An illustration of former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
We won’t know until Thursday what Rachel Notley’s portrait looks like – let’s hope it’s at least as dignified as this one. Credit: David J. Climenhaga Credit: David J. Climenhaga

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

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, by merit of her status as a former premier, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley’s portrait was unveiled on the third floor of the building. Journalists were able to cover the installation, as long as they maintain “a respectful distance.” 

Do not touch the canvass! 

I was mildly surprised 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 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. 

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 B.C. and ditch the giant portraits in favour of small and dignified photographs, suitably framed. 

This is not to say 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. 

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. 

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 B.C. 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.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...