Skip to main content

Directors of large museums need many skills, including the ability to play well with others – artists, collectors, the general public and other museums. That part of the job eluded Marc Mayer this week, as the National Gallery of Canada director conducted a media blitz that lowered his stature and harmed his latest mission: to buy a painting by Jacques-Louis David with funds from the sale of a canvas by Marc Chagall.

Mr. Mayer spent the week showing the rough side of his tongue to anyone who dared question either part of this manoeuvre. He was particularly flip about how this issue is snowballing in Quebec.

A case has been building in the province that David’s 1779 painting, Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, has a particular place in Quebec’s cultural history, and ought to remain at least partly in Quebec hands. The painting went on display in Quebec City’s Cathedral de Notre-Dame in 1922, influenced religious painting in the province, and is the only part of a historic private collection not held by the city’s Musée de la civilisation.

In Quebec, cultural memory and geography aren’t easily divisible, especially when the would-be divider is sitting in Ottawa. A decade at the head of a national cultural institution should have sensitized Mr. Mayer to this point. But in a Globe and Mail interview, he said: “I don’t really understand what the big deal is … Quebec is so close to the National Gallery, just a five-minute walk.”

Imagine how that line would work in a showdown between Ottawa and Quebec City about anything else. “Don’t worry your heads, Quebeckers, the feds will take care of it, just five minutes from your border!”

Mr. Mayer’s carpet-bagging talk was quickly countered by Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit, who tweeted that she may classify the painting as a heritage object. That would give her the power to control export or sale of the painting outside Quebec, and even to buy it for the province. Classification could also buy time for the Musée de la civilisation and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), who hold legal and physical custody of the painting, respectively, and have till June to counter a purchase bid by the National Gallery. The owner of the canvas is the civil corporation (fabrique) of the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, which told all three museums in 2016 that it was ready to sell it.

Mr. Mayer had no patience for the Quebec museums’ suggestion that he chip in with them for joint purchase of the David, which would make the sale of Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower unnecessary. Saint Jerome “is not a child of a divorced couple that shuttles back and forth,” he said − as if anyone had proposed moving the canvas every weekend. He also scorned the idea that before committing to sell the Chagall, the National Gallery should have checked in with the two Quebec museums.

“Why would we?” he said. “I don’t know why we had to have a conversation with them.”

The answer to that question seems too simple for a smart museum director to overlook. The Musée de la civilisation has right of first refusal, and has partnered with the MMFA. If they meet the National Gallery’s bid, they win, and the rationale for selling the Chagall disappears. Mr. Mayer spent many months taking the necessary steps to gain National Gallery approval for his two-part deal. One more phone call looks like cheap insurance for his efforts.

As for the Chagall, Mr. Mayer said “it has outlived its usefulness,” at the National Gallery. That may be a valid assessment from within the gallery. Outside the museum, among the general public, Chagall is one of the most popular artists of the 20th century. More than 300,000 people renewed their love at the MMFA’s Chagall exhibition in 2016, the biggest display of the artist’s work in Canadian history.

Mr. Mayer acknowledged that refreshment of Chagall’s standing in Canada only by sniping that the MMFA didn’t ask to borrow The Eiffel Tower, which MMFA director Nathalie Bondil now says should stay in Canada. But her show focused specifically on Chagall and music, and she had many more pertinent works to choose from.

Mr. Mayer should have anticipated the fuss over his planned transactions, and mustered the finesse to handle it. Instead, he played the part of a bureaucratic toff whose procedures shouldn’t be questioned by the common herd. In Quebec, he came across as an overbearing, colonial boss-man. He stiffened resistance to his case, and may have helped his competitors for the David.

Mr. Mayer’s tenure will end within a year. He would no doubt like to be remembered for his accomplishments, including a major, $7.4-million transformation of the Canadian galleries. Many people will remember him instead for this badly handled affair, and for his personal role in making it worse.