Should National Gallery sell off international works to buy Canadian art?

The upcoming sale of a masterpiece by the National Gallery of Canada has started an interesting debate. Should Canada's gallery be selling off international works to pay for more Canadian art?

Art lovers question gallery's decision

6 years ago
Duration 0:43
People at the National Gallery of Canada wonder if selling a work by Chagall is the best way to go.

The news has stirred a fierce debate within the Canadian art world: Should the National Gallery of Canada sell off its international collection to fund Canadian acquisitions, or not?

The gallery recently announced its plan to auction off an oil painting by Russian-born artist Marc Chagall — which could be worth more than $11 million CDN — and use the money to acquire an important work of national heritage.

What exactly that important Canadian work is remains unknown, but the gallery's director and CEO, Marc Mayer, said in an interview Thursday that the only Canadian artist whose work has garnered such a high price is Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris.

The Chagall piece headed for auction, The Eiffel Tower, is one of only two Chagalls owned by the gallery. It's scheduled to be sold off by Christie's on May 15.

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

Ninon Gauthier, president of the International Association of Art Critics Canada, said the gallery should keep the Chagall and find another way to buy Canadian artwork.

"What would you say if the Louvre would sell, let's say, [the Mona Lisa] because [Leonardo da Vinci] was Italian?" Gauthier asked on CBC Radio's All In A Day earlier this week.

Gauthier argued the sell-off could eventually spread to works by Canadian masters.

"Where will it stop? Will we sell an Emily Carr because the National Gallery has several Emily Carr [works]? It's nonsense."

Gallery gets $8M per year for acquisitions

Leah Sandals, Canadian Art Magazine's editor of news and special sections, said she was "quite surprised" by the announcement.

"I do support the gallery's mandate in general to focus on Canadian art in a world where there's thousands of museums worldwide that collect international American and European art. And it is special for us to have an institution that's just primarily looking out for Canadian and Indigenous art," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"But I think part of the issue here again is the way that the Chagall is being framed as an opportunity to specifically acquire one other work. The National Gallery already gets $8 million a year from the government ... for acquisitions. The National Gallery is also very practised in the past at working with wealthy patrons and donors to get works of art through those means as well."

Gallery 'should concentrate on acquiring Canadian art'

Janet McLaine, who was at the gallery Thursday, said it's a "great pity" to have to sell the Chagall, but she can understand the gallery's desire to acquire more Canadian work.

"I think it's a great pity to be selling a very fine and large Chagall.... On the other hand the National Gallery of Canada obviously should concentrate on acquiring Canadian art. I think we're all very curious to know what this piece of art is, or if it's several pieces."

Gallery visitor Janet McLaine said it's a pity to sell the Chagall, but that the gallery 'obviously should concentrate on acquiring Canadian art.' (CBC News)

Renee Smith disagreed, saying the gallery should find a different way to fund the acquisition.

"I think it's very unfortunate, and I'm afraid it's setting a bad precedent. I just don't think that is the correct way for the gallery to operate. You'd think that perhaps they could find sponsors or other means of acquiring a work that they absolutely feel they need to have," Smith said.

Here is the gallery's mission statement, taken from its website:

The strength of the National Gallery of Canada lies in its collection of art, especially Canadian art, and its accessibility to the public across the country. The collection opens the way for appreciation of the finest in artistic expression: The works of art reveal the past, celebrate the present, and probe the future. The collection must be expanded, preserved, interpreted, and used extensively by the public for pleasure and understanding, for research and the advancement of knowledge.

What do you think? Should the gallery sell international art to fund Canadian acquisitions, or not? Let us know in the comments section below.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, All In A Day, and Idil Mussa


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