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The Group of Seven's first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920.

AGO/Art Gallery of Ontario

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., is organizing an exhibition of Canadian female artists of the early 20th century that will open in 2020. It will include work by such names as Lilias Torrance Newton, Prudence Heward and Paraskeva Clark. Not exactly household names compared with Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer.

Indeed, the fame of the Group of Seven so eclipsed that of these women that the McMichael owns very few examples of their paintings: The show, titled Uninvited, will rely almost entirely on loans. So, should the McMichael, which holds hundreds of works by Group of Seven artists, think about selling off just a few to permanently acquire art by their neglected female contemporaries?

Lilias Torrance Newton, right, stands by her portrait of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in Government House in Ottawa, Oct. 1957.

Capital Press

No, the McMichael is not selling anything at the moment, but the question arises because the Art Gallery of Ontario has been quietly asking other museums if they would like to buy 20 paintings by A.Y. Jackson. Five institutions that I contacted this week said they had many Jacksons already or couldn’t afford new acquisitions, but the AGO says there is some interest out there and conversations are continuing; if nobody buys, the paintings will be sold publicly.

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The AGO’s rationale for the sale is that it holds many works by Mr. Jackson – 168, including both paintings and drawings – and it wants the opportunity to bring under-represented artists into its Canadian and Indigenous collection. Perhaps that means Canadian artists who aren’t of European extraction; perhaps, it means more Indigenous artists or more women. The AGO isn’t saying: So far, it won’t reveal the titles of the Jacksons nor identify what work it might buy instead.

The process known as deaccessioning – culling works that no longer fit or works that are only minor examples of an artist better represented by other pieces in the same collection – can be controversial. Just ask the National Gallery of Canada, which had to cancel the sale of a painting by Marc Chagall last year in part because of public outcry. The gallery wanted to buy an important painting by the 18th-century French artist Jacques-Louis David, but many Canadians thought the Chagall was too special to make a swap. Perhaps that is why the AGO is being so careful not to identify any specific Jackson, nor any specific replacement. ​

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Lilias Torrance Newton, 1957.

L. Torrance Newton/The Senate of Canada

Indeed, Globe readers' comments on the article about the proposed Jackson sale highlight how difficult it is for museums to sell off works by beloved artists – even for the best of reasons: The readers are overwhelmingly negative, accusing the gallery of “political correctness.” (Some speculate about financial pressures, but it should be noted that strict museum policies don’t permit the institutions to ever sell art just to pay bills.)

Gallery directors disagree with the criticism, and argue the AGO is moving judiciously.

“Museums have to interpret the past and honour it, but they also have to have a loyalty to the present moment,” said Sarah Milroy, chief curator at the McMichael. “Museums hire people to make just this kind of distinction: What should be on the Noah’s ark of art history and what can be released into the wild.”

In this case, the wild may include private collections if the AGO doesn’t find enough institutional buyers for the 20 pieces. At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, director Stephen Borys has taken a look at the AGO’s varied list, noted a range of sizes of paintings executed on both panels and canvas and dating from various periods of the artist’s long career – and decided he doesn’t need them.

Paraskeva Clark's Parachute Riggers, 1947.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

“While there are a few appealing works, none them add much to our collection,” he said, noting the WAG has 30 Jacksons already.

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Like most Canadian museums, the WAG has very limited money to buy art outright: It depends mainly on gifts from collectors. That’s why shifting collections to recognize artists who historically have been neglected will be a slow process. Public collections are partly a history of the tastes of collectors: When the AGO welcomed the Thomson gift a decade ago, it acquired 300 more works by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, including 38 by Mr. Jackson, none of which are for sale. It also received a small collection of historical Indigenous art, but it added only four paintings by Canadian women to its holdings – three landscapes by Emily Carr and a still-life by Paraskeva Clark.

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