Analysis: L’Affaire Chagall just might have become a teachable moment for the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Canada has dodged a potential seven-figure penalty for cancelling a planned sale of the Marc Chagall painting, The Eiffel Tower, at a May 15 auction by Christie’s in New York.

Although Christie’s levied a penalty for cancelling the sale, an anonymous donor has stepped in to pay the fee.

“The National Gallery of Canada will not pay a penalty for the withdrawal of the painting from the sale,” Josee-Britanie Mallet, gallery spokeswoman said Thursday. “The gallery and Christie’s have come to a financial agreement which is being supported by a generous donor, who has requested anonymity and non-disclosure of the amount.”

A joint statement from the gallery and Christie’s said steps are being taken to return the Chagall to Ottawa from New York. Maybe Canadians will even get to look at the Chagall in an exhibition – it has been hidden in storage for many years. (It would seem the gallery, or at least Marc Mayer, has learned some important lessons from the controversy. More on that later.)

Penalties for cancelling the sale of a multi-million-dollar painting like the Chagall can exceed $1 million. But auction houses sometimes waive fees, or lower fees, when dealing with publicly financed cultural institutions.

The Chagall sale was initially engineered by Mayer, the National Gallery director, with the compliance of the gallery board but was cancelled by the board, following a coast-to-coast public outcry from art lovers.

The sale was to raise funds to allow the gallery to buy the painting Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgement by Jacques-Louis David. That painting is owned by the Notre-Dame-de-Québec parish corporation in Quebec City. At the time the gallery believed the David was in danger of leaving Canada but the Quebec government has intervened saying the masterpiece can not leave the province.

The National Gallery board, in cancelling the sale, noted that Canadians have “passionate views” about the potential sale of the Chagall.

Mayer seemed to have passionate views of his own, while he was championing the Chagall sale. His words are very different these days.

In an interview Wednesday about the Chagall sale, Mayer is “excited” to learn that Canadians are interested in the protection of their cultural treasures.

And he says, the National Gallery will initiate public discussions on the best way to protect these cultural treasures, including those treasures located in Canada but made by foreign artists.

News also surfaced this week that a different auction house, Heffel, is going to Federal Court to try and overturn a decision by government agencies preventing the export of a privately owned painting by a different French artist Gustave Caillebotte, called Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers.

“What I’m excited about, as I read the newspapers today (Wednesday) is that people are actually interested in cultural treasures and how they’re protected and how not and now with this Caillebotte story,” Mayer said, “We’re living in a teaching moment and a learning moment and we’re going to take advantage of that, of course, and have public programs, public policy discussions on the system that protects Canadian cultural heritage and reminding Canadians that Canadian cultural heritage doesn’t necessarily mean it was made in Canada.”

Mayer did not mention the Chagall in this context but pointed to Benjamin West’s iconic 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe. West was an American who painted the picture in London yet it’s “one of the most precious objects” in the country.

“So, there is a lot to learn and a lot to talk about and we plan to make that conversation available to everyone.”

Mayer did not provide specific plans as to how he will enhance that “conversation” during the brief interview.

The director was interviewed at a media preview for a new exhibition of fine silver by Laurent Amiot. The gallery has the largest collection of work created by the renowned 19th century Quebec silversmith.

Almost all of the gallery’s collection falls under the category of “fine arts” while so-called “craft” (Mayer prefers the term “decorative arts”) has generally been considered the purview of the former Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History).

But just as the National Gallery has seriously started collecting Indigenous art (also once the purview of Civilization), it is now increasing interest in “craft” or “decorative arts.”

Mayer says barriers between “fine art” and “decorative arts” are dropping. For many years, artistic creations by women were considered “craft”. Examples include various textile works, basket weaving and embroidery. But these kinds of objects are increasingly being perceived as “art” and need to get into the National Gallery’s collection.

“A lot of contemporary artists are using traditional crafts to make intellectual statements about the world we live in.”

The gallery currently has no curator with expertise in “decorative arts,” says Mayer.

“But we have been looking for help in hiring people to help expand what we do here because especially in the Canadian and Indigenous Gallery it is important to remember that Canadian history is not a male story. It’s also a female story.”

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