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The unveiling of Mark Rothko's No. 16 in Ottawa

When the National Gallery of Canada bought a Mark Rothko painting for $1.8 million in 1993, it was prepared for the inevitable blowback from critics.

National Gallery of Canada spent $1.8M on an abstract painting and was prepared to meet criticism

The purchase of an abstract art work by Canada's national gallery stirs controversy. 0:51

Twenty-seven years ago, the National Gallery of Canada unveiled its newest purchase.

It was an abstract work by American artist Mark Rothko, a composition known as No. 16.

Painted in 1957, the oil painting featured large swaths of red and white placed across its nearly eight-square-metre canvas. 

"I think it's a great work of art, it belongs in this collection," said the gallery's Brydon Smith, speaking to reporters about the painting on July 15, 1993. 

It also cost $1.8 million to acquire.

The gallery knew the price tag would lead to some criticism. But it had been down that road before and knew how to respond.

'A spike phenomenon'

Officials expected some people would object to the $1.8-million purchase of Mark Rothko's No. 16. 0:37

A few years earlier, the gallery's purchase of Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire — again, another work of abstract art by an American painter and again at a similar price — led to criticism of the art itself and of its cost of acquisition.

This time around, however, gallery officials noted the controversy over that prior purchase had actually helped drive up attendance.

"After Voice of Fire ... we noticed a spike phenomenon," said Helen Murphy, the gallery's assistant director, in remarks reported by the Toronto Star. "Thanks to the media."

In 1993, Brent Bambury and Jacqueline Kirk debate the purchase of Mark Rothko's No. 16. 1:59

Gallery officials also made sure to let the media know that No. 16 had initially been offered for sale at a reported $5 million and that a lengthy period of bargaining had helped drive down the price.

The gallery also had one other key piece of experience to draw upon.

This gallery visitor told CBC News the No. 16 painting was "disappointing." Asked if the $1.8-million price tag was too much, she said: "Are you kidding?" (Prime Time News/CBC Archives)

As Kas Roussy reported on Prime Time News, the gallery had backed out of a big purchase in the past because of the price and then lived to regret it.

"Thirty years ago, the gallery wanted to buy a Leonardo da Vinci for $5 million, but pulled out because they thought it was too pricey," Roussy explained to viewers, as shown in the video below. "Well, that painting is now worth $100 million."

Kas Roussy tells the story of the time the National Gallery of Canada tried to buy a da Vinci. 0:17

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