Opinion: Buying a Canadian treasure certainly worth a Chagall to the National Gallery

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

Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel is a wonderful little painting, I trust.

I don’t recall seeing it on any of my many visits to the National Gallery of Canada over the years, so if I have seen it, it never struck me as unforgettable or, therefore, as an essential part of the gallery’s permanent collection.

Other visitors may feel otherwise, as Chagall is a popular painter, beloved both by critics and public (with me concurring in both categories). And why not? All those flying goats and figures and swirling, brilliant colours and sublime themes — Chagall is an important artist, especially influential, for example, on Acadian artists in Eastern Canada.

There’s no question that Chagall’s work, in general, is essential to the National Gallery’s collection, and there’s much of it there, but that doesn’t make La Tour Eiffel essential to the collection. The collection could be better for letting the painting go, depending on why it’s let go, and what the gallery gets in return when it is auctioned off by Christie’s on May 15. The gallery says it is moving now because it wants to keep an unnamed Canadian work in the country.

At times, I suspect, the higher ups at the National Gallery of Canada must feel they can’t win: they’re criticized for buying art that isn’t Canadian — such as Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire or, more recently, Roxy Paine’s lightning bolt of an outdoor sculpture, One Hundred Foot Line — and now they hear yelps from the bleachers because they’re selling a painting that is not Canadian. (Chagall, of course, was Russian-French.)

“The sale of this art is a monumental stupidity. It has to be stopped,” said Ninon Gauthier, the “former president of the Canadian branch of the International Association of Art Critics,” according to the CBC. “Future generations will not forgive the gallery for that loss … The National Gallery is not just for Canadian art. It’s for international art.”

Take a breath, s’il vous plaît.

This is not a struggling gallery selling off treasures to pay the light bill or keep high-flying executives in bon bons and business class. It’s a level-headed decision, in line with gallery policy, to trade one asset for another asset that, the powers-at-be have obviously concluded, will better help the gallery to fulfill its mandate. The Chagall is one of eight works being “deaccessioned” by the gallery. 

That mandate is, in the broad view, to build and maintain a collection of Canadian and international art on behalf of Canadians who own the gallery. Practically, that means having comprehensive representation of certain artists, styles, media, periods, etc. In recent years, for example, the gallery acquired a Monet from that French artist’s early period, which the collection lacked. The last acquisition by chief curator Paul Lang, who left the gallery recently for his native France, was a later painting by Simon Vouet, which improves the representation of works by Vouet in the gallery’s collection. The gallery, by choosing to sell La Tour Eiffel, has in its wisdom and expertise decided the painting is not essential to the representation of Chagall in the gallery’s collection, and so it can be sold to help acquire something else that is essential to the collection, and to the mandate.

Who’s to say that “future generations” won’t find greater satisfaction in whatever the gallery acquires with the considerable proceeds of the Chagall sale (an estimated $6-9 million US).

To that end, it would be a tremendous thing for the gallery to spend some of that money (with the rest put into the general acquisitions fund) to commission a major work by Kent Monkman, or Brian Jungen, or Rebecca Belmore, three Indigenous Canadians who are among the most compelling artists at work today. Or how about something more from Janet Cardiff, the Canadian behind the audio installation Forty Part Motet, which is arguably the most glorious part of the gallery’s collection?

My only hesitation is slight, and more opportunity than art history. Though it’s not the gallery’s mandate to be a financial investment for taxpayers, it has, like any federal organism, a fiduciary duty to the state, and if auction prices for Chagall are rising, may the painting not fetch a few million more a few years from now? But, as in most things, timing is everything.

As Baron Rothschild was so memorably said to have said in Edwin Lefevre’s classic book Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, “I will tell you my secret if you wish. It is this: I never buy at the bottom and I always sell too soon.”

Yet, the name Rothschild is synonymous with wealth so fantastical, it could have sprung from the imagination of Marc Chagall.

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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.