Saying “well done” to a federal cabinet minister is not something we do every day. But here we go. Kudos to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for halting the sale of 22 iconic Canadian paintings, including works by Jean Paul Lemieux, Paul-Émile Borduas, William Kurelek and David Milne. The sell-off, which was dreamt up under Lawrence Cannon, Mr. Baird’s predecessor at DFAIT, was a cash-generating measure. But like auctioning off the family silver, it promised to cost plenty in symbolic terms. Canadians care about their heritage; they don’t want their elected officials cavalierly selling seminal works to the highest bidder.
Mr. Baird knows full well that there was a public outcry after he ordered the removal of two Alfred Pellan landscapes from the Ottawa headquarters of DFAIT last summer and had them replaced them with a photograph of the Queen. Perhaps that controversy motivated him to think twice about what might happen if he allowed the department to get rid of a significant part of our cultural legacy. Perhaps he is a genuine art lover, as a government source suggested earlier this week.
What matters is that he has saved the 22 paintings, valued at about $4-million. What does he plan to do with them? They have been taken down from the walls of Canadian embassies, consulates and official residences around the world, and are languishing – along with the Pellans – in storage facilities in Ottawa.
We have a suggestion. The paintings belong to the people of Canada, so let us see them. Why doesn’t DFAIT invite an expert panel of dealers and curators to assess the collection judiciously? Offer the best ones on permanent loan to museums across the country, so they can hang, not just in the National Gallery in Ottawa, but in Edmonton and Calgary and Halifax and points in-between.
If some of these works are of minimal historical interest, sell them to collectors or institutions at market value and put the money into the department’s acquisition budget for new works by contemporary, cutting-edge and affordable Canadian artists. After all, that’s what happened decades ago when canny and artistically knowledgeable bureaucrats bought a painting from Mr. Lemieux for $600 and a work by Jean-Paul Riopelle for $900. Those shrewd purchases have returned their original investment many times over in building the reputations of our artists abroad. It is time to give that same boost to a new generation of artists.