Even by the standards of institutions that tend to discourage flash photography and raised voices, the ongoing scandal at the National Gallery of Canada is incredibly quaint.
Let’s review. The museum announced recently that it planned to sell a painting by the important Russian-French modernist Marc Chagall – The Eiffel Tower – in order to buy another work with national significance that was at risk of leaving the country.
On Monday, the National Gallery confirmed that the second, mystery painting was a 1779 work by the French neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David, called Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment.
The Ottawa museum has methodically explained its logic for the swap. It has another, better Chagall painting. Plus, this one is expected to fetch in the ballpark of $8-million at auction, equal to the museum’s annual acquisitions budget.
Meanwhile, the museum doesn’t have any major works by David, and this one in particular has a Canadian backstory, having been brought here around 1917 by a private buyer and owned for decades by a church in Quebec City.
What’s more, the gallery recently learned that a foreign museum was interested in the David, raising the stakes.
So why the consternation? Some people simply prefer the Chagall to the David, which is fair, though you can’t please everybody on a budget.
There’s also much hand-wringing among museum people about selling one work to buy another. One curator at a rival gallery called the move “very, very, very radical.”
Critics should take a deep breath. The National Gallery is looking to buy a painting of impeccable pedigree and artistic merit with deep national ties the only way it can manage.
Of course, because this is Canada, questions of provincial prerogative have also entered the picture. Two Quebec museums say they want to share ownership of the David, but National Gallery director Marc Mayer has bluntly said no.
He should think about jointly buying the David with the Quebec museums and banking some of the Chagall money. It would be a gracious move. And it would defuse a controversy, once and for all, that never really deserved the name.