill Reid Gallery for Northwest Coast Art is a sign of how the relationship between the art world and First Nations artists has changed.
To launch the new gallery, two collections of Reid's work are being exhibited until Jan. 11, 2009. Bill Reid: Master of Haida Art is curated by George MacDonald and Restoring Enchantment: Gold and Silver Masterpieces by Bill Reid is curated by Martine Reid, Bill's wife.
Highlights of the gallery's inaugural exhibition include:*In Celebration of Bill: This totem pole by Haida artist Jim Hart dominates the Audain Great Hall. Carved from 500-year-old red cedar, the totem pole features Reid's ancestral crest figures, including Wasgo, the half killer whale/half wolf figure from Haida mythology who lived in a lake behind Skidegate, Reid's mother's village.
On Thursday, before a packed crowd that included Lt.-Gov. Stephen Point, carver Hart completed the pole by affixing a Copper with a wolf crest figure. A Copper was considered the ultimate form of Haida wealth as it gained value by being exchanged during potlatches.
On top, looking down on everything in the gallery is the trickster Raven, representing Reid himself.
*Mythic Messengers: Relatively unknown, this bronze frieze used to be on the Teleglobe Canada building in Burnaby and then at the international terminal at Vancouver International Airport. The frieze is a swirling mass of mythical and human bodies from Haida mythology. Weighing 1,400 kilograms and 8.5 metres in length, the frieze shows figures linked by long, graceful tongues to illustrate how people with great cultural differences can still communicate with one another.
Although some of the major Reid pieces will remain on permanent display, the gallery will change its exhibitions as it focuses on new and established Northwest Coast artists.
The gallery's next exhibition is Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast, a two-year project exploring what it means to be a contemporary First Nations artist in Terrace/Kitselas, Masset, Skidegate, Alert Bay and Vancouver.