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More than eight years after Vancouver Art Gallery announced the donation of sketches by J.E.H. MacDonald, Canadians are still yet to learn of their authenticity.Vancouver Art Gallery

As The Globe and Mail’s Secret Canada project is demonstrating with infuriating detail, it can be very difficult to get information that you as a Canadian have every right to know. It’s frustrating, and it’s wrong. And it’s something journalists deal with constantly.

In January, 2015, the Vancouver Art Gallery announced, with some fanfare, the donation of 10 sketches it said were by Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald. The sketches, amazingly, had previously been buried for more than 40 years on the Thornhill, Ont., property where the artist had once lived. They had subsequently been in the hands of a private collector for many more years. An exhibition to show off this landmark donation was planned that fall, the gallery said.

I reported that story at the time. But then I started hearing from Canadian historical art experts who raised questions about the sketches.

We published an article in March of that year about this skepticism.

The VAG then said that it would send the paintings to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), a federally funded agency within the Department of Canadian Heritage that uses science for conservation and research purposes for Canadian institutions.

When I sought information from CCI, I received a response more than two months later. “I finally got approval to send you the following information you were looking to get,” the e-mail began. I followed up by asking for an interview to clarify the answers, but was turned down.

The testing was to be conducted in 2016. A CCI official wrote in an e-mail that through scientific examination, it would be able to determine if the materials of the VAG works were consistent with other works by J.E.H. MacDonald that had been studied as part of a larger project.

That CCI report was delivered to the VAG on Sept. 2, 2016. The CCI would not reveal the results to The Globe, referring me to the VAG. But the gallery also refused to share the results. Repeated requests were met with a standard response from the VAG: that the research was continuing and the gallery had no information to share “at this time.”

At the beginning of 2017, I sent an Access to Information request to Canadian Heritage for the results of the CCI testing. I also sent a request for information regarding certification and any tax receipts issued for the donated works. The latter was transferred to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, which has a certification process that offers tax benefits as an incentive for collectors to give important Canadian artwork to public collections.

On the certification/tax matter, I received a response dated Apr. 20, 2017. “We have conducted a search of our records and located 110 pages relevant to your request. I regret to inform you that these documents are withheld entirely as they qualify for exemption.”

In a separate letter dated Apr. 28, I received a response to the request for the CCI results. “The information you requested is withheld in its entirety.”

Now, some good news: the VAG will open an exhibition this December in which the CCI results will be revealed. The public will finally get to learn the truth about these paintings, almost nine years after the initial announcement.

The findings are being reviewed by the VAG, according to Jasmine Bradley, its director of strategic communications and branding. “This work will continue right up to the exhibition in December – at which point we will be able to share results from the CCI analysis and provide visitors with a comprehensive look into the steps that have been taken as part of this process,” she wrote in an e-mail on Monday.

On its Facebook page, the VAG says the exhibit “will provide an opportunity to explore the areas where science and expert judgment meet” and give visitors “the tools to come to their own conclusions about artistic merit and value.”

I’ll reiterate that the CCI report was delivered to the VAG in September, 2016. The gallery has been through a large turnover of staff since then. The senior curator who authenticated the paintings has retired; the then-director’s contract was not renewed; the chief curator and associate director at the time has also left.

This story – whether some artworks, for which donors may or may not have received tax benefits, were authentic – is not the most important thing in the world. But it seems reasonable that a publicly funded art gallery should be transparent about such an acquisition, especially after so publicly lauding it. And if it takes nine years for the public to find out about the authenticity of some paintings they may have financially supported in some way, what else do we not know?

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