Marc Mayer unchained: National Gallery director ready for a new future

Marc Mayer's last day on the job is Jan. 18. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Canada

Marc Mayer is a man unbound, or at least he looks like one.

Mayer sits in his office at the National Gallery of Canada, where his last day as director is Jan. 18, and he’s relaxed. Amid the high shelves of heavy art books, looking out at the grand view of Parliament Hill, he almost seems younger than he did when he was appointed director 10 years ago — a bit of trompe l’oiel at work there, one might say, with his hair grown longer in the past year or so, his beard looser and hipper, and dressed in blue jeans and open collar. 

“I’ve never felt so confident and so top form, ahead of my game,” he says. “I’m in great shape right now intellectually, and as far as experience goes. . . I’m feeling very good.”

And why shouldn’t he feel good? The Mayer decade at the gallery has had its successes. There were tremendous exhibitions  — Caravaggio, Èlizabeth Louise Vigée LeBrun, the biennials of new Canadian acquisitions, etc.

There were major acquisitions, most notably those that are outdoors and seen by thousands of passersby daily, including Roxy Paine’s One Hundred Foot Line, that lightning bolt of glorious metal in the backyard and Joe Fafard’s Running Horses. To bring the art outside is to bring it to the people and, one hopes, lure them inside. And perhaps it’s working as attendance has increased in the second half of his mandate.

There’s been the continued push of Indigenous art into the permanent collection, which was widely seen as long overdue long before Mayer came to town. Another exhibition highlight was 2013’s Sakahan, a huge collection of Indigenous work from around the world. 

Making Indigenous art “one of our key priorities” is fundamental to the gallery’s existence, Mayer says, for the “confrontation (of) two radically different cultures” is Canada’s story, “and that’s the story we need to tell.” Today the gallery is “one of the power nodes for Indigenous art in the world. I don’t think anyone could have said that 10 years ago.” 

The Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale saw a much-needed major renovation, which is an important investment in raising Canada’s art reputation globally. 

Private fundraising increased over the decade, he says, led by donors such as David Thomson and the Sobey family. Meanwhile, the federal bucks that are the bulk of the gallery’s budget did not grow, and that has lingering costs. The gallery’s work is, Mayer says,  “getting harder and harder to do with the few remaining people we have here after all the layoffs in the first five years of my mandate.”

There were missteps and controversies, though most of the latter were unavoidable or untenable. The layoffs were sad but inevitable as public funding was squeezed more tightly. Silly is the word for another flap, when the gallery supposedly “cancelled” a touring exhibition from New Brunswick’s Beaverbrook Gallery, though the exhibition had never been confirmed for Ottawa. 

Much gnashing of teeth greeted Mayer’s decision to move the Canadian Photography Institute from beneath the Chateau Laurier, where few people visited, and into the National Gallery proper. 

Those who labelled it the death of the CPI are noticeably silent now that the photographs are seen by many more people in their new spaces at the gallery. The CPI is “unique in the world,” he said, in that it’s “looking at the entire medium . . . in its very broadest definition.”

The loudest scandal was last year when the gallery announced it would sell Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower in order to raise funds to buy a painting by Jacques Louis David being sold by a Quebec church, and thereby keep the David painting in Canada. The outrage was as fanciful as Chagall’s brushstroke, as many people held tight to the dubious notions that “public consultation” would have produced a unanimous opinion and that Mayer was somehow singularly responsible for the entire affair.

In fact, the Chagall decision neither started nor ended with Mayer, and involved an entire gallery corporation and its bylaws, an influential board of directors and various parties in Quebec. Mayer was merely the public face that got flecked with bilious spittle.

More puzzling was the contention by many that the gallery had a duty to consult the public on the matter. Nobody with any sense would suggest the National Gallery consult the public on whether to acquire this or that piece, so why should it consult the public on what piece it sells? When the consulting was over there’d still be people who disagreed and cried cobalt blue murder.

In the end, Mayer was set up for the fall by other parties — note that those are my words, not Mayer’s, and if he agrees he’s not saying so. He will, however, speak more freely of the fracas now that he’s about to walk away.

“That’s just one of many controversies we’ve had in the last 10 years, and everybody’s already forgotten those, just like they’re going to forget the Chagall as well,” he says. 

He’s less concerned about the media’s appetite for scandal than he is about the media’s increasing disinterest in fine art. 

“Name me any art critic in an English Canadian newspaper. The last one just shut the lights and moved to Boston,” he says, referring to former Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte.

Catching the media’s eye will be a challenge for his successor, as yet unnamed. When asked what other advice he’d give to whomever comes next, he points out his window to Parliament. 

“Hassle those people over there on the Hill, tell them they need to be coming here more often, all those elected parliamentarians. And they need to be giving us more money, because we’re not just entertaining Ottawa here. What we do here in this building, what you see is the tip of the iceberg of service that we provide to Canadians.”

He also says the next director must understand Canada (“It’s quite a complicated country”), and be of wide and deep interests.

“They have to be really passionate about material culture generally. They can’t have any favourites. They can’t be bored by Indigenous art, they can’t roll their eyes at photography, they can’t find contemporary art beneath them. All these things are so important to what we do.”

Much will change in the gallery’s executive offices in coming months — a new director, a new deputy director/ chief curator, and a new director for the photography institute. Mayer, meanwhile, will sit back and “assess the relative merits of my suitors.” 

He won’t say who those suitors are, though he has a favourite (“I have my eye on one job that I’d really love to have and I hope that works out, but you have to cover all your bases”), and that “it’ll be in the art world,” though probably not at a museum, because, “I realize I’ve developed other skills” that he’d like to put to work. 

Will the job be in Canada? “Probably not. I don’t like to presume, you never know, but it doesn’t look like it. This is the top job in the country and I’ve done it for 10 years.”

The decision won’t be made in Canada, as he’s clearly keen to get to the farm he owns in the Catskills in New York. He’ll consider his future with a “celebratory cigar,” he says. 

“It’s the only place where I can smoke a cigar any more with impunity.”

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.