Let’s take a break from the Sovereignty Act today and talk about something really important: Alberta premiers’ portraits. 

An Alberta premier could do worse than emulate Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait, by Kehinde Wiley, and many have. (Snapped by the author in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.).

In Alberta there’s a long tradition that former premiers get to have rather large portraits hung in the rotunda of the Legislature Building in Edmonton, something that probably seemed like a good idea back in 1910 when Alexander Rutherford had just left office.

Also by tradition, taxpayers get to pick up the tab for these canvasses, which lately have been running in the range of $10,000 to $15,000. 

We’re now on Premier No. 19 and may well soon be contemplating No. 20, and we’re running out of wall space in the building, but for the moment at least it would seem the tradition remains alive.

On Thursday morning, we have been informed, by merit of her status as a former premier, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley’s portrait will be unveiled on the third floor of the building. Journalists may cover the installation, as long as they maintain “a respectful distance.” 

Do not touch the canvass! 

Warhol’s portrait of Gretzky (Snapped by the author in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, N.B.).

I was mildly surprised Ms. Notley, No. 17, chose to have her portrait painted at this time. She is, if I heard her correctly, running for the job again and for some reason I have always associated the official portrait as a last official act, taken just before brushing the place’s dust off of your shoes and resolving never to darken its doorway again. 

She may have her reasons. Perhaps word got around that Jason Kenney had already engaged a portraitist and there was only room for one more on the wall of the Rotunda’s third floor. 

Regardless, the rules are the rules, and Ms. Notley is entitled. And, surely readers will admit that it would be a sweet thing to walk by your own portrait every day on your way to your office!

Whether or not the timing is ideal, one does hope our once and potentially future premier chose wisely when she picked an artist. 

The quality of Alberta premier’s portraits, it seems to me, has been trending downward these past few years. One or two, the subjects of which shall remain nameless to protect their chosen illustrators, have been positively cartoonish. 

A detail from Alison Redford’s official portrait (Snapped by the author at the Alberta Legislature).

Admittedly, my own tastes in portraiture are those of the 19th Century. But if a premier seeks a more contemporary look, they would do better to emulate Kehinde Wiley’s stunning portrait of Obama or even Warhol’s portrait of Gretzky (pretty somethin’ sexy) than the pages of a Marvel Comic, don’t you think?

Be that as it may, as I have argued in this space before, it may soon be time to emulate British Columbia and ditch the giant portraits in favour of small and dignified photographs, suitably framed. 

This is not to say Ms. Notley is not deserving of a full portrait. After all – unlike the last four or five Conservative premiers – she served a full term. 

Indeed, perhaps having completed a full term should become the criterion to qualify for a painted portrait – and future versions of No. 15 Dave Hancock (175 days) or No. 16 Jim Prentice (241 days) would have to make do with a passport photo. 

A detail from Ralph Klein’s official portrait (Snapped by the author at the Alberta Legislature).

Then again, maybe the qualifier should be the same as what’s required for a Parliamentary pension – to wit, re-election to another term. That being the case, Jason Kenney could comfort himself with the fact he got the pension, even if he didn’t get a portrait – which, under the present rules he will. 

Regardless, as I have argued in this space before, since we Albertans have been footing the bill, we should at least have some say about who paints the pictures. 

Tradition says premiers get to choose, and I do not think they should lose that privilege entirely. One’s portrait, after all, should reflect one’s artistic taste, such as it may be, to an appropriate degree. 

But we wouldn’t, for example, let a politician pick the engineer to design a new bridge across the North Saskatchewan, the architect to design a new hospital, or the contractor to build a pipeline should the chance ever again arise to build one of those things. 

British Columbia’s cost-efficient and perfectly respectable approach to premiers’ portraits; Dave Barrett’s, bottom left, was controversial when  it was hung because it was in colour, although it’s looking rather faded nowadays (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Nor should we allow premiers – great leaders and accomplished politicians though they may be – to pick any old (or young) artist to paint their official portraits.

I have suggested we strike a committee of critics, artists and students of the arts – in other words, people capable of making appropriate judgments – to vet the work of Alberta artists who would like to be considered for official commissions of this nature. Then let the former premiers (and former speakers of the House as well, it must be noted) pick their artist from that list.

Recognizing the contribution the arts make to our provincial economy, chosen artists should be paid appropriately for their work, which might well be considerably higher than the current going rate. This ought not to be a problem for people who don’t blink at giving away $1 billion on the chance a pipeline might get built. 

Alternatively, if we are unwilling to support the best art our province can produce, we should do as they’ve been doing in British Columbia since the silver-nitrate era, and hang small photographic portraits in a hallway of the Legislature Building.

Either way, history should not remember our leaders as cartoon figures.

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23 Comments

  1. Alberta’s system here does seem somewhat quaint particularly when compared to BC. However, traditions sometimes endure well past the point where they make total sense. Alberta sometimes seems more attached to tradition than one would expect in such a relatively young province.

    I suppose it is occasions such as this that may cause us to think about whether we should continue with this process. Often the easy default answer is to just keep doing it until we run out of space or something else happens which prompts more thought.

    I suppose it was easier in the old days when many of our premiers served for decades. Having a portrait seemed like a worthy and suitable honour, even if some of their artistic taste or choices were a bit questionable. However, since Klein we seem to have had a number of Premiers who did not make it a full term.

    I suppose we will see if this occasion prompts more thought about potentially better alternatives. Often what happens is some comments are made about artistic merit or cost, but the discussion quickly moves on, back to more relevant political issues if the day. Portraits can also strangely be an issue of somewhat bipartisan restraint as the current premier is also in line for such honour and may not want this diminished or restrained for them. Of course, we are getting close to an election, so instead non partisan feeling might be what is diminished right now.

    Having a list of artists seems like a good way to ensure quality and there are a number of reputatable existing artistic bodies in Alberta that could provide input. Although paradoxically perhaps the current system, with no restraints or such bodies involved, might logically better appeal to those who are more libertarian or populist inclined. Of course, consistency and politics do not always go hand in hand.

  2. Small nit to pick about one line in this: “…contractor to build a pipeline should the chance ever again arise to build one of those things….” 
    Pipelines get laid all the time–from big, intraprovincial ones like the Alberta gas trunk line to hundreds of smaller ones in oil and gas fields and local distribution systems–just not the big interprovincial and international transmission lines that make headlines.
    Just sayin’

  3. Describing the quality of the cavalcade of premiers’ portraits as devolving into something cartoonish it pretty much on the mark.

    How many premiers of Alberta over the last decade? How many were ousted by their own party after brief terms in office? It seems that CONs can’t get the crazy right their leadership. Now that Jason Kenney’s portrait may take up the last bit of available space for his portrait, one wonders how much longer this tradition of nonsense is going to continue.

  4. I think a cartoon of a former premier might be fun. Surely we deserve some laughs after these recent years of suffering. The artist for ex-premier Kenney’s portrait should be an illustrator for DC Comics. I can see it now: Kenney as The Penguin from Batman. The image here looks positively Churchillian, don’t you think? That should make him happy.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penguin_(character)

    Just don’t ever let the exes have bronze statues of themselves on the legislature grounds!

    1. Statues of former premiers can be controversial.

      https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1977/6/13/the-duplessis-touch

      Eventually, the statue of Le Chef did find its way into public display, although not without copious salvos of eggs, rotten fruit, and other demonstrations of ingratitude over the years.

      Maurice Duplessis was a “confirmed bachelor”, so a towering bronze likeness of Jason Kenney on the Leg grounds would make a fine target for … criticism.

  5. Portraits are also fashionable in Ontario, and like you we have several worthy of suppressed giggles. Despite the blogger’s excellent illustration however, the person whose picture belongs on your Legislature wall is the Conscience of Alberta, DJC.
    (Don’t you dare trash this one, David.)

  6. For some of us, this devolution to “presidential” systems of so-called parliamentary rule is a problem that is manifest in all the hype, past and present, in “leadership” of “one chosen”. Rule by consensus has flown the coop, never mind some kind of “co-operative” sense that is far more inclusive and participatory than our meager ‘representative’ style. Democracy can and should be a larger, and thus slower, process that requires the people to actually be educated enough to know they can actually be part of decisions that affect their lives.

  7. I had the good fortune to attend a bash at Government House in Edmonton in the early 1980s. A large painting of then-still Premier, Peter Lougheed, was on the wall of an office where he made or took a lot of calls. The portrait was positioned directly where he could sit back and view it while on the phone. Some of the regulars who respond to your blog write glowingly of Lougheed. In comparison to contemporary Alberta premiers, I guess he shines. But, among his many sins, he was an extremely vain person, as illustrated by the placement of his portrait.
    So, I may disagree with your conclusion that premiers should not be remembered as cartoon figures. It would be entirely appropriate if they were!

  8. Off-topic, but I thought it might give Albertans’ spirits a boost to watch someone else who should know better harm their own society in an absurdly incompetently manner for a change:

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/covid-lambda-facebook-vaccine-tickets-1.6676478

    Some direct quotes from Justice Adair:

    “Hang on, hang on. What is a social media post?” “How do you know they made them on Facebook?” “I know Facebook exists. I don’t use Facebook,” Adair went on to say. “What is it? What does it show?”

    After some googling, the only other thing I found out about this judge is that he ruled that someone wearing earphones connected to a dead cellphone that they are not using is still guilty of distracted driving because once you plug in the earphones they are part of the cell phone and since you have them in your ears you are using your cell phone, thus are distracted by your (completely inoperable) cell phone. Moon logic ftw!

    Back to Mr. Adair’s more recent shameful idiocy, the article notes that the defense lawyer (the one defending the doorknob lickers) had a bunch of human rights arguments they never even needed to make. Why do so many people think their right to access a luxury matters more than someone else’s right to life? Why have none of the adults or authorities addressed this obviously flawed argument? Is it because they want to see harm done to certain communities?

    I wonder how this judge would feel getting health care from a doctor who didn’t know the basic facts about his illness. Maybe he would want a second opinion. I would hope that even a person who agrees with the ruling would find it disturbing that the judge who gave it was this incredibly, shamelessly clueless. Perhaps this judge ought to have saved himself and the judicial system considerable embarrassment and recused himself in favour of someone familiar with the basic context necessary to understand the issue being litigated. This is the public health equivalent of “have you considered keeping your knees closed?”

    Instead of telling Canadians that spreading covid disproportionately harms non-white people, we should try convincing Canadians that raising taxes on the rich and addressing climate change will do the same.

  9. I used to collect bad art. Some very fascinating philosophical and ethical issues in there. Mostly I’d peruse thrift- and second-hand shops, —and garage sales where one has to keep criticism discrete since the artist or, perhaps, the artist’s mother is probably within earshot. Still, it was years before I realized how a garage-sale vendor could, in all good conscience, display and sell something as lousy as some of the pieces I’ve seen. I mean, there really is carefully measured discernment involved: it has to be a certain kind of bad to pass muster.

    The basic aesthetic is that an artwork can be so bad it’s good (which is also one of the reasons I love country & western—‘cept “bro-country” and “country-rap” which are just plain bad. But Ernest Tubb? Nuh-uh. He gold, dude!)

    The genre is dominated by pet portraits and landscapes, and maybe about five percent what I assume are self portraits (about which I’ve had many an interesting conversation concerning the psychological aspects of such). My collection got pretty big. I even considered showing select pieces at a gallery my darling and I used to own. She was never keen on any of it (the collection began years before we met), never allowed but one of them to be hung in the house, only in the bedroom where she wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of any guests. And wouldn’t let me “insult” other artists jointly shown.

    But hers wasn’t exactly an aesthetic argument (she knew better: I’d studied that philosophy in University), rather more one of basic consideration for others (of which everyone could stand a refresher course). “How would you feel if you came to the show and saw people gagging at a picture you yourself painted and thought it had been discretely gotten rid of years before?” Talking about embarrassment potential, she had a pretty good point.

    I recall perusing a bin full of various oil and acrylic (and not a few of alkyd house paint) renditions of cats and vases and mountain lakes at a junk store in Victoria one day and a little old lady beside me said, “You’re a smart one, I can tell.” I was going to art college at the time so prob’ly had a bit of oil pint under by bohemian finger nails and a faint whiff of linseed about me. “Oh, yes, you know how to save money,” she continued, holding up a small Grumbacher canvassed hard-board upon which some amateur had depicted moored fishing boats with perspective so disturbing it almost tore my eyes out. “I’m sure you know these are several dollars, brand new,” she went on, squinting now and the sticker price,” and here only…fifty cents! I give it a coat of latex primer and it’s good as new—then I can just paint over it and nobody’s the wiser.” So deliberate was her rifling through the bin, she probably didn’t notice the look of horror on my face, the thought never having occurred to me before that untold numbers of bad-art masterpieces must have been likewise defaced. It nearly ruined my whole day.

    Anyway, it wouldn’t be the first time my sweetie soothed me out of a funk. “You might have unwittingly discovered a whole new field of art restoration (she got that idea from a very handsome friend of mine who, with his charming Czech wife, dined with us before returning to the UK where he is well paid to restore frescoes at cathedrals around the UK). Hmmmm, I thought, maybe there’s a future in bad-art fraud forensics, x-rays, chemical analysis ‘n’ all.

    Then, slowly over the years, she cleverly comforted me as my truckfull of bad art shrank down enough to fit into one end of the guest room closet. Nevertheless, I still have some doozies. Oh, yes, I really do.

    And so I ask, not without some experience and expertise in the matter: did they really have to punish Allison Redford that much? I mean, jeez!—these conservatives! Unforgiving or what?

    Can’t wait to see Kenney’s—or Danielle’s, for that matter.

    1. Scotty: I have a few bad art classics, too, that nevertheless exude a certain charm. One is on my office wall at work, no doubt causing my colleagues to question my sanity. But the colours are true to the scene, which I know because I grew up nearby, even if the shadows fall is if this were a planet with two suns. DJC

  10. Well, if it’s wall space they need, I will be more than happy to drive to Edmonton and take down the portrait of my great-grandfather who served a term as Lieutenant Governor almost 100 years ago. He is surely spinning in his grave over this massive and unconstitutional power grab. I don’t want my family name associated with this gong-show of a government in any way. The very idea of his portrait sharing wall space with portraits of Kenney, Klein and Smith make me throw up in my mouth a little.

  11. I welcome the portraits. They’re a tangible way of observing our province’s history, and providing a sense of continuity from past to present.

    PS:
    @Andy M. Other than the placement of his portrait, how do you know Lougheed was vain? Would you suggest Lougheed should have hung his portrait where he couldn’t see it?

  12. Hi Lungta, Too hilarious a comment. Talking of portraits of premiers, I remember once being in the UAE and opening the English language newspaper with news about the Gulf Co-operation Council countries. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw a half-page photo portrait of King Ralph. You could travel 7,235 miles (11643 kilometres), but still couldn’t escape him or his portrait.

  13. DJC, you’re probably being inundated with outraged people, with good reason, Global did a pretty good job of saying what I was thinking, but I just want you and all the sane Albertans to know, that we feel your pain, and sincerely hope there is something that can be done before Xmas, or else Dani-grinch will ruin it for the majority …( and yes I know she doesn’t care, but if ever there was need for a xmas miracle..)
    hope you’ve stocked up on a pink bottle, or as my Scottish B-in-L
    would say, a wee dram laddie… to fortify you for the road ahead.

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