The Art Gallery of Ontario is taking the unusual step of selling off 20 paintings by famed Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson to make room for more works by underrepresented artists.
The AGO has given other Canadian galleries the first right to buy the paintings at a “preferential rate," before possibly taking the works to public auction. The gallery would not identify which of its Jackson paintings it is selling.
Julian Cox, the AGO’s deputy director and chief curator, said Jackson will continue to have a “strong representation" at the gallery, but that the sale will allow the AGO to diversify its collection.
“One of our key collecting strategies is to acquire works by artists who have traditionally been underrepresented in art museums,” Mr. Cox said in a statement. “This allows us to redress historical gaps and better reflect the people who live here.”
The gallery said proceeds from the sale would be used to buy works for the Indigenous and Canadian art collection, but that the specific purchases have not been confirmed.
Julie Nagam, associate professor and chair in Indigenous art of North America at the University of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, said many institutions are working to become more aware of how their communities are being reflected – or not reflected – in their collections.
“The reality is that, for over a century, Canadian museums have been purchasing a lot of European-based work, or Eurocentric-based works," Dr. Nagam said. "I think it would be great – actually, not great, fantastic – to have better representation for underrepresented communities, such as women, racialized artists and Indigenous artists.”
An AGO spokesperson said a portion of Jackson’s art was selected for removal because "he is so exceptionally well represented in the AGO Collection.”
The sales are being done in line with the gallery’s policy on deaccessioning, which is the museum term for removing items from a collection. Just as an art gallery may put great thought into what items it wants to buy and where it would display the items on its walls, so must a gallery be careful about how it disposes of an object.
The AGO’s policy on deaccessioning lists eight different reasons why it might choose to get rid of an item from its collection, from deciding that the work is “no longer consistent” with the AGO’s mission or that curators have discovered the object is a forgery. The policy also says all deaccessioning decisions must be approved by the gallery director and, if the piece was donated to the gallery, are subject to consultations with the donor or their heirs.
The policy also says all “acts of deaccessioning and disposal” are to be reported at the gallery’s annual meeting and on the AGO website.
The AGO began a major push to declutter its vaults in 2014, starting with the deaccessioning of a number of works of European art. The Jackson sale is the first time since then that the gallery has deaccessioned another group of paintings.
Alexander Young (A.Y.) Jackson, born in Montreal in 1882, was a founding member of the Group of Seven, a collective of artists known for painting vivid landscapes and who created Canada’s first major national art movement in the early 20th century. He trained in Montreal, Chicago and Paris and worked as a military artist in Europe during the First World War. The painter lived in Toronto and took part in the first Group of Seven exhibit in 1920, while frequently travelling Canada’s outdoors for inspiration. He died in Kleinburg, Ont., in 1974.
“Jackson is unique among the Group because he spent six decades painting throughout the length and breadth of Canada,” said Gregory Humeniuk, an art historian who has worked at the AGO.
Deaccessioning is a normal – though uncommon – duty of curators, but those decisions can sometimes attract public controversy. Last year, the National Gallery of Canada proposed selling a multimillion-dollar Marc Chagall canvas in order to raise money to buy an 18th-century work by French painter Jacques-Louis David. The sale was the first of its kind by the gallery, but was ultimately called off because of a dispute with two Quebec museums and the provincial government.
Such sales are not permitted under most museum policies if the purpose is simply to keep the lights on. In the United States, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., got into a legal fight in 2017 with the heirs of Norman Rockwell and others over a plan to sell a number of works – including some by Rockwell – at an auction to raise money to reconfigure the institution, which was struggling financially.
However, there is increasing discussion in the museum community about trimming collections of seldom exhibited works to save on storage and conservation costs or to make room for different artists.
“It’s forest management: they are living organisms not mausoleums," said Sarah Milroy, chief curator and acting director at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. “There is something decadent about an institution holding on to paintings that they probably can’t use because they have better examples.”
Milroy said the McMichael has 472 works by A.Y. Jackson in its collection and is unlikely to acquire any from the AGO.
With files from Kate Taylor