It used to be that Canadians had two jobs: their regular one and that gig running the CBC. Now, apparently, we are all adding the administration of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) to our load.
The roar of the second-guessing has been thunderous since media revealed earlier this month that the gallery was auctioning off a nice Chagall to ensure some unnamed artwork doesn’t leave Canada. And it grew deafening this week when it became clear the work in question is Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgement by the 18th-century French artist Jacques-Louis David and owned by a Quebec City parish in need of funds for restoring two churches.
I’ve heard from art experts, Globe readers, colleagues and friends, all of them outraged at the auction of La Tour Eiffel, a 1929 painting by modernist Marc Chagall that NGC keeps in its vaults. If you suggest gallery officials might be better placed to judge the needs of the collection, they sputter. Some believe NGC should have consulted the public long before the New York auction set for May 15; some point out no British museum would ever be permitted to do this; others wonder if NGC is not a stalking horse for laxer American standards on “deaccessioning” art; yet others are alarmed the gallery wants to remove the David from Quebec and wonder if that implies that this very Catholic painting is somehow more important than one by a Jewish artist. Put it all together and you might conclude that NCG is irresponsible, mendacious, anti-Quebec and possibly anti-Semitic, too.
I don’t think the gallery is any of those things, but people are acquisitive and will fight hard to keep what they believe is theirs – even it they only discovered its existence last week. The gallery is now facing a popularity contest between a bright, accessible image of a favourite French site and an older, darker artwork that exhibits a religiosity to which few contemporary Canadians relate. The art market judges the two multimillion-dollar works to be of similar value – one of the reasons why NGC chose the high-value Chagall to sell – but I know which painting I’d pick for my wall and I’m guessing many would agree.
Our personal tastes, however, are not really the point: we pay curators and museum directors for their expertise and then expect them to get on with the job. I sighed in relief this week when Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly said NGC makes its own decisions and she would not intervene in a debate which, with the added angle of Quebec national sentiment, could get very political.
Deaccessioning art is often controversial and is not a decision NCG director Marc Mayer can have undertaken lightly. Ethical standards for North American museums dictate that art can’t be sold off to pay operating or capital costs, but that collections can be judiciously culled if the money goes back into the acquisitions budget. Museum experts seem divided in this case. John McAvity, director of the Canadian Museum Association, said the sale would fall within that group’s guidelines. On the other hand, Gail Lord of Lord Cultural Resources doesn’t think a museum should use the marketplace to swap paintings: “The profession is very concerned about deaccessioning in order to acquire,” she said.
To remove the financial incentive, British guidelines are much tighter, stipulating museums must first offer the art to other institutions – for free. Those rules were developed in the 1970s after the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London proposed auctioning off an altarpiece by the 17th-century Italian artist Domenichino to pay for security improvements. The National Gallery of Scotland stepped in and bought it for £100,000 (about $180,000 at today’s exchange rate) but the artist’s reputation has blossomed since and today it would be worth many millions.
“It’s an object lesson on why you don’t deaccession,” said Ian Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and former director of the Dulwich.
Like that altarpiece, Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, which some were convinced was a grand rip-off when the NGC paid $1.8-million for the abstract canvas in 1990, has seen a huge increase in value: a smaller Newman set a record of US$43.8 million in 2013.
As the cost of insuring collections, let alone buying more art, skyrockets but budgets remain static, U.S. museums in particular have been pushing against the traditional restrictions. Nasty controversies ensue. Recently, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., a small but multidisciplinary collection, has been vilified for a plan to auction off 40 works, including two by Norman Rockwell, so it could stop running up debt and focus on science and history; a sale was finally permitted by the Massachusetts attorney general in February with a stipulation one Rockwell be exhibited at another local museum for two years.
Will the NGC also be forced to play better with its museum colleagues? It’s clear from Mr. Mayer’s recent remarks that he didn’t expect either the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (where the David is currently on loan) nor Quebec’s Museé de la civilisation (which holds the painting on behalf of the parish of Notre-Dame) to be able to pay market value for the work, but some are suggesting the three should buy it together. Meanwhile, the Quebec government is considering giving the David a heritage designation, as an important example of Quebec’s cultural history, that would keep it in the province and also rule out any overseas buyer.
St. Jerome was on loan to NCG from 1995 to 2013 but Quebeckers may now insist it can never leave their province while all Canada howls “We want our Tour Eiffel.” Next time I’m in Ottawa I’m going to seek out Childhood Memories, a picture of a Russian village and a goat that is the Chagall that the gallery does display, deeming it a more representative example of the artist. I expect to push my way through a large crowd of appreciative citizens in order to get a view.