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Art galleries warn federal government that court ruling threatens their ability to build world-class collections

A letter by leaders of eight prominent Canadian art galleries was sent to the Heritage Minister's office in response to a Federal Court ruling that centred on Gustav Caillebotte's 1892 painting Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers, which was sold by a Canadian auction house to a British gallery for $678,500, in 2016.

The leaders of eight prominent art galleries are warning the federal government that a recent court ruling is a direct threat to their ability to build world-class collections.

“The future of every museum in the country is now at stake,” says the letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, signed by the directors of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario and others.

A Federal Court ruling in June narrowed the test a government board uses to determine if valuable works of art are eligible for a substantial tax break. Canadian art galleries usually have a small or non-existent budget to buy art and rely on tax incentives to entice donors to give them art.

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“Urgent action is required: Already, donations that were in progress – even from recognized Canadian collections – have been frozen, preventing our institutions from acquiring major works,” the letter says.

The minister’s office said it is listening to the museums and that’s why the federal government is appealing the decision.

“One thing is clear though: We are very much aware of the worries that museums and galleries have raised with us,” said Simon Ross, the Heritage Minister’s spokesperson.

At issue is how the government determines whether a work of art or a historical artifact is of “national importance” to Canada.

The government uses that criteria in two ways: to judge whether to issue an export permit for someone who wants to take a valuable cultural item out of the country; and to decide whether to give a special cultural certification to an object donated to a museum, which results in the donor being given a large tax break in return. In addition to being of national importance, the art must also be of “outstanding significance,” which could mean, for example, that it is an important example of an artist’s style.

In June, the courts weighed in on these rules for the first time since Parliament created the law 40 years ago.

A Federal Court judge found the government was too broad in defining whether an item was of national importance. Although Canada is multicultural, Justice Michael Manson wrote, an international work of art should be considered nationally important only if it has a link to Canadian heritage in particular.

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The case concerned a French impressionist painting – the 1892 Gustave Caillebotte painting Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers – that had been sold by the Heffel auction house to a British buyer. The French work by a French painter was brought to Canada by a collector in the 1960s and had sat in private collections since. It was never exhibited publicly until it was sold for $678,500 at auction in 2016. The painting was denied an export permit by Canada Border Services Agency, and denied on appeal to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. Heffel then took the case to the Federal Court, which ruled in its favour.

In the letter, the museum leaders argue the new rules will homogenize public art collections.

“How can we exclude the cultures of of the world from the building of our Canadian society, when that society is characterized by its very diversity?” the letter says. “Will we have to explain to the coming generations that international works of art … are to be banished from the Canadian imagination from now on?”

The museum directors sent the letter to the minister on Aug. 20 and are now releasing it publicly. The eight signatories of the letter are Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery; Nathalie Bondil, director-general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Stephen Borys, director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Christiane Germain, chair of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City; Stephan Jost, chief executive of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; Stéphan La Roche, executive director of the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City; Suzanne Sauvage, president of the McCord Museum in Montreal; and John Zeppetelli, director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

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