Outgoing gallery boss has no regrets about trying to sell Chagall

The outgoing director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada says he has no regrets about trying to sell a work by the famed French painter Marc Chagall. In fact, the only thing Marc Mayer regrets is that the deal fell through.

'I would do it all over again,' Marc Mayer tells CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

Outgoing National Gallery of Canada director and CEO Marc Mayer says he regrets the sale of a work by Marc Chagall didn't happen in the end. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

The outgoing director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada says he has no regrets about trying to sell a work by the famed French painter Marc Chagall. In fact, the only thing Marc Mayer regrets is that the deal fell through.

After steering the National Gallery of Canada for more than a decade, Mayer is stepping down from the job next week.

Over his two five-year terms, he made a number of changes to the gallery, such as raising the profile of works by Indigenous artists.

But there was controversy, too. Last year, after it came to light that the gallery was selling Chagall's 1929 painting La Tour Eiffel, there was public outcry.

It was later unveiled that the gallery was trying to sell the Chagall to keep Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, painted in 1779 by the French artist Jacques-Louis David, in Canada.

Marc Chagall's The Eiffel Tower on display at the National Gallery of Canada on June 23, 2018. (CBC)

The Quebec government later issued a notice of intent to protect the painting as a heritage document and keep it in the province, and the National Gallery's Chagall was pulled from auction.

In an interview with Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan on Wednesday, Mayer said he wishes the sale had gone through. He said the protection of the David isn't yet certain, and that even if that painting hadn't needed saving, he'd have liked to get the money from the Chagall to purchase more Indigenous art.

Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, by Jacques-Louis David. (Musée de la civilisation du Québec)

"I regret that we weren't able to sell it, but that's how it ended up happening," he said.

"It would have been nice to leave a nice nest-egg for my successor to do some extraordinary changes at the National Gallery, like being able to acquire some historical Indigenous art," he said.

"My vision for that museum is that we systematically integrate the historical Indigenous art that was made in Canada to tell the fuller story of art-making in this place going back thousands of years. That [money] could have been extremely helpful."

'I would do it all over again'

Mayer also said he doesn't believe the incident affected his reputation, but acknowledged the gallery may have handled it a bit differently.

"It's our responsibility to manage this collection. This is what we do. And every once in a while you've got to say goodbye to some things that are no longer serving their purposes, because you've got other uses for that money," he said.

"And it's perfectly, perfectly reasonable, and I would do it all over again, but the timing would be very different and we would probably have prepared people differently."

As for what the gallery should be focusing on moving forward, Mayer said it could do better at representing women as well as Indigenous artists.

"The art made by men became art at some point in the Renaissance, and art made by women became craft. And there's something kind of unfair about that, and I wonder if my successor will be able to maybe correct that," he said.

And as for Mayer's future, he said he's too young to retire, and that he's going to take some time to consider several options.

Listen to the entire interview with Mayer below.

Marc Mayer reflects on his time steering the National Gallery of Canada. 9:24

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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