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National Gallery : Cloud over National Gallery director Marc Mayer’s future

April 28th, 2018 | by Richard Paul
National Gallery : Cloud over National Gallery director Marc Mayer’s future
Business and Finance


ANALYSIS: Chagall debacle casts cloud over National Gallery director Marc Mayer’s future

National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / OTTAWA CITIZEN


Marc Mayer arrived as the director of the National Gallery of Canada in 2009 on the heels of a messy power struggle between the retiring director, Pierre Théberge, and his deputy, David Franklin.

Mayer, a Franco-Ontarian originally from Sudbury, helped ease what had been described in court as a “toxic” environment at the gallery with his friendly, informal demeanour. He was a stark contrast to the austere and distant Théberge, who tried to fire Franklin — the presumed heir apparent for some board members — supposedly for destroying personnel-related emails.

With Mayer’s arrival from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, Théberge retired, Franklin soon moved to a job in Cleveland, peace was restored, and the man with no driver’s licence, a mere B.A. in a PhD environment, the quirky hobby of collecting preserved, deadly insects and a particular fondness for Winnipeg artists was put in charge of some of Canada’s most cherished treasures.

But now the National Gallery is in turmoil again, amid a different power struggle, sparked by the planned sale of a 1929 Marc Chagall painting, The Eiffel Tower, to raise millions of dollars to purchase, from a Quebec City Catholic parish, the 1779 painting Saint Jérôme Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment by Jacques-Louis David. Mayer’s future now is in doubt and he remains out of the country until mid-next week.

An “open letter” was issued by the National Gallery on Thursday night, saying the board of trustees had cancelled the proposed Chagall sale because there was no longer any danger of the David leaving Canada.

Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower (left) and Jacques-Louis David’s Jerome Heard the Trumpets of the Last Judgment (right).

No names were attached as signatories to the “open letter,” neither that of the recently appointed board chair, Montreal businesswoman Françoise Lyon, nor that of Mayer. A different open letter issued Monday, signed by both Lyon and Mayer, had said the Chagall sale would continue.

So, what happened?

The gallery is not talking. Emails and phone messages left with Mayer, who is out of the country, and Lyon were not returned. Josée-Britanie Mallet, a gallery spokeswoman, would only say: “We cannot accommodate your request for an interview at this time.” The gallery has been cloaked in secrecy since the beginning of this saga, acknowledging the planned Chagall sale only after Christie’s announced it.

In the absence of hard information Friday, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Speculation arose that the board, at a Wednesday meeting, had overruled Mayer’s determination to sell the Chagall.


Futhermore, there was intense speculation that Mayer may leave the gallery sooner than he originally planned — next January after two five-year terms.

Mayo Graham, the gallery’s former director of national outreach and international relations, was pleased with the decision to keep the Chagall.

“I’m so happily relieved,” Graham said. “Bless the new chair!”

And Graham added: “Interestingly, no signators to this release and no mention of the director in the text.”

Mallet confirmed Friday that Mayer participated in the board’s “conversation” to cancel the auction.

Still to be announced is the penalty the National Gallery will have to pay to withdraw the Chagall from the Christie’s auction. RAVEN MCCOY / POSTMEDIA

“Mayer’s gone, no matter what,” suggested the Vancouver-based Jeffrey Spalding, who has served as director for such art institutions as Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. “He’s a lame duck. There’s nothing he can do between now and January.”

Other art museum royalty, in Ottawa and beyond, who asked to remain anonymous, predicted Mayer will soon go, his position untenable.

Still to be announced is the penalty the gallery will have to pay to withdraw the Chagall from the Christie’s auction. Generally, such a fee for an expensive painting like the Chagall — valued by Christie’s at $6 million to $9 million US — could exceed $1 million or even $2 million. But the auction house does make exceptions in special cases, vastly reducing the penalty.

Clearly, the Chagall controversy has wounded Mayer’s reputation, overshadowing, at least in the short-term, the contributions he has made during the past nine years, including the end to the art apartheid that long ruled at the National Gallery. Thanks to Mayer, Indigenous art is now exhibited alongside other Canadian art from the same time period. Mayer also instituted a biennial to showcase acquisitions of Canadian contemporary art, giving a much higher profile to many young, deserving artists in the country.

So, has the National Gallery’s reputation actually been harmed by all this?

John Porter, the longtime former director of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, welcomed the decision to stop the Chagall sale and predicted there will be no long-term harm to the gallery.

Terry Graff, former director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, described the proposed Chagall sale as “an epic blunder.”

“Obviously, there were errors of judgment caused by insufficient knowledge and understanding of the gallery’s ethical responsibility to preserving the permanent collection and upholding the public trust,” said Graff. “Along with poor communications and missed opportunities for collaboration and relationship-building, the National Gallery looked disorganized and risked loss of credibility.”

Porter said that if he were the National Gallery director, he would immediately exhibit the Chagall so the people who campaigned to keep the painting in Ottawa could see it. The painting has been in storage for many years, but was sent to New York for the May 15 auction. The gallery was asked Friday if it planned to exhibit it soon. Mallet only replied: “A decision on the future of the Chagall painting will be made in due course.”


Exhibiting The Eiffel Tower would obviously please Bryna Cohen, an Ottawa artist, former National Gallery guide and the catalyst for an online petition demanding cancellation of the Chagall’s sale.

“I feel we have saved a magnificent painting from auction, and I am very, very proud to have started the petition,” she said.

Most of the anger over the possible sale of the Chagall was directed at Mayer. Quebecers were particularly upset with Mayer because of public comments he made that he would not join Quebec museums in raising $5 million or more needed to buy the David. He said paintings can’t be moved around from place to place like the children of divorced parents.

By rebuffing Quebec’s overtures, Mayer appeared to be belittling his spurned suitors — the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City.

“The attitude and methods of the director of the National Gallery of Canada have been irritating and displeasing to many Quebecers in recent days,” wrote columnist Brigitte Breton in the Quebec City daily Le Soleil.

There were also lingering questions about the reported desire of the Catholic church to sell the David painting to pay for needed building repairs.

Some Quebec sources, with direct knowledge of the proposed David sale, maintained there was never any danger in the painting leaving Canada despite Mayer’s assertion to the contrary. The Quebec government has announced plans to give the painting “heritage” status, meaning it can not leave the province.

Meanwhile, Ottawa awaits an answer to questions about Mayer’s future.

“The only people who can and should answer that question are members of the NGC (National Gallery) board of trustees,” says Martha Langford, an art history professor at Concordia University and founding director of the gallery’s former subsidiary, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

So far, the board is not showing its hand.

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