Not since the battle over Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire has a controversy hit the National Gallery as hard as the Chagall affair.
The uproar followed the revelation that the gallery was putting up the painting The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall up for auction in order to purchase a painting by the 19th century French painter Jacques-Louis David called St. Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, in a bid to keep it in Canada.
It was being offered for sale by the archdiocese of Quebec. The Quebec government intervened and said the painting was part of the province’s heritage and could not leave its borders without permission.
The board of trustees of the gallery was left with little choice but to pull the Chagall from the auction house and return it to Ottawa. The costs assumed by this decision were covered by a donor, but the damage was done. The gallery was at the centre of a media storm that went on for weeks and seemed to take the officials of the institution by surprise with its intensity.
Meanwhile over at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Sasha Suda’s department was spearheading a discussion on deaccessioning, which is an official process used to remove (an item) from the holdings of a library, museum, or art gallery.
Today Suda is the Executive Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. In an interview with ARTSFILE, she recalled the AGO’s discussion about deaccessioning.
“We had a lot of conversations around the value of deaccessioning and why we do that. It was a lively dialogue that was open to the entire curatorial division. Those discussions could be really tough especially when the curators who acquired the works were in the room. They didn’t want to sell.
“We had a healthy process there and out of that came a procedural document. The basic point was that if there was any kind of conflict, you just don’t do it. If the family that donated it, didn’t want it sold, you don’t do it.
“You don’t take undue risk.”
She said there were lots of things proposed and never pursued.
“If I were to guess the time it takes to acquire something versus deaccessioning something, deaccessioning is 10 times as long.”
Since coming to the National Gallery she has done a deep dive into what happened last year. And now she’s about to begin, with the newly installed chief curator Kitty Scott, a conversation about “what happened there in terms of the decision being made and how it was made public.”
At the AGO, she knew the National Gallery was moving the Chagall out. It was offered up to other institutions before being placed with a New York auction house.
“From our point of view (at the AGO) we saw what was going on and were interested in how it played out. But we were very surprised in how the conversation was shaped in terms of one thing being exchanged for another thing.
“If you look back at the AGO’s history, we have never deaccessioned to purchase something else at that moment.”
In fact deaccessioning at the AGO was “a form of housekeeping. We were looking at what’s been shown and what hasn’t been shown. You would be surprised when you start to do audits — you have paintings by artists that have never hung. We had a Boudin in the AGO collection that had never been hung.
“We have a great Boudin that gets lent all over the world.” That painting represented his practice. This other painting was kind of an anomaly.
The questions then were, “How do we fill gaps in our 19th century collection that were significant and what do we do with this painting that is an outlier?”
She does take a positive from the uproar over the Chagall.
“As difficult as it was for this institution, it demonstrated to us that people do care. That is good news.
“For some people it may be bad news … they might want to know why we should ask the public. But I have to tell you I haven’t heard that sentiment in the building. There is a bit of shell-shock and PTSD, but I think it shows the national collection matters to people and if we tell them better stories about who we are, what we are doing and what is in that collection that people can understand a Chagall relative to a Rothko, relative to a Bourgeois or Voice of Fire.
“Art is our vernacular to speak to Canadians and we aren’t helping people to learn our vernacular and why it matters.”
Out of this conversation will come a new policy on deaccessioning at the National Gallery, she said. “The policy will be transparent and open and we will have a conversation with the public about it. We have to rebuild trust with Canadians that we will make the right decisions.”
Deaccessioning is part of the management of museums today, Suda believes. The public may or may not be surprised to learn that institutions they know and love do it as regular practice. She’s out to demystify that process.