Looking for answers in National Gallery’s cancellation of Liechtenstein exhibition

The National Gallery of Canada announces cancellations of summer show and biennials of contemporary art.

The bewildering explanation as to why the National Gallery of Canada cancelled a long-planned exhibition of Old Masters paintings from Liechtenstein raises far more questions than it answers.

And no one wants answers more than Johann Kraftner, director of the organization Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections. Kraftner said on the weekend the National Gallery has yet to honour its contract to inform him in writing that it is cancelling the exhibition and that the cancellation can only be for “an important reason.” No such reason has been offered, he says.

In a statement Friday, the gallery linked the cancellation to a report published in 2005 stating that the Prince of Liechtenstein, Franz Josef II, father of the current Prince Hans-Adam, had employed forced labourers at his estates in Austria during the Second World War. The report by a group of historians found no evidence the Prince knew the forced labourers, Hungarian Jews, worked on his property and there was no suggestion the Prince had ever seized or possessed art stolen from Jews.

All that information has been public knowledge for at least 15 years and remains freely available on the Internet. So, why did the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington suddenly decide the tour was off? 

The American Federation of Arts, which co-ordinated the tour, says it did not cancel the exhibition The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture. 

“Following the withdrawal of the National Gallery of Canada and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the project could not proceed as originally conceived,” wrote Shawna Gallancy, head of communications and marketing with the AFA in an email to ARTSFILE.

Something seems missing. The actions by the galleries and its allies appears to have all the hallmarks of a powerful person or organization using political or financial pressure to halt the tour. But who or what? And why?

Leslie Reid, an Ottawa artist and retired University of Ottawa art professor, said actions of such “a high-powered lobbyist” could explain the “ambiguous, even feeble” explanation for the cancellation.

The tour was to reunite 100 paintings either currently, or previously, owned by the Prince. The princely family sold off many paintings after the war, including 12 to the National Gallery of Canada.

“The Collections of the Liechtenstein Princely House have, with considerable consternation and profound regret, taken note of the cancellation by the National Gallery of Canada of the exhibition The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture,” Kraftner wrote in an email to ARTSFILE. “This late cancellation, after years of diligent and amicable co-operation in preparation of the exhibition, is rather disappointing, and the reasoning provided by the National Gallery of Canada belies the fact that all the pertinent historical information has been publicly and readily available for well over a decade even before any deliberations regarding this exhibition had commenced.

“In this regard, it bears emphasizing that the comprehensive report of a world-renowned commission of historians, with the support of the World Jewish Congress, published its findings on Liechtenstein’s role in the Second World War in 2005 after four years of thorough research of the highest historical and academic standards. In light of the fact that this report does not provide any findings that could reasonably be understood to support the cancellation of the exhibition, it is difficult to avoid the impression that other extraneous considerations, none of which would seem to relate to the Princely Family of Liechtenstein or the subject matter of the mentioned report, have led to the regrettable cancellation decision by the National Gallery of Canada.”

Kraftner said he was informed “verbally” out of the blue by the American Federation of Arts that the tour was being cancelled. That conversation and the National Gallery’s Friday statement are the only indications given him the tour is off.

The World Jewish Congress and its Canadian affiliate were both asked last week for comment on the tour cancellation and whether they had made representations to the American Federation of Arts or the four participating galleries. No responses were sent to ARTSFILE.

What are the implications of the National Gallery’s actions? Is it saying the public should not be shown art owned by a monarch or state government that, at one time, was party to slave labour? If that is the case, art museums may as well all close. Few countries, Canada included, can claim an unblemished past in regards to slavery. And if Liechtenstein is a special case for some reason, then what about the 12 paintings the National Gallery purchased from the Prince in the 1950s? Should they be banished from public view?

The National Gallery’s cancellation “seems like an excessive response that, if applied to all historical exhibitions, would badly affect much of the world’s art collections and exhibits,” says Reid. She also notes the gallery’s Friday statement says the exhibition could cause “confusion and offence.” That, Reid says, is “worrying.”

Martha Langford is an art history professor at Concordia University in Montreal and was the founding director of the National Gallery’s Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. She suggests a different approach the gallery could have taken.

“There are in Canada, as elsewhere, artists who prefer to use these occasions to stimulate debate, rather than sweep it under the rug,” Langford told ARTSFILE. “It might have been an opportunity for the NGC to commission counter-projects to spark debate. That would always be my preference, which is probably why I’m not running a public institution at this point! There may be other compounding issues — I have no idea.”

Langford, like the rest of us, can only speculate at this point as to what really happened behind the scenes. On Saturday, ARTSFILE sent a list of questions to the gallery to shed more light on this. No response or promise of a response was returned.

Whatever the case, this seems like a very inauspicious beginning for the new top two managers of the National Gallery – Sasha Suda, director, and Kitty Scott, deputy director.

They both came to Ottawa from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. They may find that life at the National Gallery is very different. Parliament Hill is nearby. Opposition MPs love to hold committee meetings about activities at the National Gallery, especially when it comes time for the public purse to pay the financial penalties that inevitably come from cancelling a major international exhibition.

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