Canadian galleries should look to European example before selling off art, expert says

A Canadian working in the U.K.'s art world wonders whether Canadian galleries should adopt more strict artwork deaccessioning policies, like those in the U.K. and France.

'Practically impossible' for national galleries in the U.K and France to sell works from their collections

On May 15, Christie's will offer Marc Chagall's La Tour Eiffel as a highlight of its evening sale of impressionist and modern art in New York City. The National Gallery of Canada-owned canvas is being sold to benefit the gallery's acquisitions fund. (National Gallery of Canada/Christie's)

As the National Gallery of Canada prepares for the May 15 sale of one of its works — Marc Chagall's The Eiffel Tower — a Canadian working in the U.K. wonders whether Canadian galleries should adopt more strict art deaccessioning policies, like those in the U.K. and France.

The funds generated from the Chagall sale at Christie's in New York will allow the National Gallery of Canada to acquire "an important work that it is part of our national heritage," the gallery has said.

The move has surprised some people in Canada's art world.

Alexander Herman, the assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law — an art education organization based in the U.K. — questions whether the National Gallery should be allowed to sell works unilaterally this way.

"In Europe for example, it's practically impossible for a national gallery, certainly in the U.K. and in France as well, as two examples, to deaccession or dispose of, meaning sell or give away or exchange, any work from the national collection," Herman told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning in an interview by phone Monday.

'The other extreme'

So, should Canadian galleries follow the example of their French and British counterparts?

Not necessarily.

Galleries in those countries have huge collections in storage and are only able to display a small amount of the works they have.

"The British Museum, for example, has eight million items in its collection and very few of them, percentage wise, on display. So then you have the other problem of [having] to store all of this stuff, and you're not giving the public any access to it, so what is the benefit of that for a national collection?" he asked.

"So I think that's the other extreme. I don't know if that's the right approach, either. I think you need something somewhere in the middle, whereby you have an open and transparent process for deaccessioning or selling pieces from the collection, but you also have certain items in the collection that are beyond the pale, that could never be sold."

'More openness, more transparency'

Herman also questions how the National Gallery of Canada handled its decision to sell the Chagall. The gallery's board voted to sell the work in June 2017, but it didn't become public until Christie's started advertising the pending sale and national media picked up on it, he said.

"It doesn't look particularly transparent, does it?" he said.

"Whatever [the deaccessioning rules are] ... I think just the process should be a little bit more open, a little bit more transparent, so that the public can be aware of what's going on and can have some say," Herman said.

"Now I'm not saying there should be a full consultation because obviously that would handcuff the institution and would make it very difficult for them to proceed. But there should be some form of at least checking what the public reaction might be, and as we've seen in the last week or two, the public reaction has been quite strong questioning the decision of the national gallery. So I think more openness, more transparency, would be the way forward."

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning