7 May 2018




Welcome to a new term of Musings and a brand new column! To kick off our Summer 2018 season, I am introducing Muse News, a column that will explore some of the biggest headlines in museum news worldwide. By taking a closer look at some of these stories, I hope to discover how current developments explain, or even complicate, trends in museum studies.

In the first edition of Muse News I am exploring the recent debacle surrounding the National Gallery of Canada and the sale of Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel (1929). For over a month, the impending sale of this artwork has captured the attention of audiences worldwide and raised serious questions about the Gallery’s deaccessioning processes. I will provide a brief timeline of the unfolding drama.

Exterior of the National Gallery of Canada. Source.

It all started with a press release. On March 20th, 2018, Christie’s, one of the leading art auction houses, announced the upcoming sale of Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel. This painting belongs to the National Gallery of Canada, and the press release announced that the sale of the painting, estimated worth between US $6 million to $9 million, would benefit the Gallery’s Acquisition Fund.

Media outlets and galleries worldwide quickly caught wind of the news that this extremely valuable painting was leaving Canada. The backlash came from all directions. Some were enraged about the sale of the painting. Others were shocked by the lack of transparency in deaccessioning processes at the Gallery, as the public was only hearing about this sale once the decision was finalized.

Amidst the outcry, Marc Mayer, the director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, defended the sale. In an interview with CBCMayer revealed that the money from the sale of the Chagall painting would be used to acquire a piece of art deemed more significant and unique to the collection. The identity of the painting remained a mystery.

In an April 16th letterMayer confirmed that the Gallery intended to acquire Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgement, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1779.

Jacques-Louis David's Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgement (1779). Source.

Mayer’s April 16th letter detailed the history of the painting, which has been in Canada since 1917. The letter explained the Gallery’s desire to protect the painting from leaving the country amidst interest from foreign buyers. Mayer’s message concluded, however, that the sale of the Chagall would proceed even if the Gallery did not purchase the David painting “as per the rigorous de-accession process.”

In an open letter from the National Gallery of Canada published on April 23rd, the Gallery continued to clarify the circumstances surrounding the sale of the Chagall work. The Gallery stated an openness to loaning the David painting to other Canadian galleries, but ultimately confirmed the decision to proceed with the sale of La Tour Eiffel.

Also on April 23rd, a surprising statement from Marie Montpetit, Minister of Culture and Communications and Minister responsible for the Protection and Promotion of the French Language: David’s Saint Jerome will be protected as Quebec heritage and it will remain in the province.

On April 26th, a final open letter from the Gallery stated that in light of the Government of Quebec’s decision to protect the David painting, the Chagall painting will no longer be sold and will remain in the national collection.

In some regards, this dramatic saga has a perfect conclusion: not one, but two masterpieces will remain in Canada, but looming questions darken this happily-ever-after. One of the largest questions that remains: how did the National Gallery manage to acquire an export permit for the Chagall painting?

I hope that this tale lives on as more than gallery gossip. The public became involved in a gallery’s deaccessioning decision, and ultimately the public voice helped reverse an all but finalized deal. The drama highlights the growing demand for transparency in museum operations and more inclusive governance structures that give the nation a voice in matters of national heritage.

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