The National Gallery of Canada has lately been in a hurry to scare up $10 million — so much so that it’s putting one of its two paintings by Modern master Marc Chagall up for sale — and on Monday, we all found out exactly why.
Some sleuthing by Le Journal de Montreal last week speculated, correctly as it turns out, that the gallery’s mystery acquisition target was Jacques-Louis David’s 1779 painting Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, owned by the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City. Now, with the facts in place — the gallery revealed the secret on Monday with the cathedral’s blessing — the hand-wringing about the high-priced painting swap can begin in earnest.
There will, no doubt, be many who oppose the decision. Chagall’s lofty position in the pantheon of Modern art is equalled by few, and bested by maybe only two: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
David, a towering figure in French neo-classical painting, is no less important, an art historian would tell you, though in another era and for different reasons.
National Gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer makes a strong case for this specific David’s significance to Canada: It arrived in Quebec City with a private owner in 1917, was donated to the parish in 1938, and spent 18 years on the walls of the National Gallery itself, from 1995 to 2013, before being tucked safely into the storage of the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City for conservation.
Adding it to the gallery’s already-deep collection in European art of the period “would cap off nearly two centuries of such examples in Canada’s national collection, increasing its educational value,” Mayer wrote in a statement Monday.
More important is the institutional backdrop that makes this little drama possible in the first place. The National Gallery, with its $8 million annual acquisition budget, is a kingpin when it comes to buying power among art museums in Canada. (It offered the Chagall to museums across the country, where there were no takers, before turning to Christie’s, an international auction house, to make a sale.)
Shift to the global art market, though, and it’s an absolute pauper. Significant paintings across all eras routinely sell for many times the gallery’s entire budget: Last year, a small Francis Bacon triptych sold at auction for $38.6 million (U.S.); an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong, $32.4 million (U.S.); a Picasso sketch for almost $60 million (U.S.) — and let’s not forget the obscene $450 million (U.S.) paid for a small work by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Christie’s, which will put Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower up at auction on May 15, sold $7.3 billion (U.S.) worth of art and collectibles in 2017 alone.
You get the picture, if you’ll pardon the pun: In the big money world of major art acquisition, the National Gallery of Canada isn’t even in the game. Its $8 million per year, a Parliamentary allotment that hasn’t increased a penny in more than a decade while prices on the global art market have soared, is spent largely on its robust and vital acquisition program for Canadian art. It’s a program Mayer is right to protect.
A single purchase that blows the whole budget in one go would mean suspending the gallery’s buying activities in the Canadian art economy, a fragile flower of a market if ever there was one. The implications could be disastrous for both dealers and artists here: Annually, the gallery acquires dozens of works, which Mayer is loath to exchange for just one, however coveted. Worse, it would mean a year of our cultural production goes largely uncatalogued by the only institution with the means to handle it.
That the National Gallery’s acquisitions have to be both strategic and surgically precise. The David, with its deep roots here, checks a box for Canadian cultural heritage while filling a hole in the gallery’s own collection (it has one other David, a small portrait; the painting would flesh out the continuity in its French Neoclassical painting narrative).
Mayer argues that the painting is in dire need of restoration, which the gallery’s resources — the most extensive in the country — can provide. He points out the decision to sell the Chagall was undertaken by board of trustee vote, and only after a quiet fundraising campaign failed to find an angel patron to foot the David’s expected $10 million bill.
And in the end, none of this may come to pass: the Musée de la civilisation, the painting’s keeper all these years, is working on a joint bid with Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Another option, floated to me by a member of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ acquisition committee, to split the cost between the three museums for joint ownership, seems worth exploring. It would give each museum a share, and keep the vital acquisition stream flowing — a point Mayer, in his carefully told tale of the gallery’s decision-making process, makes subtly clear: Selling the Chagall would “strengthen Canada’s ability to protect its patrimony from exportation,” he wrote, “a challenge it will surely face again.”
This is not to be taken lightly. This is not a simple tale of painting A versus painting B. With scant resources, a small pool of patrons on which to draw and a stratospheric global art market, Canadian museums, even at the highest levels, will always have to pick and choose. Mayer deserves credit for saying it out loud, as difficult as it may be to hear.
With files from The Canadian Press