Portrait by Olga Nabatova
It’s been an endless number of times when I really wanted to revive the memories from not so long ago and put down everything about this story that occurred in 2018. But there always have been more urgent things to do and it all sounds like part of a glorious but not very important past. However, I’ve decided to finally share my story, to inspire people not only to love art but to keep their eyes and hearts wide open to saving, promoting and enjoying it.
I worked as an operations and sales support professional in the metal processing industry when I read a brief news that National Gallery of Art (Ottawa, ON) decided to sell one of their two Marc Chagall’s paintings in order “to save one of the most important Canadian heritage artwork from being sold abroad”. Wait! At that time NGA had only two Chagalls, one (The Eiffel Tower) was purchased in 1956 and another one (Childhood) was donated in 1970 to complete the duo.
It took me some time to finalize what I was doing, two phone calls from frustrated friends who knew how crazy I was about art and a lot of disbelief that something couldn’t be done about it. Soon thereafter I posted a petition at Change.org, sharing it via Facebook, sending my requests (requirements actually) to sign it via email to my near and furthest circles of friends, writing a letter to the MInister of Heritage of Canada, to the Member of Parliament, Member of Provincial Parliament, to the General Manager of the National Gallery and to Christie’s.
When it started on April 7th of 2018, dozens of people signed it immediately, but it looked like nobody whom we addressed got the message and started doing something. I was worried, because the actual auction sale was scheduled for May 15 of that year. I went on living a “normal” life, working, shopping, attending my pilates classes, talking to friends and at the same time I was bombarding journalists writing about arts and in arts-related Facebook groups with requests to sign the petition and calling for action. Finally, two messages arrived in my inbox that made me feel less helpless.
First was the email from Leah Sandals:
I'm an editor at Canadian Art.
I saw the comment you posted recently on our website about your Chagall petition.
I was wondering if you might have a few minutes today (5 to 10 minutes) to talk on the phone about why you started the petition.
The interview would be for use in an upcoming news story following up on Chagall/National Gallery of Canada issues.
I know you must be busy, but if you could take a moment to let me know either way about interview availability, I would really appreciate it.
Then there was the phone call from Bruna Cohen, followed by her email to me with the fragment of her letter to Marc Mayer, more or less the “bad guy” of this entire story:
I am passionate about the NGC. As a former employee with the Education Division (going back as far as 1973), I was proud to share with the public the fact that paintings in the Permanent Collection belong to all Canadians and will remain accessible to future generations. This was part of our mantra. Now with the new policy of deaccessioning the collection, the public are the losers. The concept of sacrificing the Chagall to raise dollars for another part of the collection , is contrary to the original doctrines and against the policies of most Canadian museums. It is also deceitful to the public for whom you have worked so hard to gather sponsorship.
In an effort to save the Chagall from the auction block, I have started a petition in Ottawa to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly with ipetitions.com which I am happy to share with you. Please note the attached enclosed petition below. In just 3 days we have over 180 signees and the list is growing all the time. There is a parallel petition on change.org in Toronto with almost 400 signees. In total, at this point in time there are 600 concerned people, who have committed their names to a petition.
These ladies heard me, heard us, I got confidence in what we were doing and though it was not possible to combine signatures from 2 parallel petitions, Bryna and I became even more persistent. We got attention from the major Canadian media, and then the journalists started calling.
We still did not know what piece of art Mr. Mayer was going to save by sacrificing our Chagall. So I started asking questions: who could permit the sale of national heritage (as every valuable piece of art “living” in Canada for more than 35 years requires special permission of the Canadian Border Services Agency) across the border? Where are the results of the federal bid to select Christie’s versus let's say...Sothesby’s? Why bring it to the auction on May 15 right after Christie’s was going to auction Rockefeller’s Estate with the initially estimated value of 1.5B US Dollars—a week prior to selling Chagall? Why was it never communicated to the public for crowdfunding to save those undisclosed pieces of art without selling The Eiffel Tower? What message does NGA send to patrons who would want to donate masterpieces from their personal collections to the public museum if the museum can just decide to sell it because it needs some money here and there?
CBC Radio announced and conducted a lunchtime show on April 18. I was not invited, but Leah and Bryna were and they brought to the public all the arguments and findings about this case. That was the pivot point. After two weeks of “public outcry”, as the media called it, NGA finally advised that they were going to “save” Jacques-Louis David’s “Saint Jerome Listens to the Trumpet of the Judgement Day” that belongs to the Catholic Church of Quebec and was on loan in the Fine Arts Museum of Montreal.
The next few days reminded me of a horse race when a few favourites were beating each other and nobody knew who would win. Quebec stated that they had never had in mind to sell Saint Jerome abroad. NGA’s Board of Trustees suddenly realized that they were misled and voted to sell Chagall without being presented valid arguments. CBSA banned any transportation of these two paintings from Canada. My last target was Christie’s. They had to cancel the sale of Lot # 107 The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall.
Bryna’s petition helped us to reach the French-speaking audience and though I do not know all the details, somehow it reached the Marc Chagall’s Family Committee and his granddaughter Meret applied to the NGA management with the request to stop the sale. Here’s where this case gained federal attention.
Late in the morning of Thursday April 26th (I will remember this minute and second till the end of my life) it was all over in the news and in the newspapers; Bryna called me in tears: the sale was cancelled.
My petition was closed at the end of April with a one-word comment - Victory. Being just an ‘ordinary’ person I did not know how things would go after and if there was any penalty to be paid to Christie’s for the lost deal. However, I felt responsible to ensure that our Chagall is removed from their online catalogue. It happened just a day before the actual auction date (May 15) and later on I learned about a Canadian philanthropist and millionaire who allegedly contributed $1.1M to buy out The Eiffel Tower. As if it were his fault that somebody at the NGA decided to get rid of one of our national assets. I’m so grateful to this person, though he probably does not even know who the real troublemaker is in this case.
Though the story ended happily, the aftertaste was not so sweet because the NGA’s Marc Mayer retired shortly thereafter, got the best benefits possible and was saying in all his interviews that if he got a second chance to sell Chagall: he would do it. What hypocrisy!
I must admit this story does have a happy ending: I got noticed and was invited to work for Lighthouse Immersive on new visual arts projects in Toronto. There are a few quotes that we cite in life here and there without thinking how close we can be to what they mean: Never say never and Dreams do come true!
The next time you are at One Yonge Street for the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, or Illusionarium, or any number of other new projects (soon to be announced) stop and say Hi— I have a lot more art stories to tell.