It was a bad year for the National Gallery of Canada. On March 6, 1990, the NGC proudly announced it had acquired American artist Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire. Newman had been a huge figure among the New York abstract expressionists, and Voice of Fire was one of the last works he completed before his death. By March 10, all hell had broken loose.
Pundits hated the painting’s cost—$1.8 million—and they hated its look. It was the most a Canadian museum had ever shelled out for one piece and it was spent on an eighteen-foot-high canvas depicting three vertical stripes, or “zips” as Newman called them (two blue and a red down the middle). Felix Holtmann, then chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage and one of the Gallery’s most vocal critics, said that “two cans of paint and two rollers and about ten minutes would do the trick.”
The NGC vigorously defended its purchase. “We rarely have a chance in today’s overheated art market to purchase works of the scale and historical significance of Voice of Fire,” said then Gallery director Shirley Thomson. The NGC argued that Newman had been a great influence on contemporary Canadian artists like Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant. The Gallery also reminded the public that Voice of Fire was made for installation in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the US pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, where it had drawn plaudits rather than riots. And it pointed out that the piece first arrived in Ottawa in 1988, on loan from Newman’s widow, and had hung in the Gallery for two years without anyone objecting.
But the public was now in no mood for it. One woman, filmed on the street, characterized it as something “my son’ll do in daycare.” As Bronwyn Drainie wrote in the Globe and Mail, “To put it crudely, Canadians don’t like Voice of Fire because it doesn’t like them. In fact, it wants nothing to do with them. It is an imposing symbol of one of the haughtiest, most elite art movements in world history.”
The enemy fire continued on for nearly seven months, with the Gallery ducking and weaving. By far the most important bullet dodged was the attempted sabotage of the arm’s-length dealings between government and cultural agencies as set out in the Museums Act, a bill passed the same year that defined the NGC’s mandate to spread “knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of art in general among all Canadians.” The Gallery, a Crown corporation, was hauled before the Standing Committee to justify its acquisition decision; demands were made to rescind the purchase, and many, like Tom van Dusen, the spokesperson for Brian Mulroney’s deputy prime minister, began to call for less spending on culture. “$1.8 million is perceived as too high a price,” van Dusen stated, “no matter what the work of art.”
The Gallery stood its ground; the controversy—summed up by art critic John O’Brian as an argument over “elite accountability”—passed. Now, according to the Gallery’s current director Pierre Théberge, “Barnett Newman is in every great public collection in the world.” Moreover, the painting is one of the Gallery’s most popular and famous pieces.
Rain or shine, Théberge begins each morning with a brisk forty-five-minute walk in the company of his Airedales, Pistache and Bobinette. The three then spend the rest of the day in an office at the National Gallery, a Moshe Safdie–designed glass building that overlooks the Alexandra Bridge, the bright expanse of the Ottawa River and a decaying Best Western across the river in Gatineau, Quebec.
“It’s good for the mind—it reminds you of the more terrestrial aspects of life,” confesses the director of the National Gallery with his back to the blinding sunlight streaming through the thirty-foot-high windows in the Gallery’s sleek cafeteria. Thin, trim and articulate, Théberge is a French Canadian who has picked up a touch of British formality from his time studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He wears the corporate uniform fastidiously: pinstriped double-breasted suit, freshly starched shirt and blue-and-red club tie. The “no-nonsense” appearance belies a passionate, philosophical man eccentric enough to bring his two dogs to work.
Théberge’s voice remains steady as he describes the revitalizing shock that new ideas can bring: “Most of your life you spend eating the same things, wearing the same clothes, visiting the same shops; everything’s the same. Suddenly an artist produces a new novel, a new piece of music, a new painting, a new sculpture, and you are faced with something unknown to you. Then you have to make this leap between non-knowledge and knowledge—and that’s extraordinary.”
Holding the public’s hand for this “knowledge leap” is second nature for Théberge. He has been involved in contemporary art his entire professional life—including an eleven-year stint as the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Since his 1998 debut at the Gallery, the institution, with its world-class collection of 200,000 works, has not, to date, experienced the kind of public disapproval akin to the Voice of Fire debacle. Acquiring art with taxpayer money takes steady nerves, particularly in Canada where the task has been fraught with second-guessing. The cultural flap over Voice of Fire was repeated when Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas (a fifty-pound dress of decaying red meat) was shown in 1991 and when American abstract painter Mark Rothko’s No. 16 (two white rectangles on a red background) was purchased for $1.8 million in 1993.
For both Voice of Fire and No. 16, the media reacted as though the Gallery had spent vast amounts of money on a whim. In fact, the purchases had been exhaustively vetted by the curatorial committee as well as by the Gallery’s board of directors. The challenge of striking the right balance between the acquisition freedom bestowed on the Gallery’s experienced team of curators and the bottom-line expectations of his boss—the elected government of Canada—explains the evangelism of Théberge’s beliefs. “I don’t want to sound pretentious but we don’t produce cars. We produce ideas. We want to have a dialogue with the public on the art—explaining it, making it accessible. That’s our mission—to make this dialogue possible. This may drive accountants mad, but it’s true.”
In any case, contemporary art has ceased to be shocking to the Gallery’s board, which consists of a dozen prominent Canadians (and currently helmed by grocery tycoon Donald Sobey) and is called upon to vet all purchases above $50,000. This group of individuals who represent the public generally do not specialize in the field of art but consistently rely on the opinions of a team of seven expert advisers, which includes architect Phyllis Lambert (the founding director of Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture), art historian Constance Naubert-Riser and collector and philanthropist Michal Hornstein.
Théberge argues that the board is often more at home with contemporary works and finds the Old Masters harder to grasp. Admittedly, a 500-year-old drawing can be difficult to accept as authentic. When one sees a drawing that old, it can be hard to believe it’s managed to survive so long. The board is typically interested in the advisers’ answers to these three questions: Is the work worth it? Do other great galleries have works by this artist? Is it too shocking?
Since 2003, the National Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography have shared a healthy annualacquisition budget of $8 million. Over the 2003–2004 fiscal year, Théberge’s team used the money to purchase 128 works of art, including a frighteningly lifelike (down to the last sparse follicle) but Volkswagen-sized baby’s head and an Italian Renaissance drawing titled Reclining Male Nude by Jacopo Pontormo.
For 2004–2005, the Gallery also acquired what was, at $3.2 million, its most expensive piece to date: an ominous and massive bronze spider called Maman by Louise Bourgeois. The history-making thrill didn’t last long. “We feel it’s time to break the $4 million barrier on an acquisition,” deputy director and chief curator David Franklin admits to me during our conversation.
At that time, Franklin was negotiating the purchase of a large sixteenth-century painting by Francesco Salviati, once an apprentice to Italian Master Andrea del Sarto. “Sometimes acquisitions can take up to five years, I mean they take years.” The deal was finalized in August (in only a matter of months, unusually); the price tag of Virgin and Child with an Angel (“a beautiful and rare example of Roman Mannerism”) hurdled the $4 million mark, making it the most the Gallery has ever paid for a piece.
Whether uncovered through a network of contacts, or offered directly by the artist, or found out of the blue, a work of art is considered for purchase only if it represents an area of the Gallery’s specialization; needless to say, the piece needs to constitute an important, standard-raising addition to the existing collection. Most importantly, its price can’t be out of the Gallery’s league.
If deemed potentially worthy, the proposed work is loaned to the Gallery for the conservation team to inspect. Condition (is it too damaged?), dating (is it the right date?) and authenticity (is it the right artist?) are ascertained over the course of one or two days. The conservators then produce a standardized report that rates the above criteria as “good,” “bad” or “poor.” This is the stage at which most rejections occur.
If promising, the appropriate curator looks into the provenance of the piece (is the seller the rightful owner?) and produces an essay on its historical merits and significance for the Gallery. A separate sheet is completed justifying the price—based on previous sales of the artist’s work, precise auction records and the prices fetched in those deals. Along with the conservation team’s report, this essay is provided to the Gallery director and made available to all twenty or so curators.
About six times a year, the curators and Théberge meet to discuss the proposed acquisitions. Each curator makes a case for the specific piece(s) they’re spearheading and faces a grilling by his or her peers. Due to the limited acquisition budget, each curator is fighting for a piece of the pie. With money on the line, some curators will passionately defend works they’ve often spent years researching; the meetings can heat up.
All the proposed art is then jammed into the Gallery’s prints and large drawings’ room, where the meeting takes place. It’s an exercise in mental dexterity: marble sculptures, video installations and robotic moving works all rub elbows with Old Master draw-
ings from the Renaissance. However bizarre, the juxtaposition helps test the work visually: does the piece stand out in this cluttered room?
After all curators have made their presentations, strategies are proposed to negotiate lower prices. Quantity discounts aren’t uncommon if works come from the same dealer. At this point, the team draws on its “collective” market knowledge for leverage. Because the limited acquisition budget is being shared, it is important to obtain the best price so that as many works as possible can be considered for purchase.
The National Gallery has been in an advantageous position to build the largest Canadian art collection in the world. Today, the Gallery looks to fill the few gaps that exist in its encyclopedic stash. Due to the relatively brief existence of Canadian art, there are only a few items in circulation that don’t already belong to a museum. As such, the NGC resembles the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which no longer acquires Florentine art since it already owns most of the best works. While the NGC’s long-term mandate is to continue to acquire and exhibit art, Franklin believes the institution is “veering more toward research. Less money is going to be spent on acquisition. There will be more transmission of knowledge and more mature scholarship in the field.”
As Curator of Modern Canadian Art, Denise Leclerc is a tightly wound, pulsating conduit of giddiness. What she lacks in height, she makes up for in pace. Just listening to her is like laying out buckets to gather rain pouring through a leaky roof: you don’t want to miss anything, but it just keeps on coming. One day last winter, after guiding a whirlwind twenty-four person tour through the freshly opened exhibition The Sixties in Canada, Leclerc accompanies me briskly to the start of the exhibit (which took her over five years to assemble, from conception to opening) and gives me the more intimate tour, all the while enthusiastically telling me about the ambitious exhibitions the NGC has in store.
“So you select this and this and, oh, I see this and I need this and, at the end, when I organize, everything falls into place. It’s like writing a song. It’s like writing. There’s an emotional side to that.” Leclerc can’t stop smiling as she looks around, and for good reason. The exhibition is a hodgepodge of “anything goes” liberated sixties’ thought. There’s a lot of love, some war and a pinch of politics. Most of the works were pulled from the country’s public collections after Leclerc travelled and photographed the pieces she wanted to include. She also relied on private collectors, most of whom wished to remain anonymous (for security and privacy reasons). For those expecting oil-painted Algonquin Park scenes or Queen Charlottes’ totem poles, the exhibit must have come as quite a shock.
The pieces on view are varied in medium and even include mechanical and electrical components. Some works depend on video, audio and neon lighting, while others possess a combination of each. But this sort of art is not exempt from the irony that besets architectural progress—namely, that new buildings cannot last as long as the Pyramids of Giza. Many of the technology-dependent works of art will similarly expire before their more traditional predecessors.
This was especially evident last year when Eastman Kodak warned the Gallery of its plan to halt the production of standard slide pro-
jectors. The American imaging giant gave the Gallery two years’ notice to stock up. Hundreds of works in the Gallery require slide projectors to fulfill their potential.
As new technology too quickly becomes obsolete, curators may be forced to adapt works in order to prolong their functional existence. Some pieces wait like vital-organ recipients in line for transplant. Such was the case for Michael Snow’s De La, a large metal gyrating machine, mounted with a surveillance camera, that resembles a cross between the Canadarm and an Orwellian torture device. The work, which lived in front of the cafeteria for the duration of the Sixties in Canada exhibition, sat unequipped and motionless for several years until the curator and the artist agreed to replace the dated Reflux 16 mm film camera with the generic twenty-four-hour surveillance camera now de rigueur among the mini-mart set.
“I don’t think we prevent ourselves from acquiring something knowing that at some point it will not be working,” says Leclerc regarding works of dubious lifespan, “It’s part of the artist’s work to use ephemeral material, so it’s an artistic way of saying things—we have to show this.”
But what would halt the acquisition of works, contemporary or otherwise? A federal tax policy is now in place to curtail a once-too-common practice among Canadian collectors looking to make a donation and a fast buck: approach a hungry, rising-star artist and offer to purchase many of their pieces at once. A bulk purchase means the benefit of a price reduction for the purchaser, and complete liquidation for the seller. For the on-the-cusp artist, and for anyone who’s ever had a bill to pay, cold cash today is better than the promise of payment tomorrow. To complete the manoeuvre, the collector then has the newly acquired works appraised, garners inflated values for each and “donates” or “flips” them to an unsuspecting (or unconcerned) museum for a handsome tax writeoff.
Today, the government will not accept an increase on the value of a piece (and its tax writeoff) until the collector has owned it for at least three years. Until then, a donation will result in a tax writeoff for the original purchase price of the piece. In addition to these measures, the Gallery evaluates the given appraisal price of any planned purchase or acquisition—seeking, on average, two outside opinions to confirm said price. “It’s a long process,” according to Leclerc. “We have to know all the stories behind it.”
Paintings tell stories that don’t all necessarily reside in the paint. One of the first things a curator does when considering a possible acquisition is turn the piece over. According to Leclerc, “There’s a lot written on the back—the signature of the artist, the date, if the frame was changed, and the exhibitions in which the painting was shown.”
Some have faded or peeling labels, some are stamped; a popular work soon resembles the beaten surface of a well-travelled trunk. Cataloguing is a big deal to curators, who take professional pride in leaving their legacy on the flipside of every canvas.
Not all the works in the Gallery have clean histories. Undocumented, suspicious gaps in ownership or location denote blackout-like periods in a work’s life. The most controversial provenance gaps can be found between the years 1933 and 1945 with works mostly originating from Western Europe. It’s estimated that the Nazis plundered 600,000 works of art during that time. Pieces have gradually resurfaced in public galleries and private collections for several decades following the Second World War (and are still emerging today); their ownership and provenance documentation can prove non-existent or sketchy.
“We have in the collection over a hundred works where we don’t really know exactly what happened from 1933 to 1945,” admits Théberge. After the war, the issue of provenance was met mostly with indifference in the art community as just about every public gallery acquired Nazi-era work without any pedigree investigation. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties, following the publication of two influential books on the subject, that the truth had to sink in.
“Suddenly the museum community woke up and said, ‘Oh my God, we may have on our walls things that belonged to families that were deprived of their property by the Nazis.’” According to Théberge, this revelation spurred a worldwide movement to return, without question, stolen works to their rightful owners or living descendants. In the current climate of improving corporate ethics and responsibility, it’s fitting that this sort of conscience has become a matter of institutional pride for museums. “When we buy something now, you can be sure that we check and double-check where it has been,” adds Théberge dutifully.
In 1978, the NGC obtained Figure of an Arhat, a limestone relief sculpture. The carving was purchased in good faith, according to Théberge, from a Canadian collector who had bought the work as part of a British collection. Théberge insists the collector didn’t know the piece had been been stolen in the first instance. The sculpture’s real provenance was revealed in the late nineties when the Gallery came across a Chinese book showing photographs of Arhat affixed to the wall of a cave on the bank of the Yi River in China. It became quite obvious, according to Théberge, that the piece “did not enter the Western world legally.”
Armed with this new-found know-
ledge, the director personally delivered the sculpture, on behalf of the Gallery, to the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing in 2001. The ceremony was buttressed by the grand opening of a travelling Group of Seven exhibition.
Today, due to a strict process of checks and balances, the Gallery’s acquisition process is a rigorous one. Works are rarely picked up at auction, where the heat of the moment can have a severe financial impact, and each acquisition is anchored to exhaustive research and scholarship.
Regardless, some embarrassing exposures still stand out. The most recent involves a group of Dutch scholars who have been roaming the globe since the early seventies to determine the authenticity of paintings attributed to Rembrandt. At the National Gallery, they deemed that the small work The Tribute Money, acquired as a Rembrandt in 1967, had not been painted by the Master but rather by someone in his circle. Curatorial knowledge of the skills and techniques of Old Masters has obviously improved since the late sixties, but when The Tribute Money was acquired, the work was considered genuine due to the methods and technologies available to the NGC at the time. Franklin admits there are probably more misattributed works in the Gallery that curators are not yet aware of.
According to Veritus, a European digital verification company, the lack of available verification technologies in the past accounts for the high number of incorrect attributions: authorship confirmation was based solely on the professional opinion of experts (a potential source of human error or bias) rather than accompanied by “objective” technical findings.
To underscore the new acquisition regime, Franklin recounts how his fascination with Renaissance Masters took him deep into red-state America last year in an attempt to solve a 500-year-old Italian provenance riddle. Andrea del Sarto’s alleged last painting before his death, St. Sebastian, was oddly undocumented, and there was no conclusive evidence that could help make a clear attribution. Franklin decided to get some answers.
Held by Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, the painting was graciously loaned to the National Gallery for analysis. Using X-rays, the Gallery’s conservation team plunged past layers of century-old paint to the canvas upon which the artist drew a preliminary sketch of the painting. Franklin was convinced, peering at the initial sketch, that his team could determine whose hand drafted the blueprint, held the brushes and painted the mystery.
“We were really hoping to find, you know, this wonderful, very loose, and free and creative drawing that would indicate it was del Sarto because we know what his drawings look like.” Franklin pauses as if picturing the image anew, reliving the moment.
“Unfortunately, it was a bit more mechanical than that.” Franklin concluded the work was likely painted in del Sarto’s studio and under the Master’s supervision; the evidence did not indicate that it was painted by the hand of the late Renaissance Master, however. “It’s not the Holy Grail, but still it’s better to know than not to know.”
The embodiment of this determination to know, Théberge remains comfortable on a black plastic cafeteria chair after nearly three hours spent talking with me.
When asked if the National Gallery is giving Canadian taxpayers good value for their money, the director laughs. “I certainly hope so.” But, philosophical to the core, he is quick to avoid speculation, “But who am I to say? They should say.”
Although a national discourse on the definition of art will always sit about six minivan rows behind the debate on the recent NHL salary cap, the Voice of Firedebacle proves Théberge’s larger point: Canadians care about art and how it’s defined. As a nation, we struggled with the Voice of Fire purchase; that struggle does not make us philistines. In the spring of 1990, Felix Holtmann, chair of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, had made clear his definition of art, “Why would you want to keep something that would outrage the largest percentage of Canadians?” The work was expensive and is challenging, but acquiring art that appeals to all Canadians serves little purpose. It’s new ideas and the leap from non-knowledge to knowledge that, in the end, defines our cultural sovereignty.
The cafeteria is now closed, but one young woman remains to lock the door behind us; she grins when Théberge addresses her by name. Saying goodbye, he heads back to his office to check up on the dogs.